Zanny Minton Beddoes is the editor-in-chief of the Economist, the estimable weekly newspaper focused on current affairs, international business, politics, and technology. Founded over 180 years ago, The Economist’s commitment to quality journalism and important global topics has stood the test of time. Zanny is the first woman to hold the role since the paper’s inception.

Zanny spoke at Atlassian’s annual Team conference in Las Vegas, and generously agreed to sit with me for an interview about leading without micromanaging, creating an environment for talent to flourish, and the importance of debate in shaping world-class journalism.

Zanny, you have been the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist for the past nine years. Can you describe your leadership style?

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I think of my management style a bit like a football manager – I have lots of star players and my job is to get the best out of all of them. There are lots of people who are much better writers than I am, and much better editors than I am, and my role is to have a sense of where we’re trying to go, be able to communicate that, and to set standards and expectations. But then I step back and let talented people produce the best possible journalism.

How do you approach decision-making in your role?

I hope my colleagues would say that I’m consultative and collaborative. I am probably the opposite of a micromanager.

I get huge, huge satisfaction out of other people doing brilliant work. And I’m lucky that I have an incredible group of journalists. Pretty much everyone that you find at The Economist could either be better paid or more famous if they worked somewhere else. But they are here because they enjoy being here and believe in what we’re trying to do. It’s an amazing group of people, and creating an environment for them to flourish is my job.

Tell me about The Economist. How many staff writers do you have? What does the team look like?

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On the journalism side, we have approximately 300 people, including journalists, podcast creators, video journalists, researchers, and more. We are actually a lot smaller than most of our competitors.

We are bigger than we used to be when I started this job. We’ve grown because in a digital world, people want to receive our journalism in different forms and use cases like in podcasts, video, and social media. So we’ve grown, but we’re still small. And therefore we have to stand out on quality. We have to think hard about how we deploy our very limited resources. And we will thrive on the quality of our journalism. If we’re not the most authoritative, rigorous, fair-minded, and excellent journalism, then we won’t work.

That’s so interesting what you say about being smaller than some of your competitors. Have you made decisions or pivots to your strategy in order to get the most out of the team that you have?

The big shifts we’ve made in the last few years have been about waking up to digital. Our subscriber base has moved from being overwhelmingly print focus to being majority digital. More than 80% of new subscribers only have digital access. So we have a different kind of subscriber base that interacts with the economist in a new way.

But also the external environment has changed, right? When I started in 2015, social media was kind of just taking off. Now we’re on pretty much every social media platform and we’ve created a video strategy that we’ve completely pivoted on. And we are on TikTok. We joined it up a year ago. And that was an interesting challenge, how to be The Economist on TikTok. No dancing. But it’s actually been quite successful. And it suggests to me that people value smart, thoughtful analysis.

Has the focus on digital media changed the culture at The Economist, too?

Yes and no. While the changes in the way we work have been quite dramatic, the basic culture of the place is still the same. We are very flat, very grounded. The newest intern can pitch a cover story and advocate for it in our story meeting.

This is a place where debate is encouraged where people come together and discuss and learn from each other and what we produce. It’s greater than any one individual. So part of my goal has been to shift what we do into the digital era without changing the cultural underpinning of what we are.

Sounds like The Economist may have some similarities with tech company culture: flat-structure, ideas-welcome, meritocracy approach. Do have any unique rituals or practices you do as a team?

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We have this meeting on Monday mornings where we discuss our editorials of the week, which is the distilled opinion section of The Economist. Anyone can pitch to write one on any subject. It can be someone who just arrived five minutes ago or can be the most senior editor – everyone is invited. We often get 100 people in attendance.

The way these work is that you give a pitch. Then there’s a general discussion, sometimes lasting ten minutes, sometimes an hour. Anyone can ask you questions or challenge your argument. It can be quite intimidating, but at its best, it’s a really rigorous debate. Ideas are really interrogated, and the argument is ultimately much stronger for it.

It’s a key part of the organization, and for outsiders, it’s a real eye-opener that this entire organization participates in such rigorous story vetting and debate.

And I’m happy to say we have very low turnover. Actually, people broadly tend not to leave. So we have some people who’ve been there a very long time, which is great for the transfer of knowledge. People who’ve been there a long, long time mix with people who’ve just arrived and so that mixture of ages and kind of tenure and experience is also really interesting.

Are there any ground rules of how to participate in these pitch sessions?

There’s an expectation of civilized discussion. It can be quite intellectually competitive, but it’s not a sparring match. And it’s not ad hominem. It’s genuinely in pursuit of getting different perspectives and improving the ultimate outcome. People really do help each other and offer thoughts and opinions on each other’s stuff in a constructive way. It’s not like some places that are more ego-driven.

What are your favorite team rituals? Share your thoughts in the Atlassian Community!

Zanny Minton Beddoes on making the most of her team’s talent