ON LEADING PODCAST • Episode #2 • July 18, 2023

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Episode #2

Katie Harbath

On Democracy & Tech

By Lori Brewer Collins

Facebook was created in 2004. YouTube, a year later. Twitter, a year after that.

“Some people forget there was a time when we weren’t quite sure if we needed to use any of these new digital tools for political campaigning.”

Katie Harbath joined Facebook to do just that in 2011. As Public Policy Director, she  built and led a 30-person global team to work with governments and politicians to think through what the company’s role could be in elections. Conversations then focused on how to increase voter turnout and how to provide people with information about the issues and the candidates. Facebook and its new acquisition Instagram offered new possibilities for connecting and engaging with constituents. Over time, Katie’s team expanded to 60 direct reports and 500 people working on elections in over 40 countries.

But things got complicated. After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, controversy after controversy hit the world of social media, culminating in the escapades at Cambridge Analytica in 2018. Everybody was talking about misinformation, disinformation and foreign interference. Katie, who had worked with the Republican National Committee, the U.S. House of Representatives, Giuliani’s presidential committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, didn’t freak out at the first sign of bad news and acted as company spokesperson in the fray. But by the end of 2019, the company had inexplicably pulled her off election work. Then COVID hit and, instead of being on the road 250 days a year in the run up to the 2020 U.S. election, she found herself figuring out how to do the work she loved most.

Since there was no single organization operating at the intersection of technology and democracy worldwide, Katie created a framework within which she could contribute.

She left Facebook in March 2021 to start up Anchor Change, an umbrella for the variety of work she now does. There’s her traditional consulting (mostly for technology platforms), non-profit work (Bipartisan Policy Center, Integrity Institute, International Republican Institute, Atlantic Council), and board work (Democracy Works, National Conference on Citizenship, Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, University of Wisconson-Madison). With the large number of elections (60+) happening around the world in 2024, Katie is extremely busy.

Key Takeaways

When I interviewed her for my podcast, Lori on Leadership, she shared her insights into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, plus the following wisdom on making the move from individual contributor to manager.

  1. Is this the best use of my time?” Your job has shifted from “doing the work” to “helping remove roadblocks” for those who are doing the work. That means you have to give people enough direction and strategy—without micromanaging. Point them towards your company and team’s “North Star” and empower them to figure out how to get there.
  2. “What are my principles as a manager?” These should guide everything you do and say. I have three: 1) transparency; 2) two-way, real-time feedback; and 3) people are in the driver’s seat of their own career. That means, as much as I can, I will tell a team member what’s going on, even if that means saying, “I can’t disclose everything I’m aware of to you.” If something’s not working, either of us can bring it up in the moment, talk about it, address it. I will also want to hear your solutions and what work you’re interested in doing. I’ll be your wing woman to help you think those through and find opportunities.
  3. “Can I be honest and vulnerable here?” Everyone has different communication styles. That said, there’s something about being vulnerable and honest with your team, especially when they may not be wild about what’s happening or the decisions being made. It helps them realize you are trying to do the best you can—and that you are human too.
  4. “Can I involve people in the decisions that affect them?” When change comes down from the top, give your people the opportunity to give feedback on the process. Make them feel heard. Ask them questions. Help them understand why the decision was made and, when possible, make adjustments to the change process based on their feedback. They’ll be more likely to stick around and stay on your team.
  5. “Is this one of those really impossible trade-off situations?” Sometimes you’re going to want two potential outcomes—but you can’t have both. You know there will be severe consequences whichever way you go. Don’t stick your head in the sand: the answer will usually be found somewhere in the gray zone between those two outcomes. Explore possibilities in the middle. Create a grid to evaluate all the different aspects of your decision: put your criteria on the X axis and a series of options across the y axis. Map out the possibilities, as objectively as you possibly can. Then bring in additional perspectives. You may need to adjust your map. After you decide, step back from time to time and ask, “Is this working—or not? Is this growing and building? Or do I need to make changes?”
  6. “Do you trust your team—and do they trust you enough to tell you when something’s wrong?” Everyone wins when you create a work environment where people are not afraid to come to you with bad news. We are all operating in uncertainty and ambiguity. Your job includes being clear about what you can and cannot control, admitting when things go sideways, standing up for your team, and coming up with a fix.
  7. “What do people say about me as a leader?” This can give you insights into things about your leadership that you may want to change or amplify. With me, people wonder when I sleep. Responsiveness, being there for people when they need me, is a big part of who I am as a leader—and so I answer emails and texts promptly.
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