Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Hannah Yang, Chief Growth Officer at The New York Times
I spoke with Hannah Yang, Chief Growth Officer at The New York Times. Hannah moved to the US from Korea when she was 9 years old. As an immigrant, she grew up hearing only about the most traditional career paths of doctors, lawyers, and engineers. While studying social studies at Harvard College she took a year off to help her father with his political campaign in Korea, where she experienced firsthand how law and policy could shape society.
After graduating Harvard College, Hannah attended Harvard Law School but quickly realized that law was not a fit for her. While she was initially interested in law because of the impact it could make, as an undergraduate she had also been drawn to photography and journalism, which she believed could make similar positive impacts in a way that better aligned with her interests.
After graduating law school, Hannah worked at a corporate law firm to pay off her student loans but left after a short time to work with Charlie Rose at 60 Minutes II. She soon realized that role was not for her either, which made her feel even more lost in her career path. She worried she had made a detrimental mistake switching between two fields, neither of which seemed to be a fit.
Hannah sought out Susan Zirinsky, the then Executive Producer of 48 Hours, whom she had heard speak at the women’s leadership program at Harvard. Susan recommended that the business side of journalism could be a more structured area that might help Hannah realize the societal impact she had been so drawn to. Susan also introduced Hannah to Betsy Morgan, a fellow Harvard alum and the then Vice President of Business Development at CBS News. At Betsy’s recommendation, Hannah went into consulting to get more formalized training in business and subsequently joined The Boston Globe (then owned by The New York Times Company) in their strategic planning group, a role that finally felt like a fit for both her heart and mind.
A few years into her time at The Boston Globe, Hannah’s first son was born with a rare genetic disorder, so she left her job to take care of him for four years until he became stronger and healthier. Hannah was able to go back to work part time at The New York Times and joined the company full time in 2010. Over the past 11 years, Hannah has held a wide range of positions on the subscriptions side of the business. One of her first projects was moving content into electronic reader products. Now she is responsible for the growth of all Times subscription products, the primary revenue source of The Times’ business. At the end of March 2021, The Times had 7.8 million total subscriptions, more than at any point in its history. The Times is the most successful digital subscription news organization in the world.
Hannah shared her reflections on effective leadership, decision making, and advice for her younger self.
On effective leadership: The New York Times’ work centers on its mission: To seek the truth and help people understand the world. As a leader, Hannah constantly looks for ways to tie her team’s work back to that mission.
When asked about her biggest learnings, Hannah notes that she never expected to be a senior leader, citing that at one point, while caring for her son, she assumed she’d be a stay-at-home mom. As each year passes, she has taken on more responsibility, but instead of viewing her position as a senior leader managing more junior staffers, Hannah instills servant leadership, where everything she does is in service to her team to pave the way for them, get them the resources they need, and create the right environment for them to express their true gifts.
Hannah focuses less on recruiting new top talent and more on creating a cohesive team that works together in the right ways. She believes that if someone is hired by the Times, they are top talent so her job is less about finding the best people and more about bringing the best out of people. She focuses on unlocking human potential through motivating her team in the right way, encouraging them to work together closely and support each other regularly. Instead of focusing on individual performance, she looks for people who genuinely love to help each other be the best versions of themselves.
Hannah spends a lot of time getting to know every single one of her staff members (even now when she manages hundreds) to understand what inspires them, what is special about them, what their blockers are and how she can help remove them, and how she can get them to be truly motivated from within.
On decision making: Hannah notes that while The Times has become more data driven over time, leadership still incorporates other factors and often makes decisions that go against data if doing so is truly the right thing to do. For example, its Open Access programs make journalism free and accessible around critical topics like COVID-19, which goes against pure commercial values but is aligned with the company’s ultimate journalistic mission. According to Hannah, profitability is not everything. In making decisions, she says, you need to qualitatively incorporate the numerous factors beyond the bottom line.
Moreover, given the reach of The Times, its data can be quite noisy with many people interacting with their site and products, which can make attribution opaque. Hannah adds that it’s hard to pinpoint the source of a particular period of subscription growth. It could be driven by anything from a marketing campaign to a well-written social post, a Times reporter sharing stories via their own network or something else entirely. It’s difficult to fully separate the brand-driven organic growth from the paid growth.
Hannah’s decisions are rarely ever solely commercial. She stresses that data is important but there’s never only just one input. Decision-making is made with data and judgement, and in that way, it’s an integration of art and science.
On advice for her younger self: Reflecting on her journey, Hannah would tell her younger self to focus less on fitting in and more on being authentic to herself. As an immigrant and Asian American, Hannah was one of the few people of color in the workplace when she started at The Times, and was just grateful to be a part of an organization with a mission she believed so strongly in. She wasn’t entirely prepared for corporate America and wasn’t fully trained on the soft skills that most corporate environments in the U.S. demand. While she has seen incredible success in her career, Hannah was constantly challenged to step outside of her comfort zone, often being told to speak up more and be more assertive to fit in. Looking back, she wonders: What if that energy was spent elsewhere, perhaps instead on developing the people and culture around her instead of changing herself?
Now a senior leader, Hannah pays special attention to creating systemic change throughout the organization. She is helping to implement more inclusive practices in performance management and reviews companywide. Instead of giving advice to people on how they can fit in, Hannah focuses on helping her colleagues find and play to their strengths instead of always trying to make up for their weaknesses.