In the third Elmore Leadership talk of the year, Zoe Cianciolo ’06 returned to campus to speak with students about her work as a writer for ABC’s Good Morning America and the sometimes circuitous path she took to arrive at a job she loves. During a short, well-received talk and a longer, energetic Q & A session, she told students about how she came to be a writer for a top-rated morning program, what her daily routine entails (arriving at the studio as early as 4 a.m.), and some of the people she’s met on the job (yes, she has met Tom Brady; no, she has never met Derek Jeter).
She has witnessed some funny bloopers (ask a student about the popsicle episode) and has been called upon to do some unexpected things in order to support a particular segment (ask about her city-wide search for beach balls). She talked about some of her most memorable moments, such as the time Emma Thompson visited the show and the Academy Award-winning actress effectively fed her pancakes, and the fact that, though her title is writer, she has to be prepared to do just about anything. In addition to writing copy, she prepares interview questions, does background research, and makes sure anchors are prepared for guests. She meets with guests, makes sure everyone is comfortable, and basically does whatever needs to be done in the moment. “You can’t expect to be doing the same thing every day, which is fun and exciting, and sometimes a little tiring,” she said.
These were some of the questions asked by her very engaged audience:
What was her favorite work experience to date?
Probably the week-long series she wrote and produced on the Wrinkle in Time movie, Zoe said, adding, “It was the first time they ever assigned me a whole series. This was the Wrinkle in Time movie, so it was Oprah and Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon, and it was a big movie for Disney, who owns us. They put the reins in my hand and said, ‘You produce it and write it from top to bottom.’” Zoe said she was nervous but also excited. “It was really fun for me because I like all those people and I liked the book when I was younger and I got to see it through from top to bottom. I was really proud of it, and my bosses liked it, and the anchors complimented me on it. So any time something like that happens – when you get to work on something you’re really proud of – those are my favorite moments.”
Of all the people she has met on the job, who was she most excited to meet?
Zoe answered without hesitation: Julie Andrews, the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins star. “She was like Mary Poppins in real life,” Zoe said. “She gets that people really love her and she’s really gracious and she holds your hand and looks you in the eye. That was really special for me.”
What does she consider the “coolest news story” she’s ever worked on?
Zoe answered that one quickly too. “Probably the election,” she said, meaning the most recent presidential election. “I don’t know if ‘cool’ is the word, but it was very exciting and it was a really good experience because no one knew what was going to happen and what was going on and it was different every day. You kind-of got whiplash from looking back and forth, trying to figure it out. That was really exciting, and it definitely kept me on my toes. … No one had ever seen anything like it, so that was exciting.”
For the students (and for Zoe’s former teachers), these may have been the biggest takeaways from her visit:
1. You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to do with your life when you're a Middle Schooler.
When Zoe left The Country School to attend Choate Rosemary Hall, she was one of the students selected to participate in the highly competitive Arts Concentration, an intense program for students with exceptional talent in the visual or performing arts, featuring a rigorous, arts-infused academic program and some unique, student-designed scheduling. When it came to college, she headed to Tulane University, all set to major in Studio Art. But she started to feel she wasn’t committed enough to make it her career, and so she began exploring other avenues. She took a range of courses, some of which she liked and some of which she didn’t, and eventually enrolled in a class called Women and Media. She was hooked. “I totally loved it,” she told students. “I thought if I can do anything like this, I would be happy.”
2. Embrace rejection.
Zoe’s Women in Media professor had some contacts at MSNBC, and so she suggested Zoe arrange a visit. Zoe took the suggestion, headed to MSNBC, and spent a day meeting all sorts of people, learning about what she hoped might be her first job out of college. But it wasn’t to be. “I fell in love, and I got rejected,” she said. “I did not get the job, but I was also really excited because I found something I wanted to do.”
Zoe didn’t let the rejection stop her. “I stayed in touch with those people,” Zoe said, referring to those she’d met at MSNBC, and she continued to “bother them” with emails. “Some of them ignored me, and a lot of them didn’t,” she said. “Eventually that led to a job as a runner at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.” From there, she had a job working on Rockin’ New Years’ Eve, later landing a position with GMA as a runner. And that, in turn, led to a series of other positions at the morning news program, including segment producer and production coordinator, until, nearly a year and a half ago, she started her current – and to date, favorite – job as a news writer.
Asked by Head of School John Fixx how she managed to be so resilient after her initial MSNBC rejection, Zoe respond this way: “First of all, and I mean this in a really nice way, I came from a family that very much embraced rejection. My parents were really accepting of it and really nice about it, so not having that pressure always helped me. They were like, ‘Cool. You were there you were in the building.’
“I was also so excited to be excited about something,” she continued. “I found a job that I really wanted and that I could see myself doing. … So just having that spark was enough to compensate for the rejection, which wasn’t fun but it’s also life.”
4. Be open to change.
Just as she decided to move away from a long-planned career in studio art in favor of work in television news, Zoe shared examples about some of her Country School friends and their decisions to follow unexpected paths. “I have one friend at Country School who was super shy and really quiet … and now she works in sales and she’s on the phone with people all the time and she’s really good at it and she flies around the country,” Zoe said. “And I have another friend who was going to be a ballerina and she trained really hard and now she’s applying to law school and she’s going to work in immigration. You just have no idea. Just be open to those things changing, because it’s cool.”
Zoe could have answered student questions for another hour (or at least there were enough questions from students to keep the Q & A going for a good long time), but it was dismissal time, so students said goodbye.
Below, students gather around Zoe to ask a few final questions after dismissal.
The next night was our annual Country School auction at Centerbrook Architects, and there was a bidding war for tickets to watch an in-studio broadcast of Good Morning America. Thank you, Zoe, for inspiring so many of our students. Who knows how many in the audience that Friday afternoon are now considering a career in broadcast journalism?
Zoe, who spoke as part of our school-wide Elmore Leadership program, was the third alumnus/a to speak this year. Andrew Epprecht ’13, founder of the company oursock.com, spoke to students in the fall. Ted London ’77, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, spoke about his work at the intersection of business and poverty alleviation earlier this spring.
The Elmore Leadership program is named for Robert W. Elmore, a long-time Country School trustee, educator, lawyer, and organizational development consultant who modeled a form of leadership based on listening, teamwork, and appreciative inquiry. When Mr. Elmore passed away in 2009, a committee was formed to honor his legacy and create a framework for teaching students the leadership skills he embraced and exhibited in his daily life. The Elmore Leadership Program grew from those discussions. For more about other Elmore Leadership activities and speakers, go to https://www.thecountryschool.org/signature-programs/elmore-leadership.