Leadership & Management

Businesswoman stressed out

Overworked and overwhelmed? Consider these 7 questions

If you’re feeling swamped at work these days, you’re not alone. I’m not talking “I don’t get to go out for lunch very often” busy. I mean “I’m buried in work, never fully off the clock and still feel I’m letting people down” busy. I hear it regularly from the managers I teach and coach.

It’s a function of the downsized staffing but increased demands and responsibilities in changing organizations.

The story is familiar: to hit budget numbers, the company cuts head count but leaves fully intact the expectation of quality, service and measurable results. (I’ll give CNN president Jeff Zucker credit. Referencing the depressing specter of buyouts and layoffs, he didn’t try to spin it as some great opportunity for the survivors to work smarter, not harder. He said “We are going to do less and have to do it with less.”)

Businesswoman stressed out

But what about those who are doing so much, perhaps too much, these days?  Their leaders often suggest that they do a better job of delegation. They may be right. Even when staffing is strong, managers often hesitate to delegate. For perspective, I looked for my first Poynter.org column on delegation: “Why We Don’t Delegate, but Could.” I wrote it in 2002!

But delegation alone isn’t enough today. Front line managers need to work with their leaders to take a comprehensive look at workloads, workflow, strategies, systems and shifting priorities in changing times. They need to constantly communicate about effectiveness, efficiency and yes, exhaustion.

As I work with organizations that are trying to do just that, I developed 7 questions for leaders and managers to ask themselves. I hope you find them helpful:

1. Whose job is it, anyway? This is a call for clarification of the manager’s role. What are the most important responsibilities he/she should have? What tasks have gravitated to that person because of tradition, or a particular talent, or simply by default? What assumptions underlie the manager’s list of duties, and is it time to challenge some of them?

2. When I feel guilty about delegating, what’s the reason?  Some managers fear that delegating is simply dumping on others, a confession of incompetence and or a sign of slacking off.  Empathy, expertise and work ethic are all commendable qualities of managers, but shouldn’t stand in the way of a rational review of one’s workload.

3. Do I secretly love certain tasks and don’t want to let go? This one is self-evident. If you simply love keeping a hand in certain things, even if they are not essential to your management role, what’s the cost/benefit ratio? Only you and your leaders can assess whether the joy is worth the ripple effect it has on other work and people. It may be. Just be transparent about your decision to keep doing that task – and open to revisiting the impact.

4. What do I have to learn to teach before I can delegate this? Managers often keep doing a task because they’re ill-prepared to train others how to do it. They don’t want to take the time to build an instruction guide or plan, or don’t feel comfortable training others — so they keep doing the work themselves. Admit it: this is a problem you can solve.

5. How can I maintain quality over things I delegate? Concern about quality control often causes managers to avoid delegating. But you CAN keep close enough touch to ensure things will go well. When I wrote about delegation in my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I highlighted a quote taken from some terrific feedback that a boss in one of my seminars received:

He never rests on his laurels and is always seeking ways to improve our performance, even as resources contract and the pressure on staff increases. He is not afraid to delegate; he stands back and lets you get on with it, but he is always close at hand, seeking updates on how the job is going, asking if assistance is needed.

6. What ambitions of ours are most helpful? When do we get too distracted by shiny objects? Management teams need work together to determine when they are committing to projects without sufficient analysis of the potential impact. It looks like this: We go to a meeting to talk about a new idea, initiative or tool. We’re high achievers, so we attack that idea with 100% energy and attention. We don’t think in terms of tradeoffs of time and effort. We plunge in. And later, we may celebrate it or regret it. Innovation is critical to business success, so I’m not arguing against it at all. But be strategic rather than impulsive on the front end as you choose to pursue opportunities.

7. What can we kill without fear of capital punishment? There’s a reason I saved this one for last. If you, as a manager, want to persuade your leadership that it’s time to STOP doing something, you need to demonstrate that you’ve looked at every other alternative, especially your own performance. The powers-that-be can see that you aren’t whining or not up to the task of management. Rather, you’re a self-managing, high-performing partner. Together, you’ll assess whether a task or project produces sufficient return on the investment of your time and talent.

* * *

There’s one more critical piece of advice I give to managers who want to delegate effectively and help those to whom they delegate succeed. I share it in this companion podcast.

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Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014

covering an event with a video camera

What breaking news reveals about your newsroom culture

Here’s what a lifetime in journalism has taught me: Breaking news reveals the true character of a newsroom’s culture and quality.

Spot news success happens in cultures with specific systems, skills, values, mindsets – and leadership.

In the healthiest cultures, when news breaks, here’s what staffers can count on:

  • We have a plan. We don’t have to scramble to figure out how to respond each time a big story breaks. Everyone on our team has an understanding of the key roles that need to be filled – both in the field and at the mother ship. We automatically call in and report for duty. We adapt the basic plan by situation and story, and we’re never caught flat-footed.
  • It doesn’t matter if our boss is on vacation. Deputies and team members are capable of making tough decisions and deploying resources because our leader routinely shares information and power. (No one has to say, “What would the boss do?” We know what WE should do.) We know who’s in charge and we know we’re all responsible.
  • Our hardware and software won’t be our weak link. Our organization invests in the necessary gear and the preventive maintenance to keep it ready for heavy duty use at any time. We have backup provisions for power, technology and tools.
  • Our communication works. Okay, it never works perfectly, but we have phone trees, updated contact lists for email, social media and phone access, bridge lines for conference calls, protocols for briefings, and computer files for shared information and resources as the story continues. We minimize ignorance, confusion and duplication.
  • We’re cross-trained and talent-deep. We’re not in a hole because a key player or craftsperson isn’t available. Even our bench is brilliant — and can step in with confidence and competence. We can cover all the bases.
  • We have an investigative and analytical mindset. We assume that everyone will cover the “what.” We’ll get that — and automatically dig into the “why?,” “what the hell?,” “what’s the bigger picture?,” and “what next?” That’s not the exclusive role of people with “investigative” in their titles; it’s expected of all of us on the team.
  • We play on all possible platforms. We understand that people expect the news to come to them, wherever they are, however they prefer to consume it. We do our best to deliver — with quality.
  • The whole building knows the drill. When breaking news demands all hands on deck, people from other departments (from sales to sports to marketing to maintenance) take the default position: “How can I help?” We gratefully tap their talent and plug them into our plans.
  • We know what we stand for. We know that breaking news is fraught with land mines. We know how to navigate them. Because we talk about values in our everyday coverage, the stress of spot news won’t make us stupid.
  • We take care of each other. Our leaders focus on the needs of the next shift, the next day, the next week. They don’t let staffers run on empty, and don’t hesitate to encourage (even order, if need be) exhausted or traumatized teammates to stand down or accept help.
  • We never forget we’re covering human beings, not statistics; featuring their stories, not our selfies; chasing truth, not thrills. We’re documenting history.

And when the story becomes history, we think about how to do things better next time.




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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

image 1790

Ziggin’ and zoomin’: Find yourself some metaphors for leadership success

My nearly two decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer had barely begun when I first heard the phrase that, in many ways, expressed both the newsroom’s strategy—and its essence:

Zig when everyone else zags.

The idea was simple. Don’t cover the story as everyone else is covering it; find an angle that helps the reader or viewer experience the story in an entirely different way.

(One of my favorite zigs is a story by education reporter Linda Lutton at WBEZ in Chicago. During the height of that city’s gun violence in 2012, when journalists were doing thousands of stories on the victims, the shooters and police efforts to stop the bloodshed, Linda attended a teenager’s funeral with the principal of a high school that had seen 27 of its current or former students shot—in just one year. Her story inspired a two-part series of This American Life.)

For us at the Inquirer, editor Gene Roberts’ “zig” mantra was everything you want your leader’s communication to be: clear, actionable, inspiring. It helped us develop a common newsroom language. And with every “zig” we successfully executed, the mantra—and the strategy it represented—buried itself more deeply in our approach to our work.

It also, as it sometimes does, took on an even larger meaning. At the Inquirer, “zigging” eventually applied to the very culture of the newsroom that Roberts and his staff created.

Do you use mantras or metaphors to help you manage your staff—and yourself?

Meeting journalists from newsrooms around the world, I hear some metaphors repeated often. The “full-court press,” a defensive strategy in basketball, describes a newsroom’s response to a big story; a “tick-tock” is a story that recreates an event in great detail, chronologically, along a timeline.

A number of other metaphors are borrowed from visual arts, like filmmaking. And why not? They’re intended to help us visualize strategies for good storytelling:

Zoom in. Get up close to a character or scene, focusing on small details that will help bring the person or place to life.

Turn the camera around. Instead of reporting on the action in front of you (for example, the debate among members of city council), turn your attention to another, more interesting, subject (an angry person in the gallery, the stoic stenographer, a veteran security guard.)

Widen the angle. Add context to the story by placing the action in its proper relationship to what else is going on.

All of these metaphors—and other successful ones—work for several important reasons:

  1. Their meaning is clear. The staff of the Inquirer understood “Zig” and “Zag.” Our familiarity with cameras lets us appreciate what it means for a writer to “zoom in” or “widen the angle.” Mantras or metaphors that confuse are highly unlikely to catch on.
  2. They are consistent with other messages. The Inquirer when Roberts was teaching the newsroom to zig was an underdog, a newspaper scrambling for credibility in a town where the Philadelphia Bulletin was the respected paper of record. So the whole idea of bucking the trend, being the rebel—zigging when the others zagged—was consistent with our self-image.
  3. The idea they represent has merit. Many a catchy slogan has been created to help sell an effort that ultimately failed. Most of those efforts, and their slogans, are long forgotten. “Zigging,” and the idea it represents, lives on; it still suggests a viable strategy for succeeding in the multi-platform newsrooms of 2014.

And while mantras and metaphors can help rally a staff behind an idea or project, they also can be highly personal. Individuals adopt them to help make sense of their leadership, their editing, their reporting.

Marissa Nelson is senior director of digital media for CBC News. Recently we were talking about the challenges of leading her staff through major changes, including a significant reduction in personnel. She told me about her “mast.”

“I picture myself at the helm of a ship,” she said, “and I’m standing with my back up against the ship’s mast. It represents the values that are most important to me—integrity, empathy, fairness—and it reminds me that as we move forward, I need to be true to those values no matter what challenge we face.”

I asked her what role those values played in her management of the downsizing. She said she tried to bring empathy to the process, to remember that the situation was taking a human toll on her staff, and that she needed to deal with each person individually and with compassion.

In addition to standing for her values, Marissa said the “mast” also helps her from a strategic point of view, reminding her as the department moves forward to stay focused on the division’s goals and not to be buffeted off course.

Marissa’s story reminded me of several metaphors that helped me in my attempts to be an effective leader.

One of them helped me deal with the sense of depression I repeatedly experienced about three weeks after accepting a job with increased responsibility. Eventually I realized why. The depression coincided with my realization that no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get my arms around the staff and its work. I could not control things.

Today I look back and realize it was actually good that I could not control everything—how are people supposed to grow if they’re manipulated like puppets? But I do remember the metaphor I used to describe my strategy for managing this “uncontrollable” operation.

I set out every day to touch it.

Each day I would try to engage my staff in ways that made a difference. Maybe I’d visit a bureau. Maybe I’d meet with a group working on enterprise. Maybe I’d have a difficult conversation. Or maybe I’d spend the morning with a colleague on the business side.

That was my daily challenge: How could I touch the organization in a way that would move us forward? If I chose well, I actually was having far more impact on the quality of our work than if I had assigned and edited every story.

The touch metaphor helped me.

Another metaphor helped me, like the “mast” helps Marissa, remember that values can play an important role in guiding a staff through difficult times of change.

For me, the metaphor was a bunch of rocks.

It was more than 20 years ago that I heard a Wharton professor describe how successful CEOs traditionally guided their organizations through times of change.

“Companies moved from periods of stability,” he said, “into the white water. And the best CEOS successfully guided their organizations through the white water, back to periods of stability.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “I need you to know one thing. For the rest of your careers, there will be nothing but white water.”

The professor didn’t know the half of it. In 1993, there were no iPods or tablets or smartphones. In fact, it had only been a few months since World Wide Web software had been placed in Public Domain. Imagine anyone suggesting today that we will return to periods of stability.

While last two decades of white water have given us many technological wonders—our ability to create and share journalism has never been greater—they also have made it difficult, if not impossible, for newsroom leaders to promise their staffs some once-basic things. Things like raises, promotions and even long-term employment.

So what can a leader promise a staff?

Values. You can promise your staff that together you will create journalism that is fair, accurate, independent and benefits the community. You can promise that together you will learn things that will benefit you now and if you go elsewhere. You can promise that together you will do work that has meaning.

And here’s the metaphor—those values are the rocks on which you cross the white water. I picture those rocks and remember the values I hold most dear.

Not everyone responds to metaphors; some people want facts, figures and a well-organized spreadsheet. But for as long as journalism has aspired to be a watchdog, shine a light and give voice to the voiceless, metaphors and mantras have served its leaders well.

Get ziggin’.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Young businesswoman giving a presentation while her colleagues are listening to her

Four ways to be seen as a leader, even when you’re not in charge

In the past few years, I’ve worked with organizations as they identify and train emerging leaders. The goal is twofold: to let promising people know their contributions are valued and to increase their chances of success if they’re promoted to management.

So, what does it take to be considered an emerging leader? What are these people doing that sets them apart, not just in the eyes of their bosses, but also their peers?

It’s more than just being a workhorse or a “company person.” It’s really about influence; doing the kinds of things that cause people to feel better about the work when you’re on the team, and to choose to follow you when you offer suggestions or direction.

You may not want to be a manager, and that’s just fine.

But if you want to be a leader, a true person of influence, whether or not you’re in charge, here are four actions that get you there:

Offer solutions — with skin in the game.

Workplaces contain plenty of people who can describe problems. In detail. To anyone who will listen. They’re apt to include the words “somebody oughtta” in their complaints. Sadly, even though they may be right about the problems, their approach leaves them looking like whiners instead of winners.

By contrast, influential employees identify problems, take them to people in power, offer practical, thoughtful solutions, note their own role in whatever mess needs mending, and offer to take part in the repair work they suggest.  Telling your bosses that all’s not well can be risky when done wrong, but rewarding when you prove yourself to be the “loyal opposition.”

Think strategically — and keep learning.

If you’re seen as operating from a small silo while ignoring the organization’s big picture, you won’t be taken seriously. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for yourself or your team, but if you don’t also recognize the organization’s strategic goals, don’t pay attention to the business climate, and don’t align your ambitions with the company’s, you’re less likely to be seen as a leader.

At the same time, if you’re not interested in learning new skills as your business evolves or keeping updated on industry developments, your colleagues won’t count on you to do more than stagnate in the status quo while others lead change.

Share resources and information, but don’t be a doormat.

Research by Wharton’s Adam Grant says that “givers” — people who automatically look for ways to help others — tend to do well at work, unless they are so self-sacrificing that they’re taken advantage of and fail to effectively manage their own time and workload.  But when they get the balance right, they rock. Here’s how he described it in an interview with Fast Company about his book, “Give and Take”:

Leaders with a “taker” mentality often see others as a threat and avoid sharing their knowledge and expertise. “Giver” leaders indulge none of these fears and choose to be extremely generous with their time, expertise, and helping others succeed.

Extensive research reveals that people who give their time and knowledge to help colleagues and subordinates this way end up earning more promotions and raises. And when givers put a group’s interest ahead of themselves, they build much deeper relationships, and often become highly valued within their own organization.

Shift your emotional intelligence into high gear.

Influential employees are calm in the storm and resilient when things get tough. They read situations and people well, communicate with empathy and collaborate with ease. They don’t generate needless conflict and respond constructively when conflict is inevitable. These are hallmarks of emotional intelligence, which research shows is not only key to leadership success, but can be upgraded, if you choose to work at it.

In my newsroom, I liked to say that my goal was to hire “grownups of any age” — low drama, low maintenance, but high on talent, integrity and responsibility.  When that’s your reputation, you become a person of influence, regardless of your title.

You simply lead from wherever you are.

* * *

Leading from where you are may sound like it takes a lot of work.  True, but it pays dividend, too.  I explain in this companion podcast:

Read more


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bias Getting Over Unfair Treatment Racism Prejudice

6 dangerous biases of bosses

Integrity is the cornerstone of leadership.  For managers, intelligence — both cognitive and emotional — is important. But research says that employees rate trustworthiness as more important than competence in their managers.

I think that’s because so many managers lead people who are smarter than they are. The staff doesn’t expect the boss to be a genius; they want a supervisor they can trust.

Trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that another person will act with integrity. Tell the truth. Share credit. Take blame. Make decisions based on values. Reject prejudice.

We earn the trust of our team over time. But it takes vigilance to maintain it, even if we have the best of intentions. That’s because we tend to overestimate our own abilities and think we’re more reliable or principled than we really are.

We have blind spots and biases that can erode trust. We often discover that the hard way, through an obvious mistake or from candid feedback about our shortcomings.

To help ensure your feedback is positive, and your mistakes are minimized, here’s some help — Six dangerous biases of bosses, and how they appear in the workplace:

1. “I like you. You remind me of myself.”

This bias is so common that social scientists have a name for it: Similarity Attraction Effect. It leads us to be more approving, more empathetic — and more likely to hire and promote people like us.

It leads us to measure the behavior of others by the yardstick of what we ourselves would do. We see ourselves as the norm to which others should conform. Think about how limiting that can be and how damaging to a team’s potential for the creativity and innovation that come from diverse perspectives, personalities and experiences.

This bias is also cited as a key reason for continued pay and promotion disparities faced by women and minorities in the workplace. It’s not overt, old-fashioned “You Need Not Apply” kind of prejudice. It’s discomfort with and often misjudgment of others, the kind we examined in depth at a recent forum at the National Press Club. (Here’s video of the event.)

It’s not easy to hear that we all pack a little prejudice deep into our decision-making about others, but it’s a stepping stone to solutions.

2. “I hired you.”

When we bring a person onto our team, we’re telling the world, “I believe in this person.”  Since our credibility is on the line in a hire, we root for the best outcome and may be more inclined to give second chances. Even if we believe we wouldn’t unfairly favor our hires, it’s important to monitor our interactions with the rest of our staff, to make certain they see and feel that we’re equally invested in their success. We need to be clear about standards and excel at giving feedback to all, so when any employee does well, it’s clearly about performance, not preference.

This is especially important in an organization undergoing significant change. New hires may bring new skills and can be seen as allies or competitors to the current staff, depending on the leader’s approach.

I learned that lesson when my newsroom was going through a large expansion. We had switched network affiliations and doubled the hours of news we produced. I was determined to convince our strong staff that the influx of new teammates would meet their standards, so I involved them in the vetting process. One day, after a respected reporter looked over the impressive resume of a potential hire, I asked, “Is she good enough for our newsroom?”  He half-smiled and said, “I’m worried. She’s TOO good!”

It was his friendly way of reminding me that while I assumed he knew how much I respected folks like him, even top performers need to hear it loud and clear. I had made the mistake of just asking them to bless the newbies.

3. “I coached you.”

When we decide to help someone improve, we can fall victim to what I call “the coach’s bias.”  Coaches work closely with employees to identify things they should work on and how — and that very focus causes us to see the glass half full instead of half empty.  Coaches note small improvements and point them out, to encourage people to keep on track and try harder.

Meanwhile, others are more likely to see the objective and bigger picture of the work still to be done and the performance gaps unfilled.

Again, learn from my mistakes. I hired a reporter who had no TV experience, but a solid track record for getting good stories. Because he was nervous on-air and it showed, I worked with him as a coach. He was getting incrementally better, so I gave him a spot on our election night coverage. As he sweated — and we squirmed — through his not-great live shots, the producer and I kept saying, “Well, he’s better than he was. He’s getting there…”

The next morning, we reviewed of our coverage with our general manager, who saw things without the “coach’s bias” — only the vantage point of a viewer. He was blunt. He told us the reporter had no business being on the air in that high-pressure, totally ad-lib situation.

He was right. Bias had clouded my judgment. I did a disservice to the audience and to the reporter by seeing only his baby steps toward improvement. I kept working with him, though, far more direct about his need to make election night just a bad memory.  Eventually, he turned out fine — and I learned a lesson about bias.

4. “I put a stake in the ground.”

When we make a public statement, it’s hard to reverse course. We can dig in to that decision and convince ourselves we’re right, when what we’re really doing is saving face. That’s what makes change so hard in organizations, as people confuse positions with principles.

Here’s what I mean. You may have heard a manager say things like this:

  • I won’t hire someone with less than 3 years’ experience.
  • I won’t promote someone who doesn’t come in and pitch hard for the job.
  • I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do.

Managers hang their hats on such ideas, which may have worked for them in some way at some time. Meanwhile, others may see the downside to those positions much more clearly than the boss. The organization may miss out on a brilliant young candidate, or a chance to diversify the team, or lose an up-and-coming employee who feels unappreciated. Those who see those downsides are in a tough spot. It’s not always easy to speak truth to power, especially when the Powerful One thinks righteousness demands rigidity.

That’s why managers should think carefully before declaring “always/never” manifestos, and be open to the possibility that their past positions can blind them to both consequences and possibilities. When a person of integrity says, “I’ve rethought this” or better yet, “I was wrong,” it can build credibility. (Just don’t do it daily. That builds incredulity.)

5. “I used to do that job.”

It’s easy to have an affinity for work that was a big part of your career, especially if you were good at it. Your knowledge and fondness can lead you to pay greater attention to that area, to favor it in staffing, budgeting or equipment.  It can also make you be more critical of it and micromanage it.

I recall a newly appointed managing editor telling me he realized how often he gravitated toward the investigative team’s desks, where he used to work. He walked right past other employees, sending the message, “Here’s what’s important to me,” when all he was really doing was heading to a comfort zone.  When he understood the impact, he changed his habits.

Just know that those whose jobs you’ve never done are watching you, eager to see if you can overcome your bias of experience, and learn to see the world through their eyes. There’s nothing like a manager who demonstrates a genuine interest in learning what it takes to do a job successfully — and acts on it.

6. “I’m under pressure to deliver.”

We can talk ourselves into some bad decisions when we frame a situation as “strictly business.” It makes it too easy to exclude other important considerations.

The business ethics professors who wrote “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” point out that humans approach decisions with two identities, their “want selves” (emotional, impulsive)  and their “should selves” (rational, thoughtful). We’d like to think we operate under our “should selves” as managers. But under workplace pressures, a phenomenon they call “ethical fading” may kick in when we’re being pressured for results:

Our visceral responses are so dominant at the time of the decision that they overshadow all other considerations. We want to help our company maintain its market share. We want to earn profits and bonuses. As a result, want wins and should loses. It is only later, behavioral ethics researchers argue, that we engage in any type of moral reasoning. The purpose of this moral reasoning is not to arrive at a decision — it is too late for that — but to justify the decision we’ve already made.

This doesn’t mean all managers chuck their moral compasses in service to the bottom line. It simply alerts us that it takes both awareness and courage to be the voice that raises issues of ethics, diversity, safety, quality, promise-keeping, compassion or community when others may want to narrow a conversation to short-term business objectives only.

It takes awareness and courage to combat any of these six dangerous biases. We can commit to being vigilant and more self-aware. We can ask for feedback from others and take it to heart. We can use our influence to help colleagues do the same.

It’s a challenge, but it comes with a payoff: a reputation as a trusted leader.

* * *

How should you respond if someone suggests you have a bias? I’ll share tips in this “What Great Bosses Know” companion podcast.

Read more


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Poynter to host forum discussing leadership of women in media

The Poynter Institute announced Thursday that it will co-host a national forum focusing on the issues surrounding women in journalism and media leadership.

The forum, which will be held in partnership with the National Press Club Journalism Institute, will focus on the current conversation about newsroom culture as it pertains to women, which was invigorated by the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Read more

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Controlling business puppet concept

5 reasons managers are addicted to “fixing” – and how to recover

I admit it. I’m a recovering fixer. Show me a piece of copy and my fingers get itchy. I crave contact with a keyboard, with a gnawing urge to tweak someone’s writing a little — or maybe a lot.

Then I remind myself of the pledge I took years ago:

“Remember, Jill. Sit on your hands. Coach, don’t fix.”

I adopted that mantra so I’d have to learn how to help my newsroom staff improve their work without taking away their ownership, responsibility, and too often, their pride in performance. I’d have to learn to teach, not just do. Moreover, I’d need to teach in a way that would help people discover ideas and approaches for themselves, instead of just following instructions from the boss.

Now, in my leadership workshops, when I identify myself as a recovering fixer, I ask if there are any others like me in the room.

I’m never alone.

Many of the aspiring great bosses my workshops say they, too, are hooked on fixing. They’re also the ones who play catch-up on all their other daily duties as they hand-polish the work of others. But it’s become their way of life. Maybe it’s your reality, too.

Why are managers so addicted to fixing? I’ve identified top five reasons:

1. Vanity: Your company promoted you to management because you were really good at your craft – a top producer. Now, your supervisory duties are different from the front line work at which you excelled, and it’s hard to give up something you love. So, when a chance to demonstrate your old chops presents itself, you can’t resist.

2. Efficiency: To review a piece of work with the person who produced it takes time. For expediency sake, you just repair it. You hope the employee will learn from the changes you made, as if by osmosis. You’re wrong, of course. But you do it anyway.  Again and again.

3. Quality: You have high standards. The one person whose performance always meets the mark is – you. So, for quality assurance, you assign yourself the task, even though it adds to your list of duties and often lengthens your work days (and nights and weekends.)

4. Responsibility: You never want to let your organization down. You’re dedicated to making deadlines, achieving goals and beating the competition. When anything on your watch isn’t as good as you think it could be, you personally deliver the solution. (Even though others could, should and probably would do their part, if you used the right leadership skills to guide them.)

5. Incapacity: Fixing is the lone tool in your repair kit. You’re capable of critiquing a product by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” but you can’t articulate the why and how of that assessment in detail. You don’t yet know the right words that describe a path to improvement. You’re talented, but you haven’t learned how to coach. So you keep relying on what you know – jumping into the fray – and you miss opportunities for both you and your staff to grow.

Your addiction to fixing causes problems.

By fixing, you let mediocre performers off the hook. They can keep churning out substandard work because you’ve led them to assume it’s YOUR job to elevate it, not theirs. You’ve created an assembly line where they produce a first draft and expect you’ll doctor it up.

Meanwhile, you’re frustrated, and wonder why they never seem to get better.

On the other end of the spectrum, the high performers on your team resent your interference. They are proud of their work and may feel you’re hijacking it, just to put your own mark on things. Even if you’re making minor modifications, you come across as the “corrections officer” rather than the coach who helps them discover options, try new things, see what they’ve overlooked and enjoy taking good work to an even higher level.

How do you become a coach instead of a fixer?  Here are some tips:

  • Become a student of quality work, including your own. Deconstruct it; take it apart to identify the decisions, the process, the steps that built it from the ground up.  None of us “just does it.”  We operate through a series of identifiable actions with certain assumptions and values attached. If it’s writing, for example, look at a resource like Poynter’s inexpensive e-book “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism” that puts the work of top performers under a microscope and asks them questions about how that quality came to life. Familiarize yourself with the answers.
  • Develop coaching language. Once you see distinct pieces, parts, techniques or barriers related to quality, name them. Build your own book of smart, descriptive terms. There’s a famous phrase around Poynter; “Get the name of the dog.” It’s shorthand coaching language for: Stories are made memorable by key details, as in “The firefighter stepped out of the still-smoking house, cradling a dog Buddy in his arms.” In my journey to become a coach, I built my own coaching lexicon. To help writers remember how passive voice can take the life out a sentence, I’d massacre a Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit by singing, “The Sheriff Was Shot By Me.” They got the point. Have fun; craft a coaching language that works for your craft and for your team.
  • Remember the power of questions. The most important tool a coach has is a question. How can I help? What’s your goal here? Can you think of another way to do this that’s less complicated? What would happen if…?  Being good at asking questions helps people discover their own answers, which you can then applaud and they can then execute. When I made the commitment to be a writing coach instead of a fixer, I started each review of a story by asking the writer: “What do you love about this story?” It turned out to be a very effective opener.  Most writers would talk about a few things they really liked, but often blurted out what they were concerned about, making it an easier coaching opportunity. My “love” question also let them know I expected people to care about every story, every day. For the record, once you make questions your primary coaching tool, you can also give direct advice. But do that strategically and sparingly, so people don’t revert to being dependent on your wisdom instead of their own.
  • Enjoy a new level of satisfaction in your work. Where once it was all about “What I produced today,” it’s now about “My employees’ success.” Your fingerprints aren’t all over the good work. In fact, your input is almost invisible to an outside observer. But you and to your grateful team know the real story. The work, the workers and the workplace are all improved when a fixer becomes a coach.

Remember, great bosses don’t fix the product, they coach the people.

* * *

Coaching also works to help people make better everyday decisions, too. More on that in the companion podcast to this column:
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Manager, Interrupted: How to trade all of that multi-tasking for some real focus

Multitasking at work. (Flickr Photo by Jonathan Blundell/ https://flic.kr/p/7bnUSk)

It’s 3:00 p.m. You’re sitting at your desk, trying to edit and file to the web the six paragraphs on your computer screen, a breaking account of the fire that has reduced downtown traffic to a crawl.

Your phone rings. The reporter at the fire wants to add a sentence about a new detour. You take the information and add it. Back to editing. Your mobile phone buzzes. It’s a news alert: the mayor has decided not to seek reelection. Then the phone rings. The city government reporter has the news about the mayor. Tweet it, you tell her, then file three paragraphs for the web and call back to discuss a follow-up. You forward the news alert to the news and web desks to let them know what’s coming.

Back to the fire story. It’s 3:06 p.m. Your phone rings. It’s a reporter who wants to take next Friday off…

For the newsroom manager, the workday can seem like a relentless string of interruptions.

Perhaps that’s because it is. And in today’s resource-strapped newsrooms, you can feel like the string is wrapped around your neck.

Does it have to be this way? Can a manager do anything about the interruptions that always seem to complicate life at the worst possible moment?

I say yes. In fact, I’d say you can even learn to love them. (I’ll try to get to my suggestions before you get interrupted.)

First, a reality check.

Before managers come to Poynter for a leadership seminar, I ask them to keep a log of their activities—all of their activities—for one typical work day. They arrive with sheets of paper, filled with a single-spaced record of their work. When I ask what struck them about their lists, many say: “We really do a lot.”

Then they invariably say: “And I get interrupted constantly.”

To be sure, nearly all jobs include interruptions—and they clearly have a negative impact on the quality of work. A good deal of research has been done into the impact of interruptions—and into the effectiveness of “multi-tasking,” our favorite coping mechanism.

You might have heard some of these findings. They include:

And then there’s a study that found that people who accept interruptions as part of their workday typically make adjustments. The researchers’ observation certainly matched my experience:

“When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.”

The researchers’ next observation also rang true:

“Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”

Put another way: Merely working faster to compensate for interruptions ultimately tightens the string around your neck.

You need to do more than simply compensate. You need a plan, one built on an idea that might seem counterintuitive:

Interruptions are essential contributors to the newsroom manager’s success.

That’s right. Often, interruptions are good.

Think about it. The news alert about the mayor tips you off to an important story. The call from the reader who caught a mistake during today’s morning show affords you a chance to improve your credibility with a correction. Even the call from the reporter who wants a day off can be good for a number of reasons—maybe it tips you off to a staffer’s personal crisis; maybe it just gives you a chance to acknowledge a staffer’s hard work.

No, you neither can—nor should you want to—eliminate the interruptions in your workday. Instead, you need to:

  • Make the most of the interruptions that benefit your work. (News tips, interactions with the public, important personnel matters.)
  • Reduce (or at least better manage) the interruptions over which you have control. (Email, social media, phone calls that you initiate.)
  • Minimize the disruptive nature of interruptions, whatever their source, on your work.

Here are a few ideas for getting started:

Keep a log of one typical work day. Start when you get to the building, writing down every activity that you engage in. Include everything. Coffee breaks, the water cooler conversation about last night’s game, a question from a colleague that you answer. When the log is completed, highlight the interruptions. Now note the interruptions you caused; the times you stopped what you were doing to check email, tweet, ask a colleague about the agenda for this afternoon’s meeting.

Keeping the log will be a pain in the keyboard. But it will be revelatory—in many ways. Just identifying the interruptions that you control will give you the chance to make different choices, like …

Resist the need to check email constantly. Facebook and Twitter, too. For every time that you call up email and find an urgent message, there are 50 times you find nothing important (or worse, a message that requires an answer—but could have waited). Too late. The damage is done. How about trying to complete the task you’re doing before checking email?

Resist all impulse activity. It’s not just about email. It’s about stopping what you’re doing for any activity that suddenly crosses your mind. “I need to tweet a link to this afternoon’s web report.” “I forgot to call the statehouse reporter about tomorrow’s budget hearing.” “It’s been an hour since I updated the news budget.” All of these activities have two things in common. All have value, and all—if you deal with them immediately—will take you away from what you’re doing. Try counting to 10 before you switch activities. You can do it. You’re stronger than you think.

Invest in sticky notes. The biggest problem I have with self-interruption begins with this statement to myself: “Deal with it now. It will only take a minute.” Unfortunately, it rarely takes a minute. And 15 minutes (or more) later, when I return to the task that was interrupted, I’ve lost my train of thought. What if, instead of stopping what I’m doing, I make a quick note to myself to return an email, tweet out a story or call a colleague about a meeting?

Taking care of things as they happen—without regard to the importance of what is being interrupted—reflects the belief that efficiency produces quality. Not necessarily. Sometimes efficiency actually compounds the disruptive effect of the interruption you were attempting to address.

Get comfortable with “Can this wait?” Every interruption presents a value proposition. Two activities are vying for your attention (and remember, the brain cannot deal with two cognitive activities at once.) So which is more important: What you are doing now, or what the interruption is asking you to do? Some managers almost always vote for themselves (I didn’t like working for them); others usually vote for the interruption (the copy desk didn’t like working with them). Fact is, sometimes you need to stay focused on what you’re doing— on deadline, for example, you need to edit. When you’re having a difficult career conversation with someone, you need to stay in the moment. When that is the case, an appropriate response to your interrupter is, “Can we talk in an hour?” Or “Will tomorrow work?” Or “can someone else help you?”

This is not to suggest that the reason for the interruption is not important. It’s a reminder that managing is about making choices—and prioritizing how you spend your time—to have the best possible impact.

Schedule stuff. Another great use of the log is to identify times of the day that are less hectic—times when you could schedule work that can make the interruptions that occur later less disruptive. Regularly scheduling 20 minutes to give staffers individual feedback can address performance issues that otherwise might pop up on deadline. Setting aside 30 minutes early in the day to edit a non-deadline story reduces the chance an interruption will destroy your focus. Use your schedule to exert as much control on your day as possible. Get stuff done before it has to compete with external interruptions for your attention.

Assign your staff to a few shifts on the desk. Sometimes the people who interrupt you on deadline have no idea they are being disruptive. Nothing more effectively shows the staff their impact on the operation than letting them help manage it for a few days. Suddenly, for example, the reasons for deadlines are clear. It’s also a great way to measure a staffer’s editing potential and increase the staff’s versatility.

Create a time of day for admin. Talk to your staff about bringing you administrative concerns at a specific time of day. Deadline is not a time to talk about holiday schedules. On the other hand, nothing increases your credibility as a manager more than demonstrating that you care about such issues. Be clear that this is not about dismissing or trivializing administrative questions—it’s actually about handling them better than you can on deadline. (And ultimately, you’ll be judged on how—not when—you dealt with those holiday schedules.)

One last thought: If you decide to respond to an interruption—for any reason—shift your focus completely to the new activity. Dealing with someone’s issue while attempting to continue what you were working on diminishes both activities.

Do one thing at a time. After all, that’s all our brains can handle.


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Thursday, May 29, 2014

virtual newsroom _ depositphotos

Virtual Newsroom: getting journalism done in a digital age

At this moment, I am at my dining room table in Los Angeles with two laptops, a cellphone and an iPad. I work with staff writers who live in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and just outside of Tampa. I also talk virtually with Poynter faculty, adjunct faculty and freelancers who write for us, some of whom live in Florida, but some who do not.

As the future of news is still inventing itself and the nature of news remains in transition, there’s one thing we can say definitively: We’re no longer working the way we did 10, 5 or even 2 years ago.

With technology, we can — and do — report on the news at greater speeds and larger volume. The Web, cell phones, tablets, wearables, and other devices allow us to give audiences what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Downsizing of staff, added work duties, reduction and relocation of workspaces and other expense cuts are also contributing to the upheaval that thousands of journalists have endured in recent years.

This all has led to the era of the virtual newsroom. By working virtually, I mean journalists can function outside the office, perhaps in their home or in a coffee shop or in a shared space, and produce work for a news organization or website that operates at a distance.

As I prepare to transition out of my interim role as Poynter.org editor, I’m writing what I hope will be the first of several posts on the virtual newsroom, a guide and conversation with you about the challenges of working remotely for a news organization.

For decades, journalists have worked in bureaus far from the main newsroom or they freelanced from home, sometimes thousands of miles from their editors and colleagues. But today more journalists are working independently or, even if they remain on payroll, outside of the typical newsroom. Technology makes it possible.

Working virtually is also expanding in part because digital news jobs are growing. Pew Research Center estimates in its report on digital reporting that news outlets born as digital-only operations have created nearly 5,000 full-time editorial jobs. Often these are small and lean operations run by fewer than four people. And, those journalists may all work in different locations.

In a virtual news operation, all of the advantages that an editor can draw on by walking across the room disappear: the face-to-face contact, reading of body language, and connections that form when we share a physical space.

If you’re a writer, similar conveniences are gone if you work remotely. When you have a question about a change in your story, you can’t simply sidle over to an editor’s desk to have a chat. Or if you need the phone number for a source, your colleague who can help may be in another state rather than at the next desk.

For editors, the tasks of giving out assignments, negotiating story lengths and deadlines, arranging visuals, editing and fact-checking all take on another level of difficulty when communicating virtually. For those who do the work, there’s the challenge of fully understanding what’s expected, dealing with unforeseen events, electronically delivering their stories or images, and getting feedback on their work. On some days, communication goes awry and there’s little one can do to fix things from afar.

But there are practices and approaches that can take some of the pain out of the process. I communicate with my Poynter colleagues, for example, by ways that are most efficient or most comfortable for the writers, and it generally works well.

Still, I only occasionally see the Poynter.org staffers in person, and I can’t attend staff meetings at Poynter regularly. Instead we hold Google Hangouts or I listen in to meetings via conference phone.

I don’t get to know all of my colleagues as I well as I would like. Rather we learn about each other by email or phone calls and during my infrequent visits to St. Petersburg.

On the other hand, I don’t spend hours commuting each week and can use the time to work instead. I take my coffee breaks by walking five feet to the kitchen and I’m back in a flash, available for any requests for edits. In my ongoing quest for work-life balance, I can take care of home chores without impacting my work production.

I’m convinced after working on news websites for over a decade, that journalists with certain skills and personalities best adapt to working this way. Hiring and coaching for a virtual newsroom take on added considerations, but I’ll get more into this subject in a future post.

If you work virtually or manage those who do, tell me about your experiences and concerns. Jump into the comment box below or email me at ssoshiro@gmail.com and let’s talk. You can also catch me on Twitter: @sandraoshiro. Read more


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jill Abramson_AP

So what the heck IS a good management style, anyway?

There are no perfect managers. Not Jill Abramson. Not Dean Baquet. Certainly not Jill Geisler when she ran a newsroom, and she’s now a leadership teacher, for heaven’s sake.

Every manager has strengths and challenges. And on any given day, you, as a boss, will disappoint someone.

You hire and promote people while rejecting others. You accept and advance one person’s idea but pass on someone else’s. You hold people accountable for quality and performance. You force them out of their comfort zones to learn new things (Hello, digital age.)  In tough economic times, you cancel projects they love, freeze or cut their salaries and lay off their talented friends.

And if you’re like most people, you do all that with little or no training in how to lead a team. Your training was in journalism, or in whatever craft in which you performed well enough for your bosses to say, “We like what you do, so how ’bout we put you in charge of that work?”

But you don’t just manage work. There’s this matter of leading the people who perform it — human beings who bring their hopes, talents, deficiencies and personality quirks to the job with them.

They are people, not just producers. They aren’t all like you and even the best of them don’t — and don’t want to — do things exactly the way you did when you were a top performer.

That’s where management really gets tricky, and the temptations are great:

It would be so easy if you could only:

  • Captain a team of journalists who question authority and resist spin, except when it comes to you.
  • Hire employees who are just like you, because they make you so comfortable.
  • Focus strictly on results, not the folks who get you there.
  • Tell them, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job,” so you skip chit-chat and focus on tasks you really like.
  • Deliver criticism whenever and however you damn well please.
  • Expect people to conform to you, whatever your strengths or shortcomings, because you’re in charge.

I’ve just described the bad old days, didn’t I? — a time when bosses could be behave like tyrants and discriminate indiscriminately (who wants women and minorities to crash the club, right?), and have all that be perfectly acceptable so long as their team (happy or miserable) cranked out some good work. Sometimes even that wasn’t necessary, as long the boss made budget.

Times have changed. Businesses and business schools began to focus on leadership, not just management. The goal was to improve the product and the process by looking at how people at work are hired, trained, engaged, motivated, and, yes, even inspired.

The goal was to figure out how to have more employees say things like this about their managers:

He has a fantastic ability to listen to criticism and act positively on that criticism. He is good at selecting the right person for the job, and is genuinely liked by his colleagues. He inspires confidence and brings out the best in people.  He is good at working as part of a large team with many conflicting ideas and agendas. It’s fun to be at work when he is the boss.

That quote is from a 360-degree feedback report for a manager in one of our Poynter leadership seminars. When I wrote my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I illustrated great and not-so-great behaviors with these real responses about managers, to show what an impact they have.

With good grim humor, she has helped lead us through a severe downsizing. She has done this by reminding us what our core mission is, and if we focus on that we’ll be all right. And she has led by example, by getting down to work and not whining, and proving we can do it.

Or this:

What can you say about an editor you trust completely, who you know would do anything for you and your story, who inspires you, who makes work not seem like work at all?  If I could get her to be the editor of my life, I’d be a better person.

So what do these managers do better than others?  They look at their relationships with employees as a series of transactions. Produce enough good outcomes from each of those transactions and you build social capital.  Social capital is a bank of trust and good will that gets you through the rough times, when your role as a manager requires you to disappoint someone, or when you simply make a mistake.

When supervisors are committed to having high-quality transactions, people who are criticized aren’t crushed, people whose ideas don’t get accepted aren’t made to feel stupid, people who do well get deserved credit, and folks aren’t left wondering where they stand in the organization or if they even matter at all.

There’s something else the best managers do: they understand that their moods and behaviors are contagious. Their energy, enthusiasm and optimism set a tone in the workplace. They have — or learn to develop — a good degree of social and emotional intelligence. They can read people, read situations, read a whole darn room and respond accordingly. (I always said that my job as a manager was to get calm when the team got nervous and get nervous when the newsroom’s too calm.)

They know what management style fits best for which situation:

  • A commanding, top-down leadership style is the right fit for crisis or when risky decisions must be made, when employees expect calm and in-control boss. But that style is self-defeating if used for all occasions because people feel micromanaged.
  • A pacesetting style, raising the bar and constantly challenging people, can jump-start a sluggish team. But a group of high performers (especially those who are smarter than their bosses — and many are) will rebel in the face of relentless “not good enoughs” from their leader.
  • A democratic style that demonstrates empathy gets people through tough times. Democratic leaders tend to bring people together for a voice in decisions (if not necessarily a vote) when buy-in is important during change. But used too much or in the wrong situations, it can create a conflict-averse culture with slow decision-making.
  • A visionary style can help people see and feel the importance of a mission and a goal when they are up against uncertainty and challenge. But if it’s big talk and little execution, employees feel manipulated, not motivated.

Authors like Daniel Goleman, who delves deeper into those styles in his book Primal Leadership will tell you most managers have a “default” style of managing — behaviors they fall into instinctively. But the best ones know how to shift out of that style and into another that’s better for the moment. They do it comfortably and carefully, so it’s not an act. It’s simply knowing how to match the right dance to the right music.

It’s hard work. It’s why, if you don’t mind the shameless plug, leadership training is important. I know it could have saved me (and spared my team) from some of my managerial mistakes. It’s why I take special delight in working with new managers and applaud organizations that identify emerging leaders and provide them with some schooling even before they’re promoted.

Because at the end of the day — or make that the work day — the secret to a smart supervisor’s success is this:

Manage yourself, so you can lead others.

I share more insights in this companion podcast:

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