What Leaders Can Learn About Work Team Building From National Geographic

Part of being a good leader is learning lessons where you find them. And then figuring out how to apply them to your own company. Case in point? None other than National Geographic. Leadership at the magazine felt it was time for a reckoning of the publication’s past reporting on people of color and invited a full review of their previous content by a professor of African history and photography.

The feedback was honest – and brutal – but deserved, and the magazine’s leadership acknowledged shortcomings in a recent issue and outlined how they’d do better going forward. While it might not seem like what goes on at National Geographic has much to do with a typical corporation or organization, there’s a lot that corporate leadership teams can learn from National Geographic’s recent self-reflection, especially when it comes to work team building.

Admit Your Mistakes

Ah, this one can be hard. Who wants to admit mistakes? Leaders are supposed to know more, know better, and do the right thing. But sometimes doing the right thing means admitting when you’ve messed up. Owning mistakes allows leadership to share what they’ve learned so that others don’t make the same errors. It also reassures employees that it’s okay to admit their mistakes, too. It’s important to understand that this might not make everything better immediately; after all, even National Geographic heard from those who said it their recent issue on race was a step in the right direction but certainly didn’t erase decades of poor treatment. But without acknowledging errors, real progress cannot be made.

True Collaboration Matters in Work Team Building

When National Geographic put together their issue on race, they “put their money where their mouth is”, as the saying goes. They didn’t talk about doing better when it came to covering race. They also followed through by diversifying their hiring of writers and photographers for the story. At least half of these positions for this story were filled by people of color. Taking firm action through work team building that makes genuine collaboration possible demonstrates how much the leadership team values their staff’s opinions. Consider the ways in which leadership teams at your organization can break down barriers to collaboration so that all members of the team can make meaningful contributions to a project.

Don’t Just Listen, Hear What People Are Saying

It’s very easy to give lip service to feedback from staff and customers. However, really and truly hearing what people are saying, and reflecting on that, allows company leaders to understand what’s working well and what isn’t. Only then can leaders make corrective change where needed. Go back to our example of National Geographic. The magazine hadn’t been focused on capturing an accurate representation of the people they featured on its pages. In fact, they never even asked. If only the leaders of National Geographic had listened. Perhaps they might have avoided unnecessary years of hurtful coverage of people of color, both overseas in places like Africa and Australia as well as in the U.S.

Never Too Late to Learn

It’s never too late to learn something new. Especially when that something can improve the workplace or the organization, if only leaders will listen. Take lessons where you find them, and consider how they can be applied to your company. Taking steps like admitting mistakes, improving collaboration, and really hearing the feedback  that’s received, can have positive long-term effects. It can help morale, efficiency, and productivity. When leadership teams show – through their  actions –  what they value, and what they value is the employee, then the employee will want to do a good job. In this case, National Geographic is more than a magazine; it demonstrates a framework for positive change .

If companies pay attention, they can replicate that same success in their own organization.