February 05, 2018

Former CNN executive shares secrets to her professional, personal success

Parisa Khosravi remembers the exact hour she knew she wanted to become a journalist: It was while watching live coverage of the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981, and seeing the journalists running around the tarmac trying to interview them as they got off the plane.

“I wanted to be right in the middle of the tarmac with them,” she said.

Khosravi shared her experiences of almost three decades of working at CNN at the program, “The Power of Finding Your Voice,” Feb. 3 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver, sponsored by GPSolo.

Born in Tehran, Khosravi’s family moved to Chicago in 1979 just before the Iranian revolution. She credits her parents with letting her figure out things out and test her limits, which she said empowered her to make “tougher and bigger decisions.”

Joining CNN right after college, Khosravi eventually became senior vice president of CNN Worldwide, where she was responsible for all of the global news organization’s bureaus, correspondents, news crews, affiliates, etc.

Her leadership and work philosophy, she said, are simple: “I deeply believe in putting in your time, paying your dues, earning each step on your own.”

Khosravi helped “build a little UN at CNN,” which she said made the news organization stronger. She felt it was important to have a variety of sensitivities, languages and nationalities represented on the staff, as well as cultural awareness, and credits that effort with giving CNN “such an edge.” 

In addition, Khosravi also valued diversity of thought and personality. If there were an “elusive interview” the network was after, she said she wouldn’t assign it to her “type A” editor, but to her “quiet, patient, detailed-oriented editor,” because he would keep plugging away until they got the interview.

“It takes all types for a team to win,” she said.

Because international correspondents are often in dangerous situations, Khosravi would encourage her staff to do “head laundry” – to talk out their stressful experiences. She even had a psychiatrist on staff whose specialty was journalists in war zones.

Stressing “the importance of authenticity and staying true to yourself and your values,” Khosravi said she was a [religious] minority even when she lived in Iran. “I never carried it as a burden on me,” and if someone else had issues about it, “that was their problem.”

People are not born leaders but become leaders by how they choose to respond to the difficult times and “how we choose to apply the lessons that life has taught us,” Khosravi said.

Much has changed in the way news is gathered since Khosravi started in the business, especially in the areas of technology and safety. Whereas years ago lots of big equipment was needed to videotape a live shot, today she said you can do a live shot on a phone if necessary.

In addition, journalists used “to be treated like the Red Cross – we were a neutral zone,” but unfortunately now they are targets, she said.

Despite her gratifying career, Khosravi said it’s important to know when it’s time for a change.

A few years ago, she wanted to push herself out of her comfort zone, so despite not being athletic, she started training for a triathlon and a 60-mile walk. During the long hours of training she had time to think, and at least once while practicing for the swimming portion of the triathlon Khosravi had to ask for help, something she was not used to doing.

The experience, and having people tell her they couldn’t believe she could complete a triathlon, taught her about perceptions of ourselves and of others. “It’s important to know perceptions are not reality, it’s in our heads, and only we can overcome them,” Khosravi said.

She advised the attendees to “do something big for you … you have no idea what kind of clarity it might bring you.”

Khosravi left CNN in 2015 to become a consultant, and today her life has a new focus.

“Life’s challenges can look so different depending on our perspectives and our perceptions,” and Khosravi said her toughest challenge recently was giving a speech about her son, who is autistic and nonspeaking. A few years ago, at 14, he had a breakthrough and now communicates on an alphabet board. Before that, she said, they had no sense of his cognitive level, but now they know that he is “wise beyond his years.”

“Giving voice to the voiceless was always my joy and passion in what I did as a journalist. It has now taken on a completely different meaning as I advocate for my son and, as he calls them, ‘other silent champions’ to have their voices heard,” she said.

She advocated for more empathy and compassion and ended with a quote from her son’s alphabet board, “We never know what’s inside someone until we give them a chance.”