Leaders Corner – Jo Coburn
BBC TV and Radio Presenter, Jo Coburn, shares her career journey to date and how she combined family with a slow, steady rise to the top.
In what ways do you approach your career differently now, to how you did when you first started out?
When I started out I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do so I grabbed opportunities as they presented themselves. There was no clear strategy. After university I flogged ad space for a magazine publishing company in Central London because it was the first job I was offered. It was not what I had imagined doing at all but I found the challenge of hitting weekly targets and earning commission highly rewarding. Within a year I was made publisher and crucially I’d paid off my student debt. It wasn’t the career I wanted long term but it gave me the freedom to apply for a one-off job that caught my eye one day, reporting on an international health conference in Brussels and I got it. I’ve never looked back. By the time I was 32 I was a BBC correspondent covering domestic politics on national radio and TV. These days I do plan ahead and think about where I want to be in five years’ time. At the same time I don’t get itchy feet in quite the same way as I did when I was in my 20s. Not being too rigid and set about the next step often means you’re more open to roles you hadn’t even considered.
Working in public roles have you found self-confidence and resilience has come naturally or is it something that you have had to nurture?
Outwardly I am naturally self-confident and phlegmatic. If something is thrown at me, I’ll do it. When I was 8 months pregnant BBC Breakfast sent me on a tour of the UK covering devolution. It was exhausting and probably too ambitious at the time but I wanted to prove my resilience and ability out on the road even when I was just weeks from going on maternity leave. Inwardly I have had plenty of self-doubt. Competing in a team of highly talented broadcasters to ensure programme editors choose you to appear on their programmes requires self-belief. Being prepared to put your head above the parapet and ‘call the story’ is nerve racking. When I first joined the political team my male colleagues dominated those editorial discussions. These days it’s much more evenly balanced.
Do you have any tips?
In a lot of instances, less is more, as the old adage goes. It’s only really worth contributing to a meeting if you have something worthwhile to say. The key is to make sure you do have something interesting to say. Being original and having ideas will get you noticed rather than shouting the loudest. That took me some years to learn when I felt I had to make my presence felt. Prepare. It’s always great to know you can fly by the seat of your pants if needed but when I’m presenting on TV every day I like to arrive a good few hours beforehand so that I’ve got my bases covered. There is a constant pressure to be across everything but actually humour and charm also go a very long way when covering politics infamously described as show biz for ugly people.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for working parents today?
Not beating yourself up about whether your kids are suffering because you work or that you’re not committed enough to your job because you’re a parent. Since I had my first child thirteen years ago, attitudes have improved in my line of work. Flexible and part time work is key and worth fighting for particularly in big organizations without worrying you’ll be passed over for promotion. I am far more efficient and organised at work since I had children. But perhaps the biggest challenge is not dropping out when combining a high powered job with bringing up kids, particularly when they’re small, seems overwhelming and just not viable financially. It does get easier.
Do you agree that a more collaborative and networked style of work is emerging and does this play to more female strengths and leadership techniques?
Yes. The macho, aggressive newsrooms that once dominated broadcasting are less evident these days. There is a realisation that the upper echelons of journalism need to better reflect the audiences they serve. There are more women covering politics, sport and foreign news than ever before bringing different reporting styles to TV and radio. The challenge today is for more women to be appointed as senior editors and securing the top presenting jobs covering major political and economic events.
In what ways do you see collaboration working well across your business?
Covering the news for both TV and radio is a team sport. Being front of camera means the correspondents and presenters often get all the glory for a great programme. But it just wouldn’t be possible without the wonderful producers, editors, camera and sound crews, directors and technical staff who make it all happen. Collaboration is essential in broadcasting in order to get the best result. In the studio or out on the road you never work in isolation. So praising and naming everyone involved in making a great report goes a long way towards building a strong team prepared to go the extra mile. Looking after the well-being of your crew is key and also being prepared to take the blame as the reporter or presenter if it all goes wrong. More mentoring would also be productive. A few years ago I mentored a new female political reporter over a period of months something I wish had been on offer when I first started.
Who has had the most positive influence on your career?
Different people at different stages. My husband Mark has always supported and encouraged me to pursue my career. To some extent our jobs have mirrored each other. He used to manage commercial radio stations and then worked as a senior civil servant at Number 10. So we share a passion for news and politics which means we enjoy talking shop out of hours and can offer each other advice. My boss at the publishing company where I started working made a big impression on me. He was a working class boy from Catford who rose to the top in the Daily Mail group because he was smart, charismatic and worked hard. He gave me an early break and I delivered.
If you’d known then what you know now…….is there anything you’d want to change?
No not really…..I sometimes wish I’d spent a few years working as a foreign correspondent and also wonder if I could have progressed more quickly if I’d been more single-minded. But I would have lost out elsewhere. I really value the fact that I have been able to take and pick up my boys from school most of the time. That I got to go to many of their assemblies, sports days and school fundraising events. Also having time to pursue an interest outside work, whatever it is, makes you less one dimensional. So while I may not have had a meteoric rise at work, a slow steady progression has its advantages too.
Many women I coach struggle to find time for the networking required……what advice can you share?
It’s worth finding the time. Although I’m very sociable I am not a natural networker and always maintained that being good at the job should be enough. It isn’t. As a journalist building up your contacts and nurturing them is crucial for getting stories and furthering your career. You need to be on people’s radar and you need people to champion your cause. Just be canny about which events, lunches, and meetings you choose to go to. Building a personal profile is also key and using social media can be a very effective way of promoting your work. Just don’t be a slave to it.