On the day my editor at The (Baltimore) News American offered me the job of managing editor, he gave me my first assignment:
“Your first job,” he said, “is to make yourself obsolete.”
OK, I said.
I had no idea what he meant.
His message became clear to me several months later when I took my first vacation. Within the first three days, I received about 20 calls from work, the last one from him.
“I want you to come back to work tomorrow,” he said. “And you can go on vacation again when you’ve taught someone how to do your job.”
Some lessons we never forget.
This one highlights one of a manager’s most important responsibilities: to build systems that keep the operation running in the face of changing and sometimes, unexpected circumstances:
Someone calls in sick.
A major story requires a diversion of resources.
Bad weather forces a change in the publishing schedule.
The newsroom reduces its work force.
While some of these circumstances occur without much warning, it would be naive to claim they are unexpected. Fact is, something unexpected usually can be counted on to happen. It’s the nature of the workplace.
That’s why managers at every level need to think in terms of systems rather than individuals. If you find yourself wincing when one of your desk editors asks to go on vacation next month (some people really do have a lot of nerve, don’t they?) you probably haven’t paid enough attention to the systems you rely on to get the work done.
It’s time to address them.
Let’s acknowledge several realities:
First, acknowledge how rarely our newsrooms operate at full strength. A system that anticipates everyone will be on duty is almost always under stress. Your system needs to accommodate unexpected absences like illnesses, bereavements, and family emergencies, as well as those you can plan for — paid vacations, unpaid furloughs, trips to Poynter for training. (Shameless, aren’t I?) But, you say, resources in my newsroom have been cut and cut again. Everyone already feels stretched. That’s true, and that doesn’t change the fact that you will rarely operate at full strength; it simply reinforces the need to build systems that anticipate absences rather than treat them as surprises.
Second, acknowledge that no matter how many members of your staff have been absent on a given day, your newspaper has published, your broadcast has aired, your website has been updated. Did the quality produced by the reduced staff meet your standards? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. (That actually could be said of every day, couldn’t it?) The point is, your operation already has some degree of flexibility; the challenge is to increase its flexibility through cross-training and temporarily giving staffers experience in other jobs.
And third, acknowledge that in all likelihood, the operation you’ve built will have fewer people in the future than it has today. Maybe a lot fewer.
That’s why our responsibility to build systems is so important. Here are three questions I’d suggest you think about to get started:
1. If you could not come to work for an indefinite period, who could do your job? (And how well?) Remember my boss’ directive: “Make yourself obsolete.” How smoothly can your operation work without you? Answering this question requires a thorough awareness of what we do—so write it down. Be granular. Yes, you run a meeting, edit video, tweet out links to your desk’s stories. But what else do you, and only you, do? Give your direct reports feedback on yesterday’s work? Brief managers in other departments on upcoming projects? Buy doughnuts for the desk on Fridays? And think of it this way: Preparing someone to do your job when you’re away not only fulfills your responsibility to the organization, it also liberates you to be someplace else or do something else (like take a vacation) when you need to.
2. How can I cross-train as many members of my staff as possible to do other jobs? Every system needs as much flexibility as possible. That’s why the key part of this question is “as many members of my staff as possible.” Don’t restrict your thinking to which editors can be trained to fill in for other editors. Identify reporters, producers, photographers and others who could fill an editor’s role when necessary. Not only will you build a more flexible management system, you’ll identify candidates for future promotions or reassignments. And you’ll give those reporters and photographers invaluable insights into the impact of their normal work habits on the operation.
3. Under the current system, do absences require you to fill in — and stop doing your job? In many newsrooms, especially as resources are cut, managers routinely assign themselves to fill in for missing personnel. A system built on that practice is a bad system. What happens when the manager fills a subordinate’s role? The manager’s job doesn’t get done. Planning suffers, personnel issues go unaddressed, management by triage takes over. Yes, every manager finds it necessary in emergencies to jump into the “weeds” and help keep the trains rolling. But someone’s vacation is not an emergency. Neither is someone’s stomach bug. Your system needs to anticipate and address those situations without your full-time involvement.
Let me add one last thought. Especially in these times of change and uncertainty, a cross-training campaign can energize your newsroom. You might not be able to promise members of your staff raises, but promising them that they will learn something new—something they can use to increase their job options in the future—is a powerful promise.
So here’s your assignment: After you’ve considered our three questions, get out a staff list and, next to each person’s current job, list the other jobs they are capable of filling. Make it your goal to add at least one more job to their “can-do” list within the next three months. Also, make it your goal that no one on the staff can do only the job they are currently in.
And one final goal: Make sure at least one person on your staff can do your job. Take it from someone who knows, you’ll have a much nicer vacation.