Even though print media has waned compared to the giant that is digital media, it will certainly not die anytime soon. To keep such publications alive and relevant, a total shift in workplace culture is needed. Meghan Milkowski joins Cameron Herold in discussing how she started significant changes in the operations at Dow Jones as its SVP, allowing them to keep up with the changing market and uphold their decades-old quality content. She talks about the challenges in undertaking this mission, mainly if it means keeping the same people and just changing the culture within. Meghan also explains how they handled the pandemic, sharing their rapid shift to a work-from-home set-up.
Meghan Milkowski, SVP, Commercial Operations joined Dow Jones in October 2017. Dow Jones is a global provider of news and business information delivering content to consumers and organizations around the world across multiple formats, including print, digital, mobile, and live events. Dow Jones has produced unrivaled quality content for more than 130 years and one of the world’s largest news gathering operations globally.
Meghan is a multidimensional, transformation executive who delivers strategic solutions and optimizes sales opportunities to maximize business results for the Dow Jones print group, specifically Wall Street Journal and Barron’s. She formulates and executes strategies that increase revenue, minimize waste, and cut costs. Her publishing experience started at Life Magazine, marking up pasteboards for prepress. Moving to Time, she progressed from production and operations to leadership roles in imaging and business management.
Milkowski is the recipient of the Luminaire Award and the Gamma Epsilon Tau Gold Key Awards, and both are awarded to media leaders for positive influence, excellence, and dedication to the graphic communications industry. As a fierce competitor, she competes in triathlons and secured multiple spots for nationals. Racing allows her the opportunity to raise money for Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and mental health organizations. Meghan, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me, Cameron. I’m honored.
I didn’t know you were a triathlete. When did you start doing triathlons?
I was a marathon runner and my knees weren’t agreeing with me anymore, so a girlfriend of mine challenged me to do a sprint triathlon, 400 yards in the water. I wasn’t a swimmer, especially an open water swimmer, so that was the biggest challenge. It was a big hurdle, but I figured, “Why not?” You either do one and done or you do one and you’re completely and totally hooked, and I was completely and totally hooked.
Is that the distance you stay at the sprints?
No. I’ve done sprint Olympics and I did my first half Ironman when I turned 50. I didn’t want 50 to be about turning 50. I wanted 50 to be about something else. #ThisIs50 was my hashtag. It was me showing everybody how I’m training, and then crossing the finish line coming in third of my age group and qualifying for World.
At 50, I did my one and done marathon. I was the same. I needed to do it before I was 50. I got it done and crossed it off the list. Did you bring that sports culture into Dow Jones when you started or was it already there?
There’s definitely a softball team and there’s a lot of competition there. There was a soccer league, but I didn’t run into a lot of Ironman triathletes there. There’s a couple of marathoners. Definitely, people are doing their own thing. We’ve all found each other and we keep notes on, “What’s going on? What training are you doing? What bicycle do you have? I need this. I need that.” There’s a lot of resources but I use a lot of analogies for training at work.
It’s funny when we were building a company, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, years ago, we hired a guy who was ninth in the Vancouver Sun Run, a 10K race of 55,000 people. He changed the culture of the company. When every day this guy was going for a run, all of a sudden, the little runners started coming out of the closet. We couldn’t hire anybody that wasn’t in the sports. It’s a different mindset. Tell me about when you join Dow Jones. What was it that attracted you to the organization? What was it like when you were getting started in your role?
I started reading the Wall Street Journal when I was a Political Science major at the University of Delaware, and have loved the publication ever since I started reading it. It’s a company that I always wanted to work for. Time Magazine was another publication I always read. Inc., running through my veins. I’m a media person and I love news. Every time a job came available for the Wall Street Journal or for Dow Jones, over a twenty-year period, I kept applying, and then this job description came up. It was for pagination, commercial sales, and manufacturing. I said, “This job description is my resume.” I wrote a compelling cover letter and then network as much as I could, trying to get into the hiring manager and manage to get an interview with the recruiter. Funny story, pre-COVID, I never met anybody in person. It was all done on video.
That’s advanced for a company back then of that size to be doing something like that.
I thought it was a joke when they sent me the big cover letter, the offer letter. I’m like, “Really? You never saw me in person. Are you sure you want to hire me?”
Do they still do that today? Is that part of the DNA of the organization now?
No, they still have people come in. They do have a lot of video pre-screen. They give you a list of questions that you have to answer like what I did for my Ignite program. You answer the questions. You get 1 or 2 minutes to answer or whatever they tell you. You answer the question and you hit record and off you go. They do a lot of that. They generally have you come in to interview, but due to the fact that they weren’t sure where I was going to be, either New York or Princeton, they decided to do a video interview. It worked out well for me.
I remembered an article that Harvard Business Review wrote years ago called The Misunderstood Role of the COO. One of the things that they identified was 1 of the 7 distinct second-in-commands was the change agent. You mentioned that you were brought into the print division as the change agent, as the second-in-command there. Can you walk us through what it was you were supposed to change but also what you see a change agent is being?
There wasn’t anything specific that they wanted me to change. It was more about changing the culture and getting people to think differently. They have a wonderful staff and a lot of people have been doing the same job for a long time. I sometimes act like a two-year-old and I keep saying, “Why do we do that? Explain to me why we do that. Talk to me like I’m in fourth grade and explain that to me.” My goal is to get them to think about how we could do it differently. We are a 130-year old brand that we have to rely on the last mile to deliver our newspapers to our subscribers.
There are some things we can’t change but there are some things we can change and that’s what I was brought in to get people to think differently about how we sell the business, who our clients are, and to think bigger. Not just our amenity copies going to hotels, “Where else can we go? Do we have to just do hotels? Can we go to senior living centers? Can we go to high-end car outlet dealerships?” Think outside the box. I know that seems so 1982, but I was brought in to get people to change the way they do their business and stop doing things if you were to put a workflow together.
I did a lot of these where you just go around and around in circles until you get to the end and you don’t ever get to the end. This project starts here, but it goes through 25 people before it’s done. Why does it have to go through 25 people? Can we get it down to twenty? Can we get it down to fifteen? Can we get it down to ten? There was one time we said, “We don’t even need to do this.” It freed up a lot of time to focus on things that we do need to focus on, which is getting our product to our customer in the most efficient way possible. What do they want? What service did they want? Do they want a white glove service? Do they just want a print? Do they not care how they get it? Some people don’t care if they get it a day late. They want the print.
It’s funny you even said that something sounded so 1982. In 1982, the Dow Jones was 90 years old. It’s incredible to try to make a change in any organization when there’s some thinking that’s even 5 or 3 years old. When an organization is so structured, has been around for so long, and has so many people that have been in roles, it’s got to be extraordinarily hard. How did you make the change without changing the people, or sometimes you have to make the tough decisions and change the people, too?
We did not have to change people.
You said you had a bunch of good people.
We have an amazing staff and the knowledge that they have not just about Dow Jones, but about the manufacturing and the newspaper industry and the connections that they have are incredible. I am in awe of the information and the dedication that they have. I rely on them. I asked them to explain stuff to me because I come from a magazine background. I don’t come from a newspaper background. I had 28 years in magazines before I came to newspapers, so I rely on them. They would come to me with an idea and they say, “We’ve tried this three times before. How do we get across the finish line? How do we cross the goal line? How do we get it in the goal? How do we do this?”
It’s sitting down, making a plan and understanding the information. Understanding economics is the big thing at Dow Jones. Finding the true P&L for a product is not so easy to do because of the accounting that they do. When we were able to dig through and find out the economics of a certain product, then it made sense to people why we should change something. I was brought into the startup in a different division, which is a business ops division to dig into all those problems. As my boss says, “We have people that make the donuts, they make the donuts every day, and they’re good at making the donuts. Is there a better way to make the donuts?” That’s what I was brought in for. How do we find a better way to make those donuts?
Is it just as simple as asking why and sitting down with them? Do you have some systems that you use that you can walk us through? Maybe give us a change that you were able to identify or that you specifically did there.
I love data and I’m a big proponent of the data doesn’t lie. It’s asking a lot of questions and getting as much data as I possibly can. It depends on what project I’m working on. I can give you a simple example. I collect the data and then I analyze it into finances and more strategy-looking goals. Meaning, where the numbers are. How many subscribers do we have? What are our paid subscribers? I’m looking at that data as to where our papers are going and who our customers are. I rely heavily on our customer insights team. They’re incredible for giving me the information. Being able to tie in the financials with the consumer insights team is something that people weren’t doing before.
The biggest issue that newspapers have is the last mile and every newspaper will tell you that getting the newspaper out the door of a manufacturing facility is not the problem. Getting it to a depot is not the problem. You can hire a truck and you get it there. It’s getting the carrier to get it on somebody’s front lawn or on their front porch and ensuring that it’s dry, it’s in a bag, and it’s there consistently. One of the biggest problems that newspapers have is the delivery. It’s the last mile. A lot of work that the distribution team has done is all about the last mile and we do have a last mile project that we’re working on.
We facilitated a big idea. Everything is negotiable like, “Let’s put everything on a wall what can we do to make sure that we ensure that our customers are getting what they want.” We came up with a few different things, which was carrier gratuity. How can we make sure that these carriers stay and they’re consistent? They don’t make a lot of money from these carriers. They make close to nothing. During the economic upturn where everybody was making a lot of money, carriers were down, so we had a lot of open routes.
How do we make those carriers stay? We were testing the last mile and getting people to give carrier gratuity. We looked at truck routes to make sure that we were as consistent as possible with our trucks and making sure that we weren’t changing them up every other day or weekly. We also looked at markets that we’re flying copies to Montana. Of course, in Alaska, we have to fly copies, it does make sense.
How do you avoid that waste when the organization is so big and you’re making decisions in a vacuum at times or based on a siloed decision? How do you avoid that waste where it doesn’t make sense? How do you say, no?
We don’t say no. We think about the customer first. If they’re paying a premium price for a premium product, we make sure that we get the copy there. If they’re not paying the premium price, then we have to rethink it. We have a lot of people that are 35 plus years subscribers and they’re willing to pay anything to get their print copy on their front door. That’s what we look at as the white glove treatment, that we make sure that they get what they want. There are areas that are profitable for us and I’m sure you can guess what areas of the country they are.
We have to think about the best way to get their copies of them. We’re starting to think of alternative ways to get them copies, whether it be digital presses or the digital PDF that we have available now. We started out with maybe 5,000 people were getting it and within a four-week period, we have over 56,000 people getting the PDF right into their inbox and their email. The open rate is unbelievable. It’s way over 60. People are reading that on their iPad now. It’s a large company and there are a lot of projects going on. The print group is just a small part of Dow Jones. A lot of resources are for the online, our PRD business, and our RMC business. It’s an incredible business that we have. We’re a small part of it, so getting the resources to help us is a challenge. It’s all about push. We’re still here and we’re still waiting.
How do you sell on those resources? How do you get the resources you need? How do you pitch them?
As my father would say, I have peddler blood in my system. I come from a long line of salespeople. While I couldn’t possibly go out and sell a product, what I can do is get people to give me what I want. It’s all about relationships and it’s all about getting them to understand what you need and when you need it. I’m not a person that goes in and says, “I need it right away,” and then not use it. I’m like, “Could you get it to me by two weeks? This is when I need it. You tell me when you can get it and I’ll work my timeline around you.” People are responsive to that.
Especially on the tech side, they’re like, “Really? You don’t need it tomorrow or yesterday?” When you’re a little bit more flexible, you can get them to work with you a little bit more. Tell them what your expectations are. My other idea and thing that I do all the time is I say, “What do you think? Do you have any ideas? What can you add to the conversation?” Get them to think creatively, and then they’ll come back and say, “You should try this.” I’m like, “Great.” That’s how I usually get most of the stuff done is by asking for their creativity.
Make it their idea.
As long as it’s their idea, they will do it.
Talk about the switch over to COVID-19. When we had to get faced with this, how did it affect Dow Jones and how have you dealt with it?
It was an interesting personal story for me, plus for Dow Jones. I had foot surgery on February 26, 2020, and I was supposed to go back to work on March 4. The Friday before March 4, they said, “Forget it. You’re not coming back. I need a full contingency plan.” It was supposed to be a full week of recovery with three business days of recovery. That Monday, I had to put a contingency plan for everybody to work from home. It ended up being a 36-page document with my foot up over my heart on a laptop and getting emails from at least a dozen people with their org charts and who needs what.
We put a full contingency plan together and within a week, everybody was working from home. We let everybody know and within two days of letting everybody know, they were working from home. It was a week of us planning, and then two days, you got to work from home. People came in with their cars. We didn’t have laptops for everybody, so they took their CPUs and monitors home. They were up and running. What’s great is that people are like, “I’m so much more efficient.” They didn’t think they could be.
We’re noticing that is a massive trend. I spoke with the second-in-command of the American Association of Retired People, AARP and they had 2,200 people go remote within three days. Are you going to go back to the offices? Are you going to stay remote? Are you allowing people to maybe stay remote? What’s the thought process there?
We have surveys. Our people team is amazing. They’ve had 3 or 4 surveys asking what people want. What we’re finding is that people want to have the flexibility to work from home a couple of days a week, not necessarily every day. There are a few people that want to be home every day and some people can. They have the job where they can. What we’re most concerned about is we are a global company and we have an open floor plan. We have a meeting with Hong Kong or Barcelona or London and then have a mask on because you’re in an open area, on the video, it’s difficult to go into the office. We don’t have a back to work strategy yet. We have a future of workstream that we’re working on as to how we’re going to go back, which I’m not a part of at this point. The people that are working have some incredible ideas.
They’re still not looking at coming back to the offices yet then?
There’s no date for the US. We have offices in Hong Kong. People are going partially in Hong Kong. Barcelona is still not back up and running and I don’t think London is either.
What’s worked well in terms of keeping employees engaged and getting the results? Have there been any systems or software tools that have been used? Is it just coaching people or aligning people? What’s working well to make sure that we’re getting great productivity from the people and that people are having fun doing their roles?
I instituted a water cooler meeting, day one, week one of COVID. I had it every day for the first 3 or 4 weeks and now it’s a couple of times a week. What happens at a regular water cooler is you can talk about business, personal life, or the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. Did you see the movie? It’s not required. It’s talking about anything and everything. The feedback that I’ve gotten from my staff is that is by far the thing that is keeping them sane because they know that they have something to do at least 3 or 4 times a week to have that relaxed conversation and it doesn’t have to be structured. They have a half-hour where they can relax and just shoot the breeze with their co-workers.
Slack is a big thing to keep everything up-to-date. For the most part, we use Google Hangouts and we’re Google Chat and that keeps everything up and running. More people are doing it. “Do you have a minute?” They’ll get on the video to have a quick conversation as opposed to before where everything was scheduled. If you want to have a meeting, “I’ll hit you in half-hour.” “I’ll meet you in half an hour.” If you were at an office, you would get up and walk over and say, “Do you have a minute?” We’re starting to use that video chat on the fly to say, “Do you have a minute?” “Yeah, sure.” “Okay.” You don’t have to stay on for the full half-hour. That’s the other thing I say. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t stay on for the full half-hour. I’ve canceled meetings because there’s no agenda. I’m not having a meeting without an agenda. It’s a waste of time.
No agenda, no attendance. I wrote the book Meetings Suck because I wanted people to understand how to run them and how to participate in them.
Another story about your book, Meetings Suck. We have a new CEO, Almar Latour, who is fantastic. In one of his first meetings with us, a smaller group, he mentioned that he likes small quick meetings. He doesn’t like these things to drag on. Sometimes, too many people have useless meetings. I said, “I just read this book, Meetings Suck. This is perfect.” I got on Amazon and I sent it right to him. I said, “This aligns with exactly what you were saying now.” I put the date on it. I got a nice thank-you note from our CEO saying, “This is great.”
It’s funny I had Elon Musk send a tweet out saying that, “If you’re in a shitty meeting, stand up and leave the meeting.” I’ve known Elon for more than 25 years because I was a reference for him in his first round of funding for Zip2. I sent him a text message after and I said, “No, you don’t tell people to leave shitty meetings. You fix shitty meetings, so they’re not in them in the first place. Don’t hold any more shitty meetings.” I don’t understand why people would sit and complain, but they won’t fix the root cause. You talked about something that you were working on around culture. Can you describe what a great culture is for you and what culture you’re always working towards?
The best culture for me is open and honest communication. Without that, you cannot have a productive staff. You can’t close your laptop at the end of the day and feel good about yourself. I don’t like hidden agendas. One of the things that I try and make sure is that I understand everything about what people need. The asking, “And what else,” doesn’t end until they say, “I have nothing else.” I’m trying to instill that culture with everybody else. Don’t ask a question and let it go at that because that’s not the whole story. When you ask one question and the answer what they think you want to hear, it accomplishes almost nothing.
What are your one-on-one meetings like with your team? Can you walk us through how you coach your direct reports?
I have been doing a lot of listening. I use the 80/20 Rule, so 80% listening and 20% talking. I let them try and come up with their own ideas and I coach them through what else they need to think about. It’s been a three-year project of mine to stop talking because I’m a talker and I talk fast. What I’ve learned is that if I ask certain questions, they do the thinking for me and they come up with a better idea than probably I would have come up with because they’ve been doing it longer.
It’s amazing when you can get them to talk. I’ve heard of saying years ago that, “God gave us two ears and one mouth.” We need to use them in that ratio. We need to ask the questions and get them to figure it out, and then our job is to grow people. Are you working on growing their skillset or just supporting them? Where do you line up there?
I have a few different levels of folks. There are a few people on my staff that have been there for a long time. They’re seasoned and extremely knowledgeable about what they do and they’re not looking to grow, so to speak, but then I’ve got a few people that are ambitious and want to grow. I’ve been coaching them and trying to get them to think in a different way. I’ve had one person who’s numbers-oriented. To get him to think a little bit more strategically has been a challenge, but a fun challenge where I can keep asking him, “What else? What other ideas do you have? Is there another way to come about this?” What’s nice is that other departments have recognized what I’ve been doing with my staff and they said, “Go to Meghan. Go ask her to mentor you because she should be good for you.”
What about the people that don’t want to grow? Do you just load them up with more stuff?
No. It’s all about throwing out questions, “We have this issue. What do you think? Is there another way to do it?” They’ll chew on it a little bit and come back like, “Remember, you mentioned that? I’d like to try and lead this project.” I’m like, “Go ahead.” We have a format for a business plan. Everything has to have a business plan and everything has to have a timeline. Everything has to have a P&L when we put the business plan together. It could be a short business plan. It could be half a page. Some business plans are three pages long and some are a paragraph.
It has to have a business plan and has to have a projected P&L of what it would look like and they go from there. Who is the list of stakeholders? Who buy-in do we need? Some work and some don’t work. It’s all in my head, but I need to get something where we can pin it up and get people to think that way because print business is a known business. The vivid vision is there’s a better way to do some of the things that we’re doing.
How about yourself and your skillset? You’re always growing. What are you focusing on growing? Where are you focusing on getting better as a leader?
In my leadership program that I was in, I found that I’m good at coaching people, so I volunteered to be a coaching trainer and I had my first class. I would like to get my coaching certificate and help people with their careers or whatever they want to do with their lives. Career-wise, I love finding problems and figuring out a better way of doing things. I hate to say this, but I feel like I’m a conductor or a coach, “I need a little bit of you and you and we’ll fix this all together and we’ll make beautiful music together.” I’m not a COO, but I would love to be a COO and tie everything together for a small to medium-sized company and make the CEO look like $1 million.
When you’re in the entrepreneurial world, it’s different for sure. You’re the second-in-command of your division. Have you got P&L responsibility in what you’re doing? What areas do you oversee and what areas don’t you oversee?
I oversee the P&L. I’m responsible for the P&L of the division. I run the commercial ops and the business op. There’s a gentleman that runs the true manufacturing, the printing plans, and such. He does an amazing job and we partner to make sure that we get the most out of the entire staff. At the end of the day, the P&L lies to me. Some years are great and some years are not so great. COVID has had an impact, but we’re having a good time.
You mentioned that you got selected to be part of the Ignite program at Dow Jones. What’s that program and why were you selected?
Our previous CEO, Will Lewis, had a commitment to get more females in executive roles, and what better way to do that than with the existing talent that we have at Dow Jones. I was in the second cohort. I wasn’t eligible for the first cohort because I wasn’t there long enough. Over 100 women applied to this program and they select twenty. It’s a year-long program. There’s a couple of weeks out of the year where we have an MBA in a day. We had career coaches and we had different ways of coming at projects. I’m in print and my project was for risk and compliance as a data analyst.
I had to learn what a data analyst does and it was fun. It’s going beyond your scope. We got a lot of insight into what’s happening at Dow Jones that we normally wouldn’t. It was a full leadership program and it lasted a year. The best part about it was the 22 women that were in my cohort are now friends, allies, and resources that I probably never would have had because there are people from the newsroom, live journalism, marketing, and PR. I would never have been able to do this podcast if it weren’t for Ignite. I would never have known who to go to, to say, “How do I do this?”
Starbucks does an interesting job at the head office of Starbucks, where they rotate their key executives every 2 to 3 years. You’re only allowed to stay in that one functional area for 2 to 3 years, then you have to switch. They’re constantly building the base of the skillset of their leadership team. They figured that if you’re a strong leader, you can lead any area. Just go figure it out. They don’t want people getting so stuck in their silos.
It’s crazy to think about it, but it’s neat that you got to do it as part of a training program. Not necessarily part of your day-to-day. I want you to think back to your 22-year-old self. You’re just graduating from college or university and you need to give yourself some advice. What advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true now, but you wish you’d known back when you were just starting out in your career?
Trust your instincts. I second-guessed myself in the first ten years of my career. If I had just trusted my instincts, I probably would have had a different trajectory. Maybe not better, maybe not worse, but definitely different.
It’s a strong one that everybody needs to remember because we have that human-computer that’s been built in that when we try to out-logic it, we burn out the circuit board. Meghan Milkowski, the SVP for commercial operations for Dow Jones. Thank you for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate all the time and ideas.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
- Dow Jones
- Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation
- The Misunderstood Role of the COO
- AARP – Executive Vice President and Chief-Operating-Officer, Scott Frisch episode
- Meetings Suck
About Meghan Milkowski
Meghan Milkowski joined Dow Jones in October 2017. Dow Jones is a global provider of news and business information, delivering content to consumers and organizations around the world across multiple formats, including print, digital, mobile, and live events. Dow Jones has produced unrivaled quality content for more than 130 years and today has one of the world’s largest news gathering operations globally.
Meghan is a multi-dimensional, transformation executive who delivers strategic solutions and optimizes sales opportunities to maximize business results for the Dow Jones Print Group, specifically WSJ and Barron’s. She formulates and executes strategies that increase revenue, minimize waste, and cut costs.
Prior to joining Dow Jones, Meghan was president of The Hill, an online news source for policy and political coverage. She also served as vice president of production & circulation at Prometheus Global Media. Hired to manage production, she quickly added circulation and project management for IT initiatives.
Her 30 years of publishing experience started at Life Magazine, marking up pasteboards for prepress. Moving to Time, she progressed from production and operations to leadership roles in imaging and business management.
Milkowski is the recipient of the Luminaire Award and the Gamma Epsilon Tau Gold Key Awards both are awarded to media leaders for positive influence, excellence, and dedication to the graphic communications industry.
As a fierce competitor, she competes in triathlons and secured multiple spots for nationals. Racing allows her the opportunity to raise money for Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and mental health organizations.