Managers, make ‘we can be better’ more than empty words

So today I’m thinking about Casey Stengel and Jesus.

Why? Well, in my life, it’s the time of year for two really important six-week seasons: spring training and Lent.

Both are times devoted to preparation. Both are opportunities for fresh starts. And both give those who take part a chance to make an important change — whether it be their batting stance or their approach to life.

Spring training is the time when major league baseball players gather in the warm climes of Florida and Arizona to prepare for another summer on the diamond. Lent, which Christians observe in preparation for Easter, recalls the 40 days Jesus prayed and fasted in the desert prior to beginning his public life of teaching and good works.

Yes, the two seasons have very different goals: One aims to produce a winning baseball team and the other to transform lives. But both spring training and Lent begin with an important belief: We can be better than we are.

Better players than we are, better people than we are.

It strikes me that in successful organizations, one of the manager’s most important roles involves insisting upon that same belief — reminding everyone that no matter how good we’ve become, “we can be better than we are.”

The best managers, though, go further. Instead of just asking people to work harder or longer, they enable people to improve by doing something, by changing something, by creating an environment in which improvement can occur.

But let’s take this one step at a time. Let’s begin by acknowledging something we all know to be true: We can be better than we are.

Stengel’s way

Casey Stengel, one of the most successful managers in the history of baseball, is responsible for one of my favorite quotes about management:

“The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”

I’m not sure how many members of the New York Yankees hated Stengel during the 12 years he was their manager. But they sure played well. His Yanks won 10 American League pennants and 7 World Series — an amazing run.

But even with all that success, Stengel apparently never lost sight of the need to get better.

“If we’re going to win the pennant,” Casey once said (in classic Stengalese), “we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.”

At the time Stengel said this, the Yankees were in the midst of winning an unprecedented five consecutive World Series. Yet he still understood the need to improve — and to convince his players that they could.

Like Stengel, great baseball managers know that in order for “we can be better” to be more than just words, they need to do something, make a change that will require discipline of themselves and their players. It might involve taking extra batting practice, a new dedication to fundamentals, greater willingness to selflessly hit behind runners, learning a new pitch.

But what about newsroom managers? What can you do differently that would help each member of your staff do better work?

Three quick ideas:

  • Inventory your staff’s interests and skills. Too often, what managers know about their staffs is limited to what they now cover or did in the past. What other skills do they have? What are their hobbies? What languages do they speak? What do they read? What music do they listen to? What volunteer work do they do? What organizations do they belong to? What did they study in college? Back at the Inquirer, one of my colleagues, a general assignment reporter,  had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War. Another, who worked in business, knew a lot about explosives. Another Metro reporter had an extensive knowledge of movies. It’s possible that in your midst is an expert in an area that could deepen your coverage — or, just as importantly, enrich your staff’s conversations about stories. Find out who’s working for you — and then put those talents to work on behalf of improving your journalism.
  • Assess your staff’s journalism chops. Before you can get better, you need an honest assessment of your current performance. For maximum impact, assess from the top: Who are your best writers? Your best interviewers? Your best visual journalists? Your best audio editors? Who really understands multimedia storytelling? Now, who needs help in these areas? Armed with this assessment, you can initiate a variety of efforts to improve individual skills, like one-on-one mentoring and staff-wide brown bag lunches. You can help individual desks identify specific craft areas that need improvement (maybe your court reporters need to know more about legal proceedings) and get them together with staffers who have had that experience. If the newsroom completely lacks skill in a certain area, look to the community to help. It’s in their best interest to assist, and maybe all you have to do is ask.
  • Reestablish the value of revision. Not only is a lot of content posted to the Web with only one — or no — edit, the downsizing of our editing staffs has made the idea of revising first drafts an opportunity for nostalgia. “Get it right the first time” might be a formula for success in the efficiency expert’s world, but it rarely leads to excellent journalism. Good storytelling and headline writing has always benefited from revision, and you can reestablish that as a priority. Maybe you don’t have enough staffers to guarantee multiple reads. You do have the option of moving first draft deadlines up 15 minutes to allow for an editor to read through the first draft and send it back for changes. Deadlines involve a system, and systems can be changed to facilitate your priorities. When we create systems that endorse the idea of first-draft journalism, it’s hard for the staff to take us seriously when we say, “we can be better.”

Meaningful changes

As a child being raised Catholic by the nuns in Baltimore, I learned that Lent was a time of prayer and self-denial (I gave up Coca-Cola or candy), intended to help me confront my sinfulness and prepare for the joy of Easter Sunday.

Adults traditionally have observed Lent by fasting between meals and abstaining from meat on certain days. Many go to daily Mass and attend confession more frequently.

Increasingly, though, a conversation is emerging about making Lent a time for making important changes in our lives. Father Dennis O’Donnell, who operates an orphanage in Honduras, says we are being called “to a change of heart — metanoia — more than a change of diet.”

As I think about newsroom leaders who, after years of reducing their capacity, still aspire to meaningfully serve their communities, this idea more of meaningful, substantive change rings true. Yes, the changes we discussed above will require discipline — the kind required of the Lenten observer to abstain from meat.

But meaningful changes — the ones that can transform a newsroom’s aspirations and belief in its capacity to do important work — will require courage, too.

Here are three ideas:

  • Own something. Face it. You can’t cover everything you once did. Heck, you already don’t cover everything you once did. So why not ask this question: What do I cover that helps the people of my community live better lives? What issues do I help them understand sufficiently to actively take part in their self-government? And how could I cover these in a way that no one else can? Whether it’s reform of your community’s schools, the operations of city government or the impact of immigration, your newsroom can own an issue in a way no one else does—and your community will benefit.
  • Take a chance. Everyone talks about the need to take risks, but few actually take any. Encourage staffers to present you with thoughtful, reasoned — but ambitious — ideas and let them go for it. Maybe you have to do one big idea at a time. But in too many newsrooms, the norm has become “if I can’t get it done today, I don’t do it.” We are becoming prisoners of the need to fill the book or get the show on the air. Production is winning over journalism impact and public service. The stories that mean the most to our communities are the ones they can’t get anywhere else. Take a risk. Go for it.
  • Let me try something new. I once worked for a paper where the politics writer covered the Phillies. The tennis writer was assigned to Moscow. The sports editor became city editor. In a time of diminished resources, why not encourage people to explore new subjects? Start by asking your staff what areas they’d like to cover if the opportunity opened up. But don’t forget that many people simply don’t believe they’re capable of certain jobs. Our job as managers is to identify the hidden talents — to see in people potential they don’t even see in themselves. A newsroom where anything is possible is fun to work in. Make yours fun.

We can be better than we are.

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  • Elaine Huang

    Great tips, Butch. :)