After a tumultuous and unprecedented eight months at Voice of America at the tail end of the previous administration, during which many high-level employees quit, were fired, were placed on administrative leave or were being investigated by political appointees, Yolanda López was named VOA’s acting director. It was the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
López wasted no time instituting changes to boost morale and increase transparency and communication throughout the agency. In tackling these and other VOA challenges, López demonstrated exceptional leadership, management and problem-solving skills as she sought to shore up and protect VOA’s workforce and find better ways for the agency to operate.
“She has set a really high bar for VOA leadership, and any leadership,” said Kelu Chao, acting chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA. Almost immediately after Chao was named, she promoted López. She is “one of a kind,” Chao said.
Voice of America, which has nearly 1,000 full-time federal employees and more than 1,000 contractors in the U.S. and overseas, most of whom are journalists, serves as a model of a free press, broadcasting news in 47 languages via radio, television and social media platforms.
Until a week and a half before the 2021 inauguration, López served as VOA’s central news director. But on Jan. 13, she was summarily removed from her position, essentially stripping her ability to provide daily editorial oversight. Her removal was interpreted as a reprisal for standing up for VOA’s editorial independence. A coalition of VOA journalists condemned it as a “sudden and unexplained reassignment.”
As documented in multiple lawsuits and official complaints, previous political leadership also ignored appeals to extend visas for reporters around the world that they needed to remain safe; paid millions of dollars for a no-bid contract to investigate members of his own staff; and left many VOA positions unfilled.
“Morale was very low,” said William Baum, a senior advisor at VOA.
All of this happened in the midst of a pandemic that forced VOA employees, like millions around the world, to learn to work remotely, increasing the uncertainty and anxiety in a situation that was already dire. In an effort to improve morale and get her colleagues’ ideas for fixes at VOA, López set up town halls, informal discussion sessions and one-on-one get-togethers; scheduled ongoing strategy meetings; and beefed up training and orientation sessions for the workforce.
The most recent Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey, the first results under Lopez’s leadership, indicates significant improvement between 2020 and 2021. VOA went up 13% on
employee engagement, to 70% from 62%. Notably, the largest improvement was in the category of “leaders lead,” which measures employees’ perceptions of leadership integrity, and leadership behaviors such as communication and workforce motivation. VOA improved by 31% in that area, to 59% from 45%.
“I have never seen anyone so focused on what’s best for the agency,” said Bridget Serchak, director of public relations at VOA. “Standout managers, they just don’t come along every day.”
Without knowing how long she would be in the acting role, López made sure the training she instituted included teaching people how to maintain a firewall between VOA journalists and political appointees, of any party, who attempt to influence their independent reporting.
“Integrity is really important … and leadership encompasses many skills,” Chao said. Following the eight months of turmoil, López “had the talent to lead the organization.” As of April 2022, López was still at the helm, gaining employee trust and elevating morale.
One of López’s major accomplishments came when the U.S. was withdrawing its military from Afghanistan, and the Taliban was taking over the country. She, along with her colleagues,
“She worked miracles,” Baum said. “She networked around the clock, over the weekends. It cannot be underestimated how important that was.”
Afterward, López used what she learned about leading practices for protecting the safety of journalists, including using tracking systems, safe houses and satellite phones, to put together a comprehensive protocol on safety and security for VOA to use in the future. When Russia invaded Ukraine, she immediately put into practice what she
Isis Chaverri, news director at KFTV-Univision Fresno, who worked with López at Univision in Chicago and Los Angeles, described her as fair and ethical, adding, “She cares about her team, she leads by example, and she won’t ask you to do something she won’t do herself.”
She is a calming force, Chaverri said. “It doesn’t matter how stressed she is, she keeps her cool.”
In addition to her other work, López started filling positions that had been left vacant and diversifying VOA’s pool of managers. She set a standard that people who lead journalists in regions around the world should speak at least one of that area’s languages, understand the nuances of those countries and, be familiar with the background of the people they lead, she said.
Colleagues said López is highly collaborative, which leads to buy-in from her staff on the decisions she makes. “She’s always willing to listen to people, Serchak said.
López said she is a firm believer in VOA.
“The mission says that you are running a news organization and that you are promoting democratic values and freedom of the press, and you are providing a voice to the voiceless,” she said. “I can get behind those values.”