Advice for rising up the corporate ladder from David Corvo, Senior Executive Producer of Dateline NBC and Primetime News on the Joy of Leadership Podcast

In this mini leadership training, David Corvo talks about how to let people do what they are good at, and at the same time get the job done.   It is easy to succeed when opportunities are abundant.  How do you succeed when times are tough?  He gives advice about learning flexibility,  resilience and durability from the mistakes you make and growing strong from downturns in your career.

Shar McBee:  Welcome to the Joy of Leadership Podcast.  I’m your host Shar McBee.

In a moment you will hear from our guest, David Corvo who has supervised hundreds of people in his career and has some excellent advice for anyone new to leadership.  

First, today’s leadership secret:  To Lead is to Serve. Your job as the leader is not to make people do what you say.  Your job is to make it possible for them to succeed.

Our guest is David Corvo, Executive producer of Primetime News at NBC.  He is responsible for one of the most popular shows on television, Dateline NBC.  He says a big challenge to someone who is new in leadership is to let people do what they are good at, and at the same time get the job done.  

David Corvo:    I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn if you’re used to doing everything yourself and if you think you’re good at it.  If I’m a writer and then I become the boss, so to speak, I think maybe I’m a better writer than the folks that replace me.  But I can’t just do that job my way. I can’t just edit all their copy so it sounds like me. I have to give them the room to write their copy.  I have to give them guidance.  I can’t let something that I think is poor be published, but I’ll learn from them if they’re talented. If I were to write every single word that’s on a program, maybe it would be okay, but it would be just all that I know.

When you give the assignment to someone else, hopefully they’re going to have the guidance from you, an example from you, but they’re also going to draw on their own skill set.  They’re going to surprise you.  They’re going to do it ways that are different and better than you have done it. 

If they’re not good at it, that’s another question.  If they can’t rise to the job, you have to figure that out. That’s a different situation.  Most people can accomplish what you ask them to.

Shar McBee:  That’s an interesting point. What do you do when someone just isn’t the right fit or it’s not the right job for them?

David Corvo:  Over the years, I think 98% of the people that I’ve worked with or hired have worked out fine. There are some people that don’t.  Of those, there are sort of two categories:   People who have talent and just need more direction.   Maybe you’re not explaining it correctly to them. You have to work on that first. Am I giving that person the tools, the guidance?  Am I articulating the mission so they can accomplish it? Maybe it’s my fault.

The second thing is, “Okay, I think I’m doing those things, everyone else is with the program. How come this particular person can’t get it?”

Maybe we work on their skills in that job. If it still doesn’t work, then we assess the person.  It could be a really talented person, but we’ve got a square peg in a round circle. What else can they do in our operation that contributes to the final product? 

And if you get to the point where they are not the right person,  you’re asking them  to do things way beyond their skill set, then you have to deal with that. That is the rarest situation.  There are also people who just don’t fit in. Maybe  their temperament is wrong, that sort of thing.  That’s a different issue that may be you hired the wrong person.

So, you were wrong on the personnel end, but those situations do not come up very often. People tend to self-select.   You get into a business because you enjoy it or you try it and then maybe  it doesn’t work out. So, if you know it’s not working out, you know almost before people you’re working for do.  You probably go find something else to do on your own or ask for reassignment within the company.   People are not stupid. Most often they understand both intellectually and emotionally if they’re in the wrong spot.

Shar McBee:  This is a perfect example of ‘to lead is to serve.’  Your job as the leader is to make it possible for others to succeed. I love hearing this, David.

David Corvo:  When I first worked in the business, it was sink or swim.  It was a tough business.  Newsrooms were tough to work in. Where I work now, at NBC, the opposite is true. It’s an embracing organization.  It wants a diverse group of people who are happy working with each other, who support each other, who feel respected no matter where they come from or how they got into the business. And they expect leadership to have that cultural mandate also. That makes it very exciting to be part of.

Shar McBee:   Over the years I’ve watched you climb up the corporate ladder, as they say.  Do you have any advice for people who want to be of service, want to be good leaders, and also want to be successful in their field?

David Corvo:  I think that the first thing you to do is whatever assignment you have, you have to accomplish it very well, and be above average in that job. You can’t just be a nine-to-five player. 

The second thing is, you should volunteer. Volunteer for other assignments while you’re doing your own.  For instance, it’s election night.  My unit’s not coming.  I’m happy to run the coffee around to people if you need another pair of hands. I’m happy to do something bigger, whatever. So, people know that you are there to contribute as much as you can.  That demonstrates your commitment and your enthusiasm and your willingness to sacrifice your time and energy to help everybody else.  Then you stand out.

It’s important to learn the landscape of your business.  You come in and you maybe know a part of it, but then you see how many jobs there are, how many things you didn’t even know existed.  Wow I didn’t even know that job existed, but it’s kind of right for me. It sounds exciting.  I want to try that, and that may give you a route to leadership. 

Also, the kind of things that we’ve been talking about: respecting people for who they are, giving them opportunities, recognizing and appreciating initiative and imagination.  And this is an old-fashioned one: people who work hard, and work extra hours.  If they see you demonstrating those things in your job, you’re going to get picked as someone who could be a leader. 

Shar McBee:  The nature of the universe is expansion and contraction. We breathe in, we breathe out.  That’s the way things work and I’ve noticed that it works that way, too, in a career.  How do you navigate the times in your career when opportunities are contracting?

David Corvo:  It’s easier to both be a contributor, a contributing employee, and a leader in times when the opportunity is great and success is real and evident. It’s harder when they’re not.

What is the core mission and performance requirements of the group and of myself?  If opportunity seemed to shrink for me at a time, I would say, “Okay, I have the ambition to do this, to move to this. It’s not available now. What do I do well in my current position? And how can I expand my influence just where I am? 

You can’t let it crush your spirit. There are times I’ve been on programs that have been canceled. You have to go home and you get an hour to unwind. And then you say, “Okay, who am I? What do I do well? What do I do next? What have I learned from this experience? 

You can’t get bitter and angry. You can do that on your walk to the cab.  By the time you sit down in the cab be done with that, because it’s just going to retard your progress.  You can’t let that happen.

Shar McBee:  Thank you very much David Corvo.

This is the Joy of Leadership Podcast. I’m Shar McBee.

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