Do you ever wonder how some people seem to find success rather quickly? In this episode, Jimmy interviews Lillian Cunningham, award-winning journalist with the Washington Post and creator of Webby Award-winning podcasts, to discover how she found success.
- Why it is important to always be “forward-thinking” as a leader
- The process of finding the “one thing” that will differentiate you from the rest of the world
- How you can create and achieve success by focusing on the tasks that make the largest impact for your subscriber or customer
- What role curiosity plays in the development of marketplace products such as podcasts
- Critical reasons for pivoting from the logical to the unexpected to keep your creativity and ambition strong
Meet Lillian Cunningham
Lillian Cunningham is a journalist at The Washington Post. She is the creator and host of The Post’s “Presidential,” “Constitutional” and “Moonrise” podcasts. “Presidential” was a 2017 Webby Award honoree for best documentary podcast and a finalist for the Academy of Podcasters’ best news and politics podcast. “Moonrise” was named one of the best podcasts of 2019 by Apple Podcasts.
Previously Lillian was the editor of The Post’s “On Leadership” section and won two Emmy Awards for her video interview series with leaders across politics, business and the arts.
JW: Good morning! What another beautiful Monday morning. And aren’t they all beautiful? It’s all about the attitude, the mindset that you bring to the day when you first arise in the morning. Hey, this is Jimmy Williams with Live a Life by Design, your Monday morning host to give you the most out of your week. The one thing we want you to take from this podcast on a weekly basis – we’re here for you every Monday morning, rain, shine, it doesn’t matter – we want you to start your week off, so you can become a bigger, better, and bolder you to make the world a better place. It’s been an honor this year to bring to you some of the most outstanding leaders across this country. As part of our Women in Leadership series, today we have a guest that is going to rock your socks off. I got to know our guest through a podcast, of all things, and got to listening to that podcast just religiously, every episode. It was just a wonderful historical lesson, as well as entertaining. And I’m going to give you that information a little later in our show notes, of how you too, can enjoy the podcast that she and her team produce. But before we introduce her, I want to say a couple of things about women in leadership in general. Haven’t these times of COVID been a big challenge to your team, to your family? It has been difficult just in doing the simple things that we had done before COVID-19, such as jump on airplanes, travel to Europe, do those things that we all can do, to make the world a smaller place. And now, our lives have changed. But one of the things that hasn’t changed is how the resilience of great leaders have stepped up into the void and found alternatives to accomplish still their goals. So, if you’ve found that 2020 may have a mere asterisk by it in your goal book, you still have time to change that. Start your 2021 with bigger, better, and bolder goals, as we said earlier, so that you can find a bigger place in your world for you to live your life truly by design. That’s what has been done by my guest today, I am so honored to have with us a lady that, she doesn’t know me as well as I know her. Because I have, as I said, listened to everything that she’s put out there on podcast, read her stories at her paper in which she works. Today my guest is a journalist with the Washington Post, she’s got a BA from the University of Chicago in English and her master’s of science in journalism from Northwestern University. She doesn’t sleep much, folks. She is the creator and host of the Washington Post Presidential, Constitutional, and Moonrise Podcasts. Presidential was a 2017 Webby Award honoree for best documentary podcast and a finalist for the Academy of Podcasters best news and politics podcast. Moonrise was named one of the best podcasts of 2019 by Apple Podcast. Previously, Lillian was the editor of the Post’s On Leadership section and won two Emmy Awards for her video interview series with leaders across politics, business and the arts. This lady has so many accolades, I just want to mention a couple things. With Presidential, that actually started in 2016, her first episode, she had to update it because why? We in America believe in resilience, we keep moving forward, the Constitution is strong, and we’ve now elected another president, the number 46. So, just as she always does, takes the proactive role of leadership and she made some bonus episodes of Presidential for your enjoyment. I highly encourage you to listen to them. They are very, very good. Enough about this, let me get to our guest today. Would you please welcome with me, and thanks for being here, Lillian Cunningham.
LC: Thanks, Jimmy. It’s such an honor to be on your show. Thank you.
JW: Thank you for being here. I got to tell you folks, this lady’s so busy, it’s like six months to get her an opportunity to get open. She doesn’t sleep, right? Are you sleeping now?
LC: I’m not now. But I’m glad that it worked out. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
JW: Well, before we get started with our interview, I do want to pass along to you some great accolades and congratulations. During a very weak moment of her life, she succumbed to the request for marriage from Jim Jim Tankersley, so congratulations. You’re still newlyweds, it’s only been a year, right?
LC: Yeah, I guess we’re still pretty much newlyweds. He also, fun fact, was a guest on the Presidential Podcast, also a colleague of mine at the Washington Post. But yeah, had a special appearance on the podcast before we started dating.
JW: I do want to say one thing, it’s got to be embarrassing folks. I don’t know if she knows this or not, but when a journalist with such astute printers and great grammar usage and so forth, but when they see something misprinted about them in the newspaper, it’s got to be tough. And I found something of your wedding announcement Lillian, to Jim. And it says here that your age is not 29. And I think that’s a misprint. Am I right?
LC: Yeah, that New York Times, you know?
JW: Just can’t find good help in New York some days. No, just kidding for those of you listening in New York. But let’s talk a little bit about your guests. You said Jim was on the show, Presidential. So, let’s go back and start with Presidential as our first conversation. Tell me… Take me from ideation to creation to publication of that podcast. I got to tell you, I was spellbound from the very first president, one of my favorites, George Washington.
LC: Thanks. Well, yeah, so it was the end of 2015 when I had the idea for the podcast. So, we were just about to head into a presidential election year, if you’ll recall I mean, there were a ton of potential candidates on both sides, the debate stages were full of people running for the presidency. And at the time, I was working at the Washington Post as the leadership editor, so the section where we really focus on people in power, people who want to be in power, the traits that make for great leaders. And I was looking ahead to this year sort of barreling towards us and thinking we’re going to be spending so much time evaluating this sea of potential presidents. And wouldn’t we all really benefit from some more context about what has actually really worked as a leadership trait in the White House in the past? I knew for myself that beyond Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and some of our more current presidents, that I had a lot of blind spots when it came to lesser known presidents. And I actually went searching for a podcast thinking, “Well, maybe I can just brush up on all of the presidents. I can get some great 40 minute digest of who they were, what their leadership traits were, why they were successful or not in office.” And nothing like that existed. And it just kind of got lodged in my head as this thing that would just be a really great public service and that would help people not just sort of focus on the headlines in the news and the performance on the debate stage, but really think more critically about what mattered to them in a president, and to put that in some sort of longer arc of history as its context. So, I had that idea, I didn’t know anything about audio production, I was mostly a print reporter, I had done some video. But I went to the editors of the Post and I pitched this idea and they said, “Yeah, that sounds great. That sounds like something that Post readers would love.” But the tricky thing was, we didn’t have Post listeners at the time. We didn’t have any sort of podcasting program at the Post. So, in addition to pitching the idea, I also had to pitch the fact that I would teach myself how to edit audio and I would create these episodes on my own and I would figure out how we could sort of build the infrastructure at the Post to publish them. I look back at all of it and think, I’m really glad I was naïve enough to think I could pull all that off. Because now that I know how much work it takes… You know, I did pull it off and I’m so glad I did. But I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.
JW: But that shows your leadership capabilities. So, what you really did, Washington Post, of which I’m a subscriber, by the way. And I hope you tell your editor I’m a subscriber because of you, by the way.
LC: Oh wow, thanks.
JW: I just love the take that you get from the Washington D.C. at the foot of the capitol, if you will, and getting to talk to the people that make our country work. But where I want to go with this is, so you came up with this idea, you pitched it to your editors and they said sure. And what I want people to take from this is, is she didn’t start with all of the answers. The key here to any great leadership role is, you know, 99% of the time, Lillian, I have great ideas, I don’t have all the answers, but I got enough to know I need to start. That’s the key. What really gave you the confidence to say, “Wow, I’ve never done this before and I just pitched it to my boss, now I got to make it happen.” So, take it from that standpoint. What happened from there?
LC: Yeah. I mean, I think… I’m not sure I would ever describe myself as someone with a whole lot of confidence, but I suppose deep down on some level I really believe in the power of hard work and the power of ideas, and I felt so strongly that this was something that should be out there in the world, that it was something people would benefit from, also that it was the right moment for it. That an election year was the perfect time to help better educate people about the American Presidency so I think there was just… It was one of those moments where I just felt this really focused drive to make something happen. And not because I thought it would do anything personally for me and my career, though it did end up having an effect on my career trajectory. But it really was just born out of this deep belief that it was valuable and it was sort of destined to come into being and that I just needed to do whatever the work was to help get it there. And, I mean, I’ve taught myself a lot of other stuff in the past. I suppose to some degree I thought, “Well, I’m sure I can take this on.” But yeah, I mean, I think underneath all of it was just that sense of a driving commitment to see it through and to do sort of whatever it took and have as many sleepless nights as it took to get it there.
JW: Let me tell you, launching a podcast folks, is not the most difficult thing in the world, but it’s not the most easy either, I can assure you that. So, you said, “Hey, I’m going to create this podcast, I’m going to work on it, and I’m going to put it together.” But did you have, when you started this and you came up with the idea, did you have the mindset to say, “Okay, I’m going to go to the Library of Congress and find those specialists by each president?” Because on the podcast you really fascinated me when you brought some of the well-known names that have written volumes about each of these men, like Abraham Lincoln for example. You brought a lady that has been known for 50 years to be the Abraham Lincoln expert. I just listened for every word she said, I already had her book. And I go, “Lillian’s hit it out of the park with this lady.” Because she is good, and that’s Miss Kearns.
LC: Yes. I mean, that was part of… I guess I should back up and say part of the premise of the podcast was that, you know, I didn’t go into this as a presidential expert myself, I went into it as someone who wanted to learn more about the presidency and wanted to be honest and open with listeners about the gaps in my own knowledge. So, I sought out… you know, the podcast itself is sort of the journey of seeking to learn about each of these men who’s held the office. So I did… Sort of the back bone of that was getting interviews and having conversations with historians, biographers, in some cases relatives of some of the presidents. Anyone who just had a deep authority and insight on who they were, what made them tick. And it led me to just incredible people who, as you said, I mean, have spent their entire lives and careers studying these men and their leadership traits. I mean, that was the biggest privilege and it was also certainly the thing that made it ultimately possible to pull this project off, was the willingness of so many great people to say yes to kind of guiding me through the presidency.
JW: Oh man, I tell you. And some of the names you’ll find folks, when you listen to her podcast on Presidential, the names will ring bells to you. These are some people that you’ve seen on national TV on the documentaries of history channels, things of that nature, about these presidents. One thing I’ve got to ask, now hey, we don’t hold anything back here on Live a Life by Design. So Lillian, of all the 45 presidents we’ve now had, what’s your favorite -I’m going to break it down into two parts – your favorite historic president, and then your favorite more recent president?
LC: You’d think that wouldn’t be a hard question, but it’s hard for a number of reasons. One, because I’m possibly the most indecisive person in the world and I never can figure out my favorite anything. But also because the sort of feelings that I went into the podcast with were very different from the ones that I ended with. I think one of the great lessons is just the degree to which no one is perfect, no one is an angel. There’s all shades of gray for everyone, even our greatest leaders. You can look at certain parts of their legacy and say, “Well, I’m not sure I totally love that part of what they did or who they were.” So, I’ll caveat it with that long caveat.
JW: Are you inferring Lillian, that some of our greatest leaders of this country were not, as you say, perfect? Are you saying they had inferiority issues?
LC: You know, it’s a crazy idea, but yeah. I think everyone’s human.
JW: I would agree with that. I’m sorry to interrupt, you go right ahead. Tell me who it is. You got to make a decision today.
LC: No, no. So, I mean, you know, I think I would say I would maybe put it a different way in terms of presidents who surprised me most. I would say Gerald Ford as one of the more present day, modern presidents, was someone whose life story I found totally fascinating. He is not held up as one of our greatest contemporary presidents, one term president, and came into the office in very strange circumstances. But I learned so much about him doing the episode and really came to appreciate the way in which he approached the office and his role. And that was a total surprise to me. And then-
JW: Let’s align something though. You brought up Gerald Ford, I actually have been to his birth place, a great place to visit. That’s one thing I want people to take away. If you go to Presidential and listen to this podcast, go to some of these places once you’re able to travel about a little more freely, and look at where these men had their lives been started, for example. Lillian, to me what it is, it says that they may have been born in mediocrity, some of them very poorly, like my favorite president. I’ll let you guess who that’s going to be. But they called him the old log splitter, the old rail splitter, you know who I’m talking about. I would say to you that Lillian’s got a great one with Gerald Ford, only because he came at such a time of division in our country. Not to talk politics, but kind of where we are today, Lillian. Mister Biden’s got a pretty tough job ahead of him, wouldn’t you say?
LC: Yeah. I mean, I think that division, it’s another thing you learn very acutely as you sort of go on the march through American history and the presidency, is just division has been part of this country’s DNA since the very beginning. And we’ve certainly had times that are worse and times that are better. But it’s baked into the name of our country, the United States. So, it’s this idea of a collection of disparate interests that, you know, there was this sort of herculean effort in a way that the world hadn’t seen before, to try to combine them and unite them, so I think that’s been a challenge every single president has had to wrestle with, is how to acknowledge and appreciate all the differences in the country. At the same time letting unity also be a glue that binds us. Gerald Ford certainly had that challenge and had the added challenge of not expecting he would ever be in that role, not having run for president himself. It was a challenge that sort of fell in his lap and about the biggest challenge you could have.
JW: That is a great one too, Gerald Ford. I couldn’t have thought of Gerald Ford. But now have you guessed who my president is, is historically my favorite?
JW: Nope, nope. You’re close. Abraham Lincoln.
LC: Oh, oh yes.
JW: Every trip, so I do always recall you were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in that very cold morning as the sun rose you opened your podcast episode that way. And I pictured myself standing where the great Reverend Martin Luther King stood to give his I Have a Dream speech. I stand on that spot, I look across the reflection pool at the Washington Monument every time I go to Washington and I think how grateful we should be as citizens to have this type of country that we can build on. We’re not perfect, but we are much better than most countries across the globe. We got through Presidential, tell me who, without disparaging anybody, tell me who your favorite guest would have been on all of those episodes, all 45?
LC: Ooh, wow.
JW: You know, I’m full of questions right?
LC: And I’m not used to being in the hot seat, I usually ask the questions. You know, I mean as you said, there were so many wonderful people who appeared on the podcast. Some of them on a single episode, some people returned for multiple episodes. So, historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, who is just a joy to talk to and an expert across several presidencies. I think actually probably the most memorable conversations and guests for me were a couple of the experts at the Library of Congress. Julie Miller is an expert there on the early presidency, then Barbara Bair sort of takes over around the Jackson period. And then Michelle Krowl is a huge Lincoln expert and really an expert sort of on the later half of the 1800s into really up to actually through Theodore Roosevelt. And those three women spent so much time with me going through the archives, pulling out manuscripts, pulling out old presidential papers. They’re kind of like the guardians of all the presidential documents there. And they are just so dedicated to their work, and they don’t have names that you see in Barnes and Noble because they spend their lives helping other people do research about these presidents. And they don’t write the big, best sellers themselves. But they are just so generous with their time and so enthusiastic about helping other people learn about the presidency that I feel so indebted to them. And I still, I actually just… You know, it’s been four years since I made some of those episodes, but I just emailed back and forth with Michelle Krowl the other day to see how she was doing. I mean, they’re people I’ve stayed in touch with and are just wonderful.
JW: That is awesome. Folks, she did such a great job on Presidential, you’ve got to go listen to all these episodes and include the bonus episodes. But let’s take a talk about a little bit your leadership on the next one. You may have gotten several emails from this guy from the Midwest or Central United States named Jimmy Williams that said, “Hey, I got an idea for a podcast for you.” I’m sure you got thousands of emails of people going, “Hey, here’s something great to do.” How did you decide that we need to work on an episode or two, but it turned out to be way more than that, folks, a whole series on constitutional issues? How’d you decide that?
LC: I mean, that was absolutely an idea from a listener. I finished Presidential thinking at the time that, you know, this was the one podcast I was going to do and it was my big epic podcast and then I would go back to my leadership job at the Post, doing mostly non-audio work. That last episode of Presidential came out and all of a sudden my inbox and my voicemail box were flooded with questions from listeners about what was coming next and suggestions. And one of them was a voicemail from a man in California, he left me the voicemail while he was driving on the freeway, you could hear the cars in the background. And he just said, “I loved your Presidential podcast, I’m so sad it’s over and I was thinking about what is something like Presidential or presidential history that all of us could really use to understand more and that I think you could just do a great job of helping sort of walk us through?” And he said, “And I think it’s the Constitution. I think the passage of different amendments and the change in how we’ve interpreted certain parts of the Constitution over time, it’s sort of in the same vein as Presidential where it’s an education in civics, it’s a public service, it’s something we all feel like we kind of know, but we actually could really use to understand better.” And it was similar to Presidential, where it was like this little light bulb went off for me and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t get his voicemail out of my head. It’s kind of funny because in thinking about how ideas come to you and why you pursue them, I was getting a lot of emails from people who actually, the number one thing people were requesting was that my next podcast be a podcast on first ladies. I would say 70% of the suggestions I got were a first ladies podcast. And I only got this one voicemail about the Constitution, but there was something, you know, I couldn’t necessarily articulate it or rationalize it at the time, but there was something that was just telling me that the podcast on constitutional history just was sort of begging to be done with a certain urgency that I wasn’t quite feeling with the first ladies podcast. Even though there were so many people asking for it. So, I made kind of a tough gut instinct call to just go with the thing that I didn’t actually know tons and tons of people would want to listen to, but that just sort of felt in my heart like the right follow up.
JW: Perhaps maybe, do you recall getting an email from a young man, I say that, I won’t describe the name, but a young man perhaps talking about doing one on the Supreme Court, Lillian? How about that? That’s pretty interesting.
LC: Yes. It is. And that is something that a number of people have asked for and that I would love to do. And I think in a way the Constitutional Podcast was kind of about the Supreme Court, at least parts of it were. But I have thought very hard about doing a podcast entirely on the history of Supreme Court Justices. And I do think that would be wonderful. I hope I get to it at some point.
JW: Oh, I’d love for you… There in Washington D.C. where you reside, you could go up hopefully and interview some of the sitting justices. That would, to me as a listener, would be awesome. Because you don’t ever really get to sit and listen to them speak unless they’re doing a presentation outside their schedule. And that’s always interesting. So, then you said, “Hey, you know what? I’ve got two successful podcasts.” So, I’ve got to ask you a little deeper question now, Lillian. What was your childhood like? Were you always this creative? You wrote stuff, you came up with these ideas as a child and had the coolest looking notebook in junior high? Tell me how you got to this point of wanting a career in journalism?
LC: Well, I grew up in the middle of New York City. My mom is a nurse and she had grown up on Long Island, right outside of the city. My dad ran a racketball court and he grew up in a really tiny military town in Alabama. They had pretty different backgrounds themselves, but I grew up in a 40-story apartment building right in the middle of Manhattan. And I guess I would say I was always creative. I mean, I always loved writing, I always loved the arts and music. But it took me a while to realize that journalism was actually the right career path for me. I was all over the map with my interests, really up through college. You know, I’m still all over the map with my interests, if you look at some of the things I do. I’m just curious about the world and I want to learn new things, and so I’ve always been pulled in a million directions. And it was only when I took a course in my third year of college that was taught by a visiting professor who was an editor at the Chicago Tribune and it was a non-fiction writing class, basically a journalism class. And that was the first time that I realized this is kind of a perfect marriage of all my interests. You get to be a perpetual student, really. You get to do tons of research, you get to go out in the world and meet people and learn things, you get to help digest information and explain it to people. It calls on writing skills and problem solving skills. So that was… Looking back, it’s a revelation maybe I should’ve had a lot earlier in life because it fit my personality and my interests. But it just didn’t even occur to me until my 20s.
JW: So I got the big question here, that is a wonderful background on you. But the real question I know our listeners are going to want to hear, how are you on the racketball court, kiddo?
LC: It’s like the cobbler’s children.
JW: Oh, no.
LC: I’m not very good.
JW: Do you even play? Do you play at all?
LC: Not these days. When my sister and I were younger, we would go over there and we would play. But we never got too serious about it. It was always just kind of the fun thing we did while we were hanging out with our dad and waiting for him to finish up at work.
JW: I might need to talk to your dad. I’ve been playing some racketball, because you know we can’t go very far. So, you get into playing sports. I’ve been a sports guy all my life, baseball, basketball, whatever we had, I played. And I always excelled at sports, but this racketball thing is a little tougher on me. Because it’s quick.
LC: It is, it’s tough.
JW: I mean, you got to be quick. And if you can’t tell, I’m on Zoom with her today, I’m a very, very taut, but six foot two, kind of tall. So, you play these shorter guys, Lillian, they kill me on this cut throat stuff. But anyway. So, tell me a little bit about, let’s go down that road. So, you went on to get your master’s in journalism there at Northwestern. Did you feel like hey, maybe I want to be a teacher of this, I want to be at the college level? You said you’re a lifetime learner, did that ever cross your mind to maybe lead in the classroom?
LC: I think it’s a thing that has started crossing my mind now. But at the time, I felt like I couldn’t possibly turn around and start teaching something that I hadn’t… I had studied academically, but hadn’t sort of lived in practice myself. And I wanted to be a reporter, I wanted to work in a newsroom, I wanted to write stories, and I do think if I look ahead, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a time where I at least spend a bit of time teaching classes or figuring out ways to just impart some of what I’ve learned. But I do love the practice of it myself, and it’s been hard during the pandemic, of course, working from home. But in general, newsrooms are sort of unlike any other environment. The energy of them and the comradery. And they’re just really special places to be. I’m looking forward to being in one for many more years.
JW: Well, that is a great story. So I’ve got to ask a tough question now. You know, I asked you who your favorite president was, this is going to get a little closer to home. The Washington Post, my goodness, what a historic publication that you’re involved with now. And you’re doing a great job in the leadership role. I want to give you a title, I hope your editors are listening to this when they get the final edits. I’m going to call you the Chief Audio Officer, because I think you do all the podcasts that I listen to at Washington Post that are outstanding. There are some others out there that are very good, of course. Tell me this, who is the mentor, your modern day mentor that really inspires Lillian Cunningham to continue to grow, develop and strive to be even better?
LC: I think actually there are a lot of people who fit into that category for me. On a professional level I would say one of the greatest mentors I’ve had is actually an editor I had before I got to the Washington Post, who, in really my first real job out of journalism school just saw the potential I had, saw my work ethic, my enthusiasm and really, I mean, even though I’ve left that publication, has just continued to stay in touch with me and really cheer me on from the sidelines. I think to me, that’s a huge part of mentorship, is knowing that the person isn’t just sort of playing that role because it’s part of their job description and really knowing that on a just sort of deeper human level this is a person who cares about your life, your development, your growth. And even if you leave the place where they work, they still care enough about you and seeing you succeed that they’ll continue to be there for you as a mentor. So I’ve experienced that. And I think there are also plenty of people who we don’t classically think of in mentor roles, but I have a good friend who I’ve had since kindergarten who, she’s my age, she doesn’t necessarily have any more life experience than I do. But she’s just such a wonderful sounding board when I’m at a fork in my career or trying to figure out how to align personal values with professional goals. And I actually think of her as a mentor too. She has a different perspective than I do, but she understands who I am and she wants to help me get to the best of who I am. And she’s just been a kind of guiding light for me at various points throughout my life.
JW: Well, I got to tell you Lillian, I have several mentors, like you, professionally and personally. But one of my mentors professionally is only a year older than me. He’s just, like you said, a different life path, took a different route, came from a different background. For us as lifetime learners, and I’m going to cast you in that category because I believe you are as well. We look to seek out information, ideas and just creativity from other people that have had a different experience in life. So I tell people, this is why it’s important for you to go out and socialize, which we’ve not been able to do with COVID, I get that. But get on podcasts, listen to people’s experiences, like you have through your podcasts. Now, I want to take you to your third podcast that I really enjoyed because one of my more recent favorite presidents, I’m just going to give it up right here, Mister John Kennedy. I just thought if he had made it through his two terms as president just where would we be as a country? That’s one of those things. So, Moonshot is the name of your third podcast. And man, it was interesting. A lot of detail, a lot of NASA information. Tell me what brought that up. That’s a far cry from Constitutional to Moonshot. Tell me about that.
LC: Yes. Yeah, I think a lot of people expected, when I said I was going to do a third podcast, they thought, “Okay, the presidency, the Constitution…” People’s heads sort of went next to maybe a supreme court podcast, maybe a podcast on the Congress, which were all great ideas that would’ve made a lot of sense. But yet again, I got an email from a listener after I finished Constitutional who said, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of reading about all the Apollo missions.” And I guess at the time it was 2018, and so he noted, “Coming up in 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, 1969. And there are a lot of Apollo astronauts who have passed away or who are very late in life and wouldn’t this be a wonderful moment to sort of look back at that achievement and talk to those of them who are still surviving?” Again, it caught my eye because it was different from all the other emails I was seeing. I loved the fact that it was sort of a surprising new direction to go in. And to me, it actually still shared a lot of what I think Presidential and Constitutional both had, which was a desire to look back at part of America’s history and ask questions about what can we still learn today from it? And to sort of explore the value of revisiting a story and particularly sort of a leadership story, a transformative story in the country’s history. I just got hooked on that idea. And you know, in addition to all the other things I was interested in when I was young, I had dreams of being an astronaut. So, it’s like oh great, I can learn more about space. So, the idea of Moonrise was born and I actually I would say in terms of my process, I spent more time thinking about the right way to sort of explore that story than I did with any other project I’ve done. Because I knew that there were going to be a bunch of other anniversary specials coming out in a 50th anniversary year. And I just, I really wanted to make sure that there was something different about the value I could bring in sort of re-exploring this story than what you could get if you watched any other history special or listened to any other sort of podcast special about it. The approach I took was pretty different. I didn’t really focus on the astronauts much at all, I focused to a large degree on John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, the roles that they played and the decisions that they made that affected the course of the decision to go to the moon. And then I also looked at some interesting things like the history of science fiction and the way that the rise of science fiction in popular culture in America also played into not only our desire to go to space, but our ability to sort of envision how we might get there and why that might be exciting. So, I pulled together a bunch of sort of different threads that I felt like were part of the story, but that often kind of get left out a bit from just the astronauts’ story of going to the moon.
JW: You know, one of the great things I always talk about with people when I go speak at companies or associations across the country, I always talk about how goals, that they don’t make you stretch, don’t change you as a person. And I’ve got to say, now there’s a correlation, Lillian, between your Moonshot as your third podcast and your career that came out of, “Hey, I’m going to do a podcast, I’m not sure what it’s going to do.” And look at the success you’ve had. So, I would say to you, whether you meant for it to happen or not, the success of your first two podcasts and then Moonshot, I think has done a tremendous amount to get your name out, if you will, in the media. And that’s important for a career as a journalist. Obviously we want people to read what we write. We want the attention of those readers across the world. And I applaud you, all three of those podcasts are outstanding, in my opinion. And I’m not just saying that because she’s going to sign a free copy of something to send me. No, I’m just kidding. She does a great job on it. I’ve got a couple more questions and then I want to wrap this up because I know your time’s valuable. Let’s talk just a little bit about the next phase of the career of Lillian Cunningham. What does that look like? What are your big, hairy, audacious goals now that you’ve had these great podcasts, you’ve won Emmys. I mean, where do you go next?
LC: It’s a question I’m thinking a lot about. I guess I’m always thinking about it, to be honest. I’m one of those people who, to my dismay maybe, I have a very hard time just living in the present. My head is always in the future. I’m always thinking about the next thing I’m going to do and how to pull it off. And particularly around the time of a new year I always think of as a good moment to reevaluate those things. So I mean, in the short term, I think the next step for me is a fourth podcast on a topic to be determined, but that… As with each of the ones I’ve done, I’ve sort of set a harder challenge for myself.
JW: Are you going to let me break the scoop here today? I mean, can you give me the topic?
LC: I wish I could, but I honestly don’t know what it is yet. So, if people are listening to this and have a great idea, I promise I listen to good suggestions. And I would love if you emailed me with your suggestions.
JW: And folks, we’ll have her email information for her office, not her personal of course, her email for her office will be in the show notes. So, we’ll get you some good suggestions. We have thousands of people in 27 countries, we’ll find you something.
LC: Great, yes.
JW: But hey, if we could break it here on our platform, we’re glad to do that, Lillian. So, if you have any idea.
LC: I honestly, I would tell you if I knew. But it is the big question racking my brain right now is what I should do next. Because the thing is, that these projects all take about a year to pull together and pull off. And I’m happy to spend that time, but it means you have to make some really hard choices because whatever you decide to do, means there are a whole bunch of other things you’re interested in doing, that there’s no way you’re going to be able to even think about doing for 12 months. So, I always take it really seriously, the decision of, “Okay, what am I going to spend a whole year of my life diving into?”
JW: I know it’s hard to believe this, Steve Jobs, the ground founder of Apple that lost his role in the company and then came back and saved literally Apple from demise. He had said something that you just brought up to me that I use all the time. “I have to say 1,000 no’s to find the one yes that I really know is important and vital to the success and growth of this company.” That’s what you’re doing really on a personal level. You’re going, I need to find that one vital item that will move me forward. So, I got to ask the hard question then, here it comes, your last one. Are you ready?
LC: All right.
JW: What word of advice would you give to our listeners, particularly those women in leadership roles or that are now preparing to be next in leadership roles in the future, what word of advice would you give them that’s been helpful to you?
LC: Well, I think just sort of coming out of our discussion already, I am a big believer in focusing your energy on big, important things that really matter to you. And I think that’s a very hard thing to do in a world and an age where we’re sort of constantly barraged by not just different demands, but different opportunities. And I think especially for a lot of people who work hard and care about helping out other people and don’t like the idea of saying no to colleagues who are asking for something or strangers who are requesting time that it’s a really hard thing to do. But I think in the most kind of gracious way possible, you have to get comfortable with taking some things off your plate that are just small in the scheme of things, and creating that space for bigger things that are really meaningful.
LC: It’s a really hard thing to do, but every time I’ve done it, I haven’t regretted it. It has always led to my best work when I’ve said, “You know what? Instead of pursuing a million little stories, I’m going to just focus on this one big story and pour my heart into it.” And I guess that’s my best piece of advice, is saying no to things doesn’t mean being rude or being ungracious. It just means understanding there’s only so much time in your day and only so much life you get to live. And ultimately you try to choose things where they’re going to have even more impact and meaning for other people because you’re able to give them your real energy.
JW: That is great advice. We talked about this on a previous episode, we’re on episode 92 now, Lillian. It’s been a great ride for us. But we talked about those big rocks. What Lillian’s saying today folks, is really the truth. Focus your most important time, energy and effort on those big rocks that quote, “move the needle of life” and make changes that help make people’s lives better. That’s what Lillian’s doing. Hey, I’ve got to ask one small favor, Lillian, before we go. I understand there’s a great book out that our listeners may pick up. We’re going to put it in the show notes along with a copy of the cover, but I believe it’s called the Riches of this Land. Now, do you know the author of that book or you got any kind of contact with him?
LC: You know, I have a hookup for him. He’s working downstairs right now as I record this. Yeah, my husband Jim Tankersley was a reporter at the Washington Post, he’s now a reporter at the New York Times. But a couple months ago he published his first book called the Riches of this Land, which is… Obviously I’m biased in this regard, no other way as a journalist am I biased. But in this regard, I am biased. But he’s a beautiful writer and a really smart, thoughtful person. His book is about the history of the American middle class and is in some ways I think a love note to everyone in America and to the idea of the American Dream. And he’s also, he reports on economic policy, so a lot of really smart insights in there about what it will take to get the American class engine really revved up again in the United States. So, it’s a great book.
JW: Yeah, we want to help him do our part, we’re going to put that information in our show notes, if that’s okay with Jim.
LC: Yeah, he would love that I’m sure.
JW: Maybe any chance I could get maybe an autographed copy? I’ll send a check to buy the book, but I just want an autographed copy and maybe he can even get his partner in crime to sign her name to it as well somewhere.
LC: Will do.
JW: Lillian, you’ve been a great guest today. It’s so fun to have you on the show, great information, great stories. I regret we only have today, I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, I’ve got a lot going into Christmas. Anything special you’re going to get for Christmas for Jim that I can leak out after the holiday? Anything special he doesn’t know about?
LC: Ooh, you know, if you have suggestions, email me at Lillian.Cunningham… No, I’m kidding. I also take suggestions for gift ideas for people.
JW: That’s exactly it. Well, I’ll do my best to send you some emails about some things I know he would enjoy. But do me a favor take good care of yourself, it’s always a pleasure to hear your voice, whether it’s on a podcast or in person. I want to thank you that you never say no to me when I send an email, so you’re a kind lady, I appreciate that. Wish you all the best on your future endeavors. And of course our listeners and me will be watching and listening, so thank you for joining us.
LC: Thanks so much.
JW: What a wonderful conversation. Lillian has seen so much in her career as a very young leading woman in the world of journalism. But you focused on a few things I hope, throughout this interview. She had four areas that I would say helped her to stay focused and reach for the stars, if you’ll pardon the pun about the Moonshot podcast. But she talked about the power of hard work. Now, she didn’t just say, “Hey, I’m a hard worker.” It’s the power of hard work. It’s that reflection of your work in the outcomes that you produce. It’s the passion that she brings to what she is doing. You heard her say that she has to say no to several items on her list or requests from people to say yes to that one big, hairy, audacious goal, that one item that’ll really, quote serve the most people, move the needle type of process. So, she focuses on those big rocks. And then she had one that I really love, and you’ve heard it here before on our podcast. But the power of ideas. This is where we sent men to the moon. When President Kennedy gave the country its big, hairy, audacious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth, that was before we even had computers that could even fly airplanes that distance. He was wanting us to stretch our capabilities as a country and the goal was not just met, but then exceeded as we came out, not just with rockets, but with shuttles that go to and from the moon and the International Space Station. Those are big goals that you too can make. My challenge to you this week is look at your 2021 goals, and I hope you have them, your 2021 goals and look at what of those goals are the biggest rocks that will move the needle, that will transform you as a person, that will help you elevate your influence to those around you. That more people see the positivity in your voice and your actions. They understand that you as a person are now different based on the fact that you are doing something far more exciting and you are quote, helping others see a bigger, better and bolder you. So, why not? Go out and live your life the way you wish. Or as we like to say on this show, live a life by design.