In late 2005 I joined a new unit of BBC News called Mediaport. This was the BBC’s central recording team responsible for maintaining the organisation’s new digital recording system, called Jupiter, and recording incoming video. It was one of the most challenging assignments I had at the BBC, and the one that taught me most about leadership and staff engagement, thanks to the amazing, largely unsung heroes who worked there.
The core function of Mediaport was a thankless task. When we did our job perfectly, no one noticed. They rightly assumed that recordings of news footage would be made day in, day out without error. But, like a goalkeeper whose every mistake, however small, is likely to lead to a goal, whenever we made the slightest error, it was immediately a big deal because we could have failed to record a video required for the news. Busy news producers are not blessed with the time to be patient or forgiving of such errors.
Add in the fact that the Jupiter system was in mid rollout in 2005/2006. Like many IT systems, particularly those designed to do complicated tasks for thousands of users, the rollout was not always smooth. There were times when recordings failed through no fault of ours. Yet human nature is such that it’s often the innocent messenger that gets the blame for bad news. And so it was for Mediaport staff who were often the bearers of the bad news that “your recording failed” and were often the recipients of unjustified criticism as a result, as if we were personally responsible for the functioning of the technology we operated.
The Mediaport team also had to cope with change: lots of it. Mediaport was the amalgamation of several different teams. The team name itself seemed to change with the seasons: Mediaport turned into Mediawire, which became Newswire and in its modern incarnation is known as News Intake. When I was at Mediaport in 2005-2008, we changed the conditions in people’s contracts, the hours they worked, their rota patterns, the ways they worked, and merged the different cultures of the separate teams into a new culture of the new unit. All of these are stressful processes and difficult to manage. And of course, we did not get everything right the first time, which aggravated the issues. In this situation, morale was understandably fragile.
Jo Gage was a member of that Mediaport team. Jo had three kids, all about the same age as mine. Her youngest, like mine, was about 2 years old at the time. I knew how exhausting and demanding her home life would have been. And I appreciated how the demands of parenting and work could collide. She had potentially more reason than others to be unhappy or discontented as she tried to balance part-time work at the BBC with a very demanding home life.
But she never seemed unhappy at work. Quite the contrary. She LOVED it. When I asked her how she could be so enthusiastic, she explained that work provided her with a change of scene that kept her sane. She said she loved her kids to bits, and loved being with them. But she was able to enjoy her time with them more if she had time apart from them, a break to refresh her brain, think about something else, concentrate on different priorities. And she took great pride in her work, at being good at it and getting better at it, taking on more responsibilities and feeling a sense of professional achievement. I remember her saying that this allowed her to return home more patient, more focussed and attentive to her children than she could have been had she spent all her time with them. She loved them even more. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Looking back, I think the same dynamic worked in reverse. Having the intense demands of a family to concentrate on, kept the demands of work in check: she may not have had the time at home to worry about work, and so returned to work mentally refreshed and with a patience full-time staff could not have had. Whenever she came to work, she was determined to make the most of it and enjoyed it.
And we all benefitted from that dynamic because her enthusiasm was contagious. The days when Jo was on shift seemed less stressful, probably due to her beaming smile and laughter, and her eternally positive enthusiasm. We also benefitted from her concern for fairness and her teammates. Her contract stipulated that she worked fixed days based around her childcare. But even though she did not have to, Jo insisted on working her fair share of weekends, because she said it wasn’t fair for everyone else to work weekends but not her.
That concern for others shone through when the awful day came when she told me that her cancer had returned and this time the diagnosis was terminal: she would not recover. Her primary concern was the distress and disruption she knew this would cause the rest of the team. She apologised saying how sorry she was to cause trouble. She seemed oblivious of her own situation and focussed only on the well-being of others. Extraordinary.
Looking back it seems all the more remarkable that Jo could have been so enthusiastic and happy when all along she would have been living with the fear of her cancer returning. But that was her choice: to be happy and enthusiastic in the face of the threat of that dreadful disease.
And that is the most important lesson for us all from Jo’s remarkable example. Whatever the circumstances, however difficult work or home life can be, it is still possible to make the most of it, by choosing to be positive, choosing to be enthusiastic, choosing to enjoy it and not let the many problems dim that enthusiasm. And that is a choice we can all make, we all should make. It will benefit not just ourselves, but all of those around us, whose lives will be the better for the impact of our enthusiasm.
Jo died in 2010 and I am writing this the day after she would have turned 50. Many of the old Mediaport team met last night with her family to celebrate her birthday and to remember her and the impact she had on all our lives: a testament to the fact that Jo’s enthusiasm lives on to the benefit of others. Gone but never forgotten.