Interview: Liz Dolan of Safe for Work

Liz Dolan Safe for Work(Credit: Wondery)

Liz Dolan is a co-host of Safe of Work, a workplace advice podcast produced by Wondery. She is also a host — alongside her four sisters — of Satellite Sisters, a weekly radio program turned podcast that has been giving “pep talks for modern women” for 18 years and running. We spoke with Liz about our changing work culture, the thrill of taking live listener calls, and the unique advantages podcasts have over radio shows.

You’ve had a very storied career in business, serving as Chief Marketing Officer of Nike, the Oprah Winfrey Network, National Geographic, and Fox Sports. When did you first think of giving podcasting a try?

Liz Dolan: Well, I first had a radio show called Satellite Sisters and we were syndicated nationally by ABC. But when ABC radio went away, in around 2007, our radio show went with it. We continued to produce Satellite Sisters, but as a podcast. So I’ve been podcasting for more than 10 years. What I love about Safe for Work, however, is that it’s a completely different kind of show that really takes advantage of today’s technology. We have the ability to take live calls, to really listen and talk to people. Safe for Work is my second podcast, but it has a very different purpose.

Is it ever a concern that you have only one chance to tape something if it’s a live call?

Yes! Sometimes we call people when they’re busy at work, and we can’t exactly record a conversation with them while their colleagues are sitting right next to them. This is especially the case when they want to talk about their boss who’s a bully or their toxic coworker. But compared to reading letters on air, it’s great to be able to ask someone a follow-up question so that the conversation can be more meaningful. Getting feedback in the moment from the person asking a question is really satisfying. Half the time they say, “You know what? Hearing you say it makes it so obvious.” That always makes me laugh. Most good advice doesn’t come out of left field. Most good advice is something you knew in your heart of hearts, but that you just couldn’t say out loud.

For a number of reasons, many of your callers don’t like their jobs. Your advice often involves giving them the courage to make an exit. Do you think that’s too common today — people sticking around in bad jobs?

I think people stick around in bad jobs longer than they should, but I also think people job hop more than they should. It depends on what your goals are, but people should not stick around in a job that’s making them miserable. Figure out what would make you happy, and start to move yourself in that direction. That said, I try not to just tell people, “Quit that job! Just go in and resign next week.” People get so frustrated that that’s often what they want to do. So I have to talk them into staying a little bit longer to get themselves organized before they pull the trigger.

That makes a lot of sense. It’s said that younger generations have taken to job-hopping. Do you think it’s a generational trend?

I think it’s generational, but it’s also perfectly healthy. If you look at the parents of baby boomers, they often stayed in one job their entire career. Then baby boomers moved around a little bit more and progressively people have felt freer to make those choices. I think younger people now feel much more in command of their work lives, which is a really positive development. They’re super entrepreneurial, they’re willing to take risks, and they’re trying to find a balance that takes into account what really makes them happy. These are all good developments.

I’ve quite enjoyed your honesty on the show. You let callers know very quickly if they’re being off-base or unreasonable. I’m thinking of the woman who expected a promotion after two weeks or the guy who was routinely setting up meetings with his company’s executives without telling his boss. Does that always come easily, voicing your thoughts and maybe coming down on people to some extent?

Let’s talk about that woman who wanted to get promoted after two weeks. These calls come in first as emails, and when Matt and I read that one we wanted to say “Really? You think you’ve put in enough time after two weeks?” But that’s not a very empathetic position to take. You have to avoid that. And once we talked to her, you could better understand her thought process. She had taken a step down into a job where she hoped that the position above her would open up in several years, and it ended opening up in several weeks. Once I had her on the phone—and that’s the great difference between a letter and a phone call—I could completely understand why she felt the way she did.

The other example you used, of the guy who wanted to network all over his company and was setting up meetings with senior executives while trying to hide that information from his own immediate boss — that was one where it was hard for me to be understanding. That’s not the way the world works. You can’t go making secret meetings behind your boss’s back. I know you’re trying to get to know people around the company, but there has to be a bit of respect for the chain of command. He was in a very hierarchical company but trying to buck the hierarchy. That’s not a good recipe for happiness.

Let me ask you about one of my favorite sections of Safe for Work, “The Gap,” where you and Matt [Ritter] fire off opinions about a number of workplace trends. You two disagree about a number of things, whether it’s standing desks or emailing on the weekend, but I guess that’s the point. What do you think the difference is between your view of the workplace and Matt’s?

My work experience is that I’ve led this double life through a lot of my career. Much of it has been corporate where I’ve been a senior executive in big corporations like Nike, Fox, or National Geographic. I always had the security of being in a corporate job that was working for me, that I enjoyed doing. Matt’s career has been different. Matt went to law school, started in Big Law, and it didn’t take him very long to figure out that it wasn’t his calling. So he jumped from law to entertainment, where you’re always spinning a lot of plates. That’s much more of a gig economy experience than I’ve had. I think his combination of work right now is much more common, where people always have a couple of different things they’re doing.

A lot has definitely changed, not least of which is radio. It’s rare that we talk to someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. How has the shift from radio to podcasting been?

What’s fantastic about podcasting is that you can really express your personal vision for whatever you want to put out into the world. You can decide that you have something to say, and then you can go say it. That was never possible on terrestrial radio, where there are a limited number of hours in a day, so you can’t just turn on a mic and start talking. I love that about podcasting, the fact that it allows a diversity of opinions and a diversity of people to put their thoughts out into the world. That’s fantastic. Also, part of the reason Satellite Sisters is called that is because it required an actual satellite. We were in studios in New York, LA, Portland, and Moscow. ABC fed all of that into their operations center in New York, but that required an actual satellite. Now all you need is a microphone and a laptop. That’s been so liberating, and makes for shows that are more fun and spontaneous than terrestrial radio could ever offer.

Do you think we’ll see more business leaders start podcasts?

Well, let’s say you’re a CEO and you just want your employees to know how you really think about something. To do that in a podcast is a very personal and effective way to communicate with the people inside your company. But also if you have big ideas that you want to put out into the world, you can create a show like Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale, where he talks to other CEOs. I enjoy listening to that. It seems to me that soon every CEO and every comedian in the world will have their own podcast.

On that note, what’s your advice for people trying to make podcasts on their own?

The number one thing is to really think about who your listener is. You have this message you want to get out there. But who is it that’s ready to receive your message? Podcasts can have a sort of message-in-a-bottle quality to them. It can feel like you’re just putting a piece of paper in a bottle and throwing it into the sea, not knowing where it will end up. But if you’ve really thought a lot about who you’re talking to, it makes your content land more effectively, and it helps on the promotion side. How are you going to get this out to people? Are you using social media to do that? Do you have material that lends itself to doing a live show? Should you have a blog that supports the podcast? My advice is know what your message is and to know the audience for it. Those are the two must haves. The rest of it, you just need to invent.

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Jack Conway is Podcast Review‘s editor.