What CNN’s Coverage of the 2016 Election Can Teach Aspiring Young Professionals

I was recently on an American Airlines flight from Washington DC to Boston when I happened to pick up American’s monthly magazine, American Way.

The featured story in this edition was about CNN’s miraculous turnaround as a network over the past two years. CNN’s primetime ratings were at an all time low towards the end of 2014 and investors worried about the future of the network.

The network’s board of directors knew that CNN needed new leadership and a new vision to compete with FoxNews and MSNBC — so they brought on Jeff Zucker (NBC’s former CEO), hoping his expertise would improve the network’s ratings.

Zucker knew that the opportunity to rebuild CNN’s reputation lay in the coverage of the upcoming 2016 presidential race. If he could pull together a team of reporters who would work as a unit, be bipartisan when covering stories, and promote content across a wide array of media channels, he’d have a chance at winning back favor with bipartisan viewers.

Zucker understood that the way to break through a crowded market and increase positive brand recognition was to reallocate resources to develop — or, in this case, re-develop — a competitive advantage.

It was less about spending more money, and more about allocating resources to the areas where the network had real opportunity for growth. CNN was once seen as the “balanced” network, and Zucker believed viewers could see it as such once again.

I think success lies in being aware enough to see opportunity, and being bold enough to capitalize on that opportunity. It’s not necessarily about having the best new product idea, the most creative ad campaign, or the deepest pockets. Successful professionals recognize real potential and leverage that potential, with as much gusto as they can and whatever resources they have.

Considering the fact that CNN had the most watched Election Night in cable news history and that they recorded their most digital-trafficked day on election night, I believe Zucker understands the importance of maximizing on resources. He could have “raised all boats” and evenly distributed money and talent to health, opinion, entertainment, etc.

Instead, he knew that he needed to hone in on where the network had the greatest competitive advantage: where they had a chance at actually winning viewership. Zucker pulled resources from less successful features, added 45 journalists and 50 million dollars to CNN’s political team, and created one of the most successful election coverage teams in modern history.

I think about all the conversations I have with peers who talk about wanting to run their own businesses or launch their own startups, and what’s often absent from these conversations is a strategic, competitive edge. They discuss how they want to use the latest in technology to tackle issues like world hunger, sustainable farming, and child poverty, but often fall short of a formulaic game plan that will truly set them apart.

The greatest innovators and problem solvers of our day — people like Steve Jobs, Arianna Huffington, Jeff Bezos, and in this case Jeff Zucker — understand that a strategic competitive advantage is the foundation from which the greatest enterprises, products, and organizations are built. Work hard to develop and flesh out an idea, but then wrestle with that idea day and night until you’ve created a truly unique approach, solution, or product.

Leaders like Jeff Zucker aren’t created overnight; they’re molded over years of taking risk, pursuing “impossible” ventures, and trading “Netflix and chill” for hard work and “crazy-idea-generation.” Today, it’s really not about “finding your dream”; it’s about acquiring the necessary skills to go and create it. Surround yourself with people who challenge you and will invite you to grow. Find people who will remind you where you are weak, but affirm you where you are strong.

Take on projects that challenge and stretch you — projects that might even scare you. Engage in conversations with thought leaders across industries and strive to understand how they see the world. Understand what they look for in successful ideas.

We live in a culture that values innovation like never before. Take advantage of that! Maybe a dream of yours has been broken or paused; awaken it. Don’t wait until you have a plethora of resources at your disposal, or you may be waiting forever. Take the resources you have available today, whether it’s a few spare hours each evening or a couple hundred bucks you can put towards launching a Kickstarter campaign, and start cultivating the skills you’ll need to create the career, life, and society you want tomorrow to hold.

You don’t need a Harvard education and a trust fund to make a name for yourself today. You need passion and determination — and a hell of a lot of both. But if you have this zeal, and if you have the heartfelt desire to channel it into something that is powerful and meaningful, the success that you achieve in this lifetime will be astonishing.