A Balancing Act – a Leadership Talk with Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson
By Anna Harrison, FN alum '21
Last month, Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson sat down for a talk with FUTURE NOW’s CEO and Founder, Peggy Kim. Laguerre-Wilkinson’s storied career has included a 15-year stint at 60 Minutes, which garnered her the Peabody and the Emmys that now adorn her office. Today, she is the Vice President of News Programming at Nickelodeon and the Executive Producer of Nick News.
Laguerre-Wilkinson’s career path was formed from a young age. “I came from a very politically active Haitian family, so growing up there was always a radio on or a newspaper stacked up,” she explained. Shows like 60 Minutes were her “background noise.” And so, it was no surprise when after her freshman year of college, she landed an internship at a Fox 5 station in New York that quickly became a permanent job.
“Just being in that really electric environment… that was it. I was sold. I loved it,” Laguerre-Wilkinson said. Every day brought new challenges, and she met them head-on. After working at Fox 5 for several years, she moved on into positions at MSNBC and NBC before landing at 60 Minutes, where news legends like Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, and Bob Simon walked the hallowed halls.
Laguerre-Wilkinson traveled the world jumping on planes at a moment’s notice to cover stories and lived the journalist’s life of long days and sleepless nights. But, after having her first child while working at NBC, she had to rethink her career.
“My move to 60 Minutes was both the realization of a dream…and also [rethinking] how we’re going to do this thing called parenthood and have a career at the same time,” she told listeners. While last-minute flights to cover developing stories became (slightly) less common, Laguerre-Wilkinson took a title demotion and a pay cut to spend more time with her family.
Still, her days of gallivanting to far-off places were far from over—Laguerre-Wilkinson made the hard decision to cut her maternity leave short to be the one to interview Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, with whom she had fostered a professional relationship over several years.
“I left a barely six-week newborn in New York [and] I took a breast pump with me,” Laguerre-Wilkinson admitted. “Is this really all worth it?” she wondered. “This is madness.” But she “did it again about a month after in Venezuela,” and has always strived to maintain both her career and her family, even if it has sometimes been a hard balance to strike.
Has she had any desire to switch fields after so many years working in such a demanding arena? Laguerre-Wilkinson’s answer was equal parts practical and poetic. “I have a husband and children and a family depending on me,” she pointed out. But, more than that, she added, “Every time my mind wanders off to this next thing that I would do, it always circles back to this.”
It’s stories like Joy in the Congo, which she produced, that remind her of why she does what she does. It was that piece that netted her the awards perched on her desk (Laguerre-Wilkinson’s Peabody acceptance speech can be seen here) and the story remains one of her proudest accomplishments.
She pitched the segment to her boss after learning about an orchestra in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that was conducted by a former airline pilot. The pilot couldn’t sight-read music when he started, but now, he was leading a full-fledged orchestra.
“We just knew we had something when we came back,” Laguerre-Wilkinson recounted. At the first screening, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” and Joy in the Congo would go on to touch the hearts of the Peabody and Emmy voters as well.
When she was presented the opportunity to become Vice President of News Programming at Nickelodeon, Laguerre-Wilkinson was excited to take on the challenge of serving a different and much younger audience.
“There is no guidebook to either job,” Laguerre-Wilkinson admitted, but her years at 60 Minutes had prepared her well. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here—it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s just the language and the delivery [is] done in a different way.”
Part of her success at Nickelodeon stems from the fact that she doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. If adult news stations discussed the death of George Floyd and resulting cultural shifts, so would Nick News.
Laguerre-Wilkinson also spearheaded a segment on environmental racism, and though some accused Nickelodeon of “indoctrinating kids,” she is adamant that “there is never opinion in anything I do.”
“There’s always going to be somebody unhappy out there… but I’m not making it up,” she said. “We’re telling the story. We have people living there and dealing with these things.”
The integrity of the journalism profession has come under fire in recent years as cultural divides have grown, and the line between journalism and punditry or commentary has become more blurred.
“There used to be a time in news…where there was commentary at the end of a program, and [the channel] would call it that.” Laguerre-Wilkinson told listeners how critical it is to keep that distinction clear.
As the conversation turned towards leadership, Laguerre-Wilkinson described her style as very hands-on and emphasized the importance of mutual respect. “I’ve always known through the years what I won’t do [as a leader], because I think that an unhappy person gives you poor results by denying people a chance or not respecting what some of their personal situations might be,” she said.
Having been subject to poor leadership at times throughout her career, Laguerre-Wilkinson works hard to be the type of leader she would want to be led by. Good leadership through empathy and understanding “makes people a bit inclined to do more,” and as a result, her staff “are coloring out of the lines in a good way… they want to be a part of this.”
Looking back at her younger self, Laguerre-Wilkinson had two pieces of advice: pick your battles and don’t say yes to everything. “There are certain things you can put your foot down about,” she said.
Doing too much too fast may lead to burnout, even if it’s hard to say “no” when just starting out in the industry. But being a “yes man” may create more stress down the road. “I’d rather do three things at 100%... then say yes to 15 things that are all just going to be ‘meh’ or ‘mediocre,’” she said.
Wise words for our future leaders…100%!