I'll never forget looking around the big, open newsroom with a three-story window looking down on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia. I had just landed a job as a TV reporter in the nation's 5th largest market. The staff numbered over 100 reporters, photographers, editors, and producers.
We assembled that morning, as they did every morning at 8 AM, and I quickly understood that you were encouraged to be there at that hour, even if you were assigned to the 11 PM show. Our boss sat down behind his desk while the rest of the reporters and producers stood crowded in a semicircle around him. He took out a big, blank yellow legal pad. "Okay, good morning everyone. Let's go around the room. What have you got?" One by one, each producer or reporter threw out a story idea. He quietly jotted down the idea, and next to it, a name. My heart raced, and my mind went blank. I had just moved to the city. I knew no one. I had nothing.
When he got to me, I said, "Sorry, have to pass." The next day, and the next day, still, I had zilch, nada. "Pass," I had to say. And I got what I deserved as the newbie - a dregs assignment. It took me until the second week to realize I needed to get my act together, set the alarm, read more newspapers, and come in with some ideas. This was BTI (Before the Internet, in the Dark Ages). At first, my story ideas were lame, but at least I'd found my voice. The pressure was actually driving me to figure it out. As my ideas got better, my confidence grew. My assignments improved. Pretty soon, I was seeing a check mark next to my name, and at 11 PM I was leading the newscast. The best evidence I can offer of my improvement was that three years later the news director at a competing station called his friend at WBZ in Boston and asked him if he was looking for a good reporter. I was recruited for a bigger, better job.
The reason I share that story is because I'll never forget what I learned. My boss set a high bar. He also rewarded the best ideas. He ran a tight ship, but it was a meritocracy. Everybody knew if you performed, you were rewarded. That's incredibly motivating. It sets up healthy competition, encourages respect, improves performance, and makes people want to stay, because they know it's fair. You don't get something. You earn it.
When I started my own company, I tried very hard to follow this example. I wanted people to be rewarded for great work. I've tried to do this throughout the years. I've always thought I should probably share that with my old boss. Maybe I'll have to track him down.