Manager alert: pay attention to your best people

For the better part of the past two weeks, I needed a good slapping.

I don’t mean that literally, though some of the people in my life might wish I did. What I needed was someone to snap me out of the insecure funk I get in from time to time.

I had writer’s block.

Do you ever get it? Ideas that seem so clear in my brain get hijacked and disappear somewhere en route to the keyboard. I start a sentence, delete it, start another and delete that, too. I get up and walk the dog, stare some more at the laptop, send out Facebook birthday wishes, stare at the laptop, get a cup of coffee…

Before long, my insecurities win. I am convinced I will never write again. How tragic. It happened so quickly; I never saw it coming.

Am I overreacting? Of course I am. That’s what insecure journalists do. Some are convinced they’ll never write again. Others believe they will never master the digital skills their jobs now require. Still others simply think that finally, after years of fooling their bosses, they have been found out as talentless hacks.

But while they think they need a new career, what they need is a good slap — the kind that really good bosses know just when, and how, to deliver.

Bosses like John Dotson — but when I needed him last week, he was nowhere to be found.

John passed away last year, 30 years after we were colleagues at The Inquirer. He came through Philadelphia before moving on to Akron, where he became publisher of the Beacon Journal and led the newspaper’s Pultizer Prize-winning coverage of race relations.

During our time in Philadelphia, John taught me a lot—but he never helped me more than on a winter’s day in 1983 when we were walking back to the office from lunch—and he slapped me.

That morning, our editor had assigned us to begin an expansion of the paper’s presence in New Jersey by opening a new bureau and publishing a twice-weekly local news section. It was my first big assignment at the Inquirer—and my insecurities immediately kicked in. I spent lunch telling John all the reasons I was worried. I suspect I did nothing to help his chicken salad settle.

We were only a dozen strides out of the restaurant when John moved a step ahead, turned to face me and stopped. I froze. John looked angry. I don’t know for sure that these were his exact words, but almost 30 years later, they are the ones I remember:

“Stop it, Butch. Just stop it. If Gene didn’t think you could do this, he wouldn’t have given you the job. But he knows you can. And you do, too. So just do it.”

Slapped.

I don’t remember what I said to John next, but I know what I felt. Yes, a little embarrassed; but even more, I felt believed in.

Believed in by someone I admired.

That day certainly wasn’t the last on which I felt insecure. But John’s slap changed me in at least two important ways: first, I moved on with a bit more confidence—enough to carry out that assignment and a number of others in the years to come.

More importantly, I recognized that talented people need to hear something they don’t always believe:

That they are good.

Now, it’s certainly not news that a lot of journalists harbor insecurities about their work. Indeed, some of the most talented newsroom people I know are among the most insecure. Unfortunately, some work for bosses with little or no patience for reassuring insecure staffers. They call them “needy,” “whiners,” “head cases.”

Sure, I’ve known journalists who seem to bring a new source of anxiety to the boss every day. For them, the “slap” needs to involve an understanding about how much access to your time is reasonable.

But the truth about many good—and insecure—journalists is that they only end up in your office when they hit bottom. When they think they’re failing.

Some of the luckiest ones had Jim Naughton for a boss.

On many a day, I watched Jim—the former executive editor of The Inquirer (and a past President at Poynter)—as he huddled in his cramped cubicle with a distraught member of the staff who just knew their career was over.

To be sure, Jim could be patient, and these scenes often lasted long into the afternoon. But eventually, after his efforts to reason and comfort had failed, Jim would move just a bit closer to the staffer and say:

“You need to stop this. You are good. Really good. Do you know how I know you’re good. Because we hired you, that’s how. And we don’t hire people unless they’re good. So get out there, relax and do what you’re good at.”

Last week at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference in Washington D.C., I talked with editors about how, especially in times when resources are stretched thin, our best staffers receive the least attention. After all, they come through every day with good work, and many of them rarely ask for anything.

Trust me. That does not mean they do not need attention—maybe even a slapping.

For even if they are not feeling insecure, they need the attention of someone who tells them that they are good, that their work is improving—that they are believed in.

Neglect your best people at your own risk. More than one manager has been surprised when a good staffer decides to leave, usually to join someone who provided what you didn’t—a much-needed dose of praise.

So here are three ideas for helping your best staffers fight their insecurities:

Be clear about what you like. You probably thank best staffers for their good work. But to make that praise meaningful, be specific about what you liked. Remember your goal: To help staffers be more aware of their talents—and which ones you specifically value. That increases the chance they will replicate the good work, and creates a platform from which you can continue to talk with them about improvement.

Talk growth. Telling someone he or she is good is important. But helping me plot my future success is even more valuable. If I am your best feature writer, what can that talent help me become? Build a continuing conversation with your best staffers around their ambitions and how their talents can help them realize them. (Especially in this job environment, it’s not enough to believe I am good—I need to believe I will be good.) And don’t be afraid to include in that conversation the areas in which the staffer needs to improve. Even if I am insecure, I can hear your advice for how I need to improve as supportive—especially if you’ve made it clear you’re invested in my future.

Challenge. Get beyond the words. Nothing demonstrates your belief in me more than an assignment I know you really care about. Whether it’s a story, an investigation or a new product introduction, give your best staffers bigger and bigger opportunities to prove to you—and to themselves—that they are good.

So if you’ve gotten this far, I guess it’s clear that—for better or worse—I got over my writer’s block.

Thanks to a slap.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to rely on a boss to help you snap out of a funk. After two weeks of living with my flare-up of insecurities, it was my wife who—for want of a better metaphor—stopped and faced me on the street with a message I needed to hear.

Donna and I were in the middle of a four-hour car ride to visit her brother in Jacksonville and she had listened to me try to explain, again, why I couldn’t seem to write anything.

For a while, Donna was quiet. Then she began, “William…” in that tone– you know the one–the one that’s stern and caring at the same time.

“William,” she said, “people believe in you. I hate to see you doing this to yourself. You will write when you know you have something to write about. I know you will.”

Thanks, Donna.

In the end, I know it’s important for all of us to believe in ourselves. But some days, it’s hard.

So let me speak for insecure people in newsrooms everywhere:

Boss, we know you’re busy and we’re sorry to be pains in your ass, but on some days, we just need to hear that someone believes in us.

We’d like it to be you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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