By Scott Libin

What are your tips for preparing for a conversation with the boss?

That was the question from a Poynter alumna on the listserv we maintain to extend the seminar experience. Must be boss-meeting season in a lot of newsrooms, too, because several people seemed suddenly interested in the answer.

We don't teach an actual course in one-on-one meetings, but such encounters arouse enough interest and anxiety that maybe we should -- a sort of introduction to interaction with the boss.

When I was running a newsroom, it was hard for me to imagine that anyone would need to prepare for a meeting with me. I was a real open-door, open-arms kind of guy. Who could get anxious about a little one-on-one time with me? Yet I'll bet people did. Being the boss means meeting with a seemingly endless line of people, all with their own issues. But to each of those individuals, such meetings don't happen every day.

It's a little like the difference between being the reporter and the reported: Journalists swoop down, grab interviews and move on. It's all in a day's work. To those they cover, it's a big deal -- maybe the only time otherwise ordinary people will come in contact with those behind the bylines and in front of the cameras.

Newsroom leaders need to remember routine meetings for managers are often major events to those across the desk.

So here's how I answered the question about preparing for a conversation with the boss:

  • Time it right. You know your boss. What's the best time of day or week for her? And it's not just a matter of starting on time, but of finishing on time, too. If your meeting is scheduled to last 30 minutes, wrap up after 30 minutes -- or at least offer to. If it's going well, let the boss suggest going longer. Be prompt in both beginning and ending the conversation. That shows respect for the value of your boss's time, which is probably a precious commodity to her.
  • Do your homework. Demonstrate that you've given some thought to the issues you raise, and maybe even done some research. Offer some possible solutions, not just problems for the boss to solve. Be prepared for the meeting. That might mean bringing supporting material, like scripts, clippings, correspondence -- whatever's relevant. Save your boss the trouble of looking things up himself. If you have a problem with somebody else, try to resolve it with that other person before bringing it to the boss.
  • Be specific. Provide examples that represent patterns.
  • Try to imagine the issue from your boss's perspective. Jill Geisler's"20 Questions about Your Boss" is a great exercise for this. It also helps to put your points in terms you know will be meaningful to your boss -- maybe even quoting him directly. Many bosses find their own words to be quite compelling. (I know I did.) For example, "I've heard you say several times you'd like more enterprise stories" shows you've been listening and aligns your message with the mission your boss has established.
  • Be open-minded. I've learned the hard way that the limits of my imagination are not the limits of possibility. Just because I can't think of an acceptable explanation for something doesn't mean there isn't one.
  • Speak for yourself, not for others. I particularly appreciate those who own their opinions and actions. It's less persuasive to me to hear things like, "Lots of people in the newsroom are saying ..." One exception to this is when you are trying to clue your boss in to something that really is on everybody else's mind, and he happens to be the last to know. Still, try to keep the conversation between you and him -- not about others.
  • Don't bury the lead. A few moments of initial pleasantries are fine, but get to your point. Don't be coy. And once you've made your case:
  • Ask for the order. I learned that phrase from Dave Boylan, a boss of mine when I was a first-time news director. If there's really something specific you want, say so. Don't hint or hope the boss will figure it out on her own. If you aren't sure what you want, other than just to have a good conversation, say that. It's okay; in fact, it's good not always to have a wish list. (This is especially true in performance reviews and similar sessions.) But remember your boss assumes everybody wants something from her, so don't make her guess.

So, what would you add to that list? And what can you do as boss to make meeting with you easier for those who come with concerns?

There may be no right or wrong answers, but there's one that always worries me when I hear it from managers: "My employees are completely comfortable coming to me with anything that's on their minds. They know my door is always open."

The most effective leaders I know have no time to congratulate themselves that way, nor do they wait for others to come to them. They're too busy walking out that open door, into the newsroom, to find out how they can help journalists do the job better.