The day it was announced that Mishal Husain would join BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2013, I received multiple texts from female friends saying "YES! Mishal is the best! Well done the BBC!" She was the first ever Muslim presenter on the programme and at 40, the youngest ever, too. She was cool, smart and she changed Radio 4 – at least for me – from something my parents banged on about incessantly, to something I banged on about incessantly.
Over the last five years presenting the 6am to 9am radio show, as well as the Sunday evening news on BBC One, Mishal has shown us fire, grit and guts in her interview style, unwavering determination and a formidable work ethic that gets her up at 3am on weekdays to be in the studio by 4am, preparing for the show.
Alongside this workload and three young children, Mishal has written a book called The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job, What Every Woman Needs to Know, out now and published by 4th Estate. Drawing on her own experiences, it offers seasoned advice on how to carry yourself professionally as a woman through the many challenges and criticisms of a high-powered career.
Growing up between Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Kent, Mishal studied law at Cambridge before starting her career in journalism as a producer at Bloomberg TV. She did very well, very quickly, and joined the BBC at 25, four years later becoming the corporation's Washington correspondent covering the Iraq war. Nicknamed the BBC's 'golden girl', her career trajectory is difficult to relate to, but she is relatable – much more so with the publication of this book, where she admits to feeling terrified on her first day and to the nerves that come with interrogating world leaders live in front of seven million people.
Here's how to weather storms and make the very best use of the time you have available, from the woman with the scariest job in media.
How did you find the time to write this book?
On a practical level, it was really hard to fit it in around the day job and family commitments, so there were times when I kept Today programme timings even when I wasn’t on air. When you have children of school age, your day is very short, so sometimes I would get up at 4 and work for two hours before they got up. Often they were the most productive hours of the day. Around the time I started writing, I met [novelist and BBC reporter] Robert Harris and, I can’t remember the exact words he used, but words to the effect of: don’t try to write the perfect line or the perfect paragraph, just write, because when you look back on something you thought you rushed off and compare it with something you spent a lot of time perfecting, they’re actually likely to be very similar.
You talk about a five-year plan and the importance of short-term and long-term goals in the book. Have you always planned for the future in this way?
There was a period in my late 20s where a lot of exciting things happened in my career in quick succession and I look back on that now and realise that I became quite reliant on being asked to do interesting things and on new things coming my way, rather than having to push for them. It was only later on, in my 30s, that I started to think things were stalling and I needed to learn how to aim for the next stage. I had a really good job at BBC World and I loved the international news but I thought, 'Okay, I’ve probably got one more big thing in terms of the lifespan of a career, and if I’m aiming for those sorts of programmes [like Today] I need to work out now how I’m going to get there, because those jobs are not going to suddenly land in my lap'.
You say it took a long time before you started to enjoy presenting the Today programme. How did you get through that period?
When I got the job on the Today programme, it was absolutely extraordinary but I was full of apprehension. I thought, 'I've got this amazing job but am I going to be able to do it?' I put a lot of sobering research into the book about the perceptions of women and how women might be perceived against comparable men, because it’s important to remember when you find things tough that it’s not just about you or your capacity – or lack of capacity. Had I stopped doing Today at any point in those first three years, I would have looked back on it and thought, 'That was really hard, maybe it wasn't for me'. But now I can look back and think, 'God, those first three years were really hard because it's a hard job – and one that's full of scrutiny'.
I don’t want to sit back, I want to be on the edge of my seat.
There’s a lot about about pushing yourself, and challenging yourself to do scary things in the book. Can you ever just get comfortable in a job?
I remain afraid of getting too comfortable because I think that’s the point where it could be all taken away from me. Although I’m able to say I enjoy working on the Today programme now, even that has a degree of comfort, and I don’t want to sit back, I want to be on the edge of my seat. You want to move on on your own terms, before other people start thinking, ‘Haven’t they done that for a long time’ or before everything gets a bit stale. In most jobs, there’s a period where you see things and you’re really effective, and then there’s often a period (although this is not the case for everyone) where you go on for too long and you probably don’t have the same level of energy or insight as you did when you saw that world with fresh eyes. I think you definitely want to be the one asking yourself the question, 'Should I be thinking of something else?' rather than feeling like other people are looking at you in that way.
How do you avoid burnout?
In my job, the perils are so obvious and the working hours are so shocking, that you have to pace yourself. I'm really quite militant about my diary, I won't go out at night before I do an early shift. There are times when I can't say no – for instance if there's a big breaking news story, then I disappear and I don't have any sleep for days, but I can do that once in a while, I can run myself ragged for that period of time. But as far as possible, I try and pace things out because I know I'll pay a price, and my family will pay a price. Who knows what kind of capacity we have throughout our lives? That’s not to say I will never go through the kinds of things I've seen some of my colleagues, and other people, go through, but I do try and guard against it in a practical way at least, as much as I can. If you're a reasonably effective person, a lot of interesting things will come your way. It's that classic mantra: if you want something done, you ask a busy person. There are certain kinds of people who get loaded with doing everything in the office or everything people want done, and if you are one of those people, you have to be very strict with yourself.
Do you ever find it hard to concentrate at work, or feel an urge to procrastinate?
Procrastination is much less of an issue working on a programme like Today because we only have between 4 and 6 in the morning to prepare, and I've learned to my cost that if I daydream even for five minutes, that was five minutes I really needed to be reading that brief rather than staring at my screen. As a journalist, I find it hard to do my best work without being up against a tight deadline – a tight deadline forces it out of you.
What advice would you give women who suspect they might be being paid less than male counterparts but don’t know for sure?
Usually, there are one or two colleagues you can trust and confide in, who probably, equally, would like to know where they are on a pay scale. They could be your direct peers, or someone above you. Start with a really small circle and just try and gather some information, internally and externally. These conversations [with bosses about pay] fill most people with dread, but try and take the emotion out of it, try and depersonalise it. You don't have to make it a big dramatic thing of 'Aren't I worth more than this?' You should root it firmly in your achievements – 'In the last year, I have done all of these things. This is what I'm planning to do in the next year' – so that it's not about judgements or value or worth, it's about much more concrete things which are harder for them to disagree with, and easier for you to put forward.
At the start of a new job, how can you resist the urge to take on everything in an attempt to prove yourself?
There will be some people to whom you need to prove yourself more than others. Maybe it's your immediate boss, maybe it's their boss. Try to make sure that the work you do is filed or recognised in some way. We ourselves forget over a period of time what it is we did, let alone what it is we did that was good, so find ways to register it, keep a file, because when it comes to your appraisal, you want to be able to quickly remember the most important things you've done that year.
Now I'm not trying to beat the nerves, I just see it as part of raising my game.
If you could fast-track your 20-year-old self with one key life skill, which skill would you give yourself?
In my 20s I definitely thought, 'If something slips away now, it's gone forever'. There were jobs I saw my colleagues get in my 20s and I thought 'Why didn't I get that?' So I would tell myself what I know now, which is that if you are good at what you do, you will find your way and it may be in a slightly different route to how you imagine, but the key thing is just to carry on being good at what you do, because I think more responsibility comes to those who are effective at what they do already. It would have been no use in my 20s to be thinking 'I really want to be a presenter' and actually be a rubbish producer in the meantime. That's not your route to your dream job.
What’s the most nervous you’ve been to interview someone?
I'm nervous all the time. If you tell me I'm going to interview the prime minister in two hours' time, I will feel nervous, but I'll also get down to work straightaway. I may have half an hour, or I may have several days – whatever time I have, I’ll use it to prepare. But who's to say it's going to be a better interview with two days' preparation or two hours' preparation? I'm not sure I could operate without nerves, I need that feeling, that frisson of apprehension that runs through me because it really focuses my mind. And it's been hugely helpful to recognise that, because now I'm not trying to beat the nerves, I just see it as part of raising my game.
Part of your job is to ask very challenging questions to very challenging people. How do you have the confidence to ask those questions?
When I interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013, I asked her about the Rohingya and about what was already evidence of ethnic cleansing underway in Myanmar. It was a really hard question to ask because at that point, she was the world's heroine and it felt like a big step to put her on the spot and ask about something that it was clear she would not want to be asked about. That was not an easy thing to do, but I did it, and I felt I went as far as I could with it. And even though she essentially batted away the question, I'm really glad I asked it at the time I did, because had I not done that, I would now be looking back and kicking myself, saying 'You had the chance to interview Aung San Suu Kyi – and she almost never gives interviews, she’s basically given two interviews in the five years since – and you didn’t ask'. Of course it takes courage to ask difficult questions, but you don't want to look back and think, 'I didn't seize that moment'. I'm in this very privileged position where I get to question the powerful, and very few people are in that sort of position. I also have to be prepared that some of the things I ask will turn out to be the wrong things! You regret the things you ask as well as the things you didn't ask! All of that goes with the territory. No one gets it right all the time.