It’s always fascinating to hear novice leaders discuss what they’ve learned in their short stint in the leadership seat. Some reflect on all they have observed from past bosses and mentors; others take a more “big picture” approach where progressive ideas overshadow the ways of the past. I’d put Samantha Bee in the latter camp.
When Samantha Bee began her wildly successful late night show, Full Frontal, becoming a leader was not her primary motivation. She was simply a comedian trying to develop a smart show.
I didn’t actually expect to have to think so much about leadership… and I never thought before this show about having to manage people. We started very small. At the very beginning, it was just me and [former Daily Show colleagues] Jo Miller and Miles Kahn. And it was just three of us in a room and we would laugh and send each other crazy emails, and for a long time it was just that. But then we got offices and we had to hire people.—Samantha Bee
Once Bee had to get a staff together, the realities of being the leader began to set in. She spoke about this at Fast Company’s recent Innovation Festival. A few themes stuck out that are applicable to all of us.
One of Bee’s initial concerns was how to select the right people for her writing staff. She wanted diversity, but this was not going to supersede the need to hire the best people. To avoid any bias (unconscious or otherwise), the management team established a policy where submission packets did not reference gender, race, or previous work experience. In the end, Bee’s focus on quality delivered one of the most diverse writer’s rooms in late night television.
As the mouthpiece for her team, Bee’s passion is evident whenever she’s discussing a topic. This fervor is internally based but where does it start? It may be contagious, transmitted from someone on her team. When choosing what stories to focus on, Bee has a simple litmus test: whoever is bringing her the idea must exude the excitement they feel for it.
One thing that we really encourage people to do—it’s the imperative of the show—is if you pitch a story, we want it to really mean something to you… If people have a particular story they’re passionate about, they need to find a way to pitch it to us that communicates that passion, and then we’ll be attracted to it.—Samantha Bee
Empowerment Through Self-Direction
Part of promoting passion is giving people leeway for self-directed activities. Bee may assign topics, but she also encourages her staff to research and pitch ideas that are important to them. These activities empower the employee to focus on areas that both keep them engaged and are beneficial to the organization.
Letting people explore things they’re truly interested in has been extremely fruitful for us. I think you feel that on the show.—Samantha Bee
Whether she is simply creating comedy or aspiring to enlighten the populace, Bee’s attitudes towards leadership provide the competitive advantage needed in the challenging late night landscape. These three lessons, amongst many others, demonstrate a leader trying to foster a culture of innovation, growth, and substance. It just goes to show what a little respect and fairness can get you.