“What Great Bosses Know”: Practical advice for managers & leaders from Jill Geisler.


Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

I work with managers and non-managers alike who want to become better at listening. I’ve read books on it, written columns, and teach sessions on the essentials of the skill.

And then I met journalist E. S. Isaac of India and got a better education on what it means to truly listen.

During a dinner conversation before a week-long leadership seminar at Poynter, Isaac shared his insights. He grew up in rural Chhattisgarh, in Central India. His parents were illiterate. But his father, Benbarisi Isaac, was his best teacher.

I found what E. S. Isaac said — and how he said it — to be so meaningful that I asked his permission to record and share his thoughts.

I think this will be the best three minutes you spend today.

Who is this wise man?

Isaac oversees Doordarshan Television’s international channel DDIndia.  He manages the sports programming on DDSports, reaching 143 countries across the world.

From left to right, Father, Neha, Isaac (back), Mother, Nikhil, Rekha (front) Outside village home

From left to right, Benbasi Isaac (father), Aaditi Isaac(daughter), E. S. Isaac (back), Susena Kumari (mother), Rekha Sinha (wife), Aalok Isaac( son, in front).
I am standing behind my daughter,E S Isaac.
The photograph was taken on 28th April 1994 by Chanchal Isaac outside their village home

He was one of 15 international journalists selected for The Media Project’s Coaching and Leadership Fellowship initiative. The class met at Poynter the week of September 21.

I served as their leadership guide for the week. But when I got to the session on communication skills, you can bet that I delegated to Isaac.  And I listened. Read more


Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

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.

Read more


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.




  Read more


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 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:
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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Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014


Six questions to help managers get control of their time

As I scour today’s management literature, I’m struck by how much of it relates to personal productivity. We’re seeking secrets to working smarter. Getting more done. Becoming more effective. Learning when and how to say “no.”

Here’s the problem: We’re searching for a perfect answer in an imperfect world. I’m convinced there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all solution for gaining greater control of our time, output, stress and success.

Our time management strategies need to take into account our formal and informal responsibilities, workplace cultures, bosses, technology, training and our personal strengths, styles and quirks — not to mention the vast array of skills and needs of people who report to us.

That’s why I spend a lot of time coaching people in our seminars and workshops, so I can ask them targeted questions about their individual situations and help them discover solutions.

What I offer now is a bit more impersonal, but it’s a quick series of questions for you, just like the ones I’d ask face-to-face. You’re busy, so I’ve kept the list short.

Consider this a two-minute drill. Read the questions, jot an answer — then decide what your next steps will be.

Six Questions to Help You Get Control of Your Time

1. Which of my many tasks can or should be done by only me?

2. What do my bosses and my best people need most from me?

3. What duties, if I delay doing them, will cause significant problems for others?

4. What are my worst time-wasting temptations?

5. What skill have I put off learning that is holding me back?

6. Is there something I should keep doing, even if it isn’t the most efficient, because it gives me pure joy?

Since I’m not able to go over your responses with you, try this: Identify a colleague whose judgment you respect and trust. Invest another 15 minutes in a conversation with that person. Share your answers and your next steps. Invite that person to ask you a few more good questions and then to keep an eye on your progress.

If you have a little more time to spare, listen to this podcast in which I explain the importance of each question. (You can also download the entire “What Great Bosses Know” podcast series on ITunes U, and play it at your convenience.  You know, in all that free time you now have.)

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Monday, Feb. 17, 2014

A business man is sitting in the palm of his bosses hand on a white background. He looks unhappy and feels trapped and weak at his job. Use it for a strength or struggle concept. (Depositphotos)

Why employees resent a ‘Bigfoot Boss’

Great bosses often have big talent, big ideas and big reputations for excellence. But here’s what I’ve learned: Even when those respected leaders are larger than life, they have remarkably small feet.  Said another way: They don’t “Bigfoot” their employees. They don’t stomp like Sasquatch on their colleagues’ ambitions and successes.

Employees resent “Bigfoot Bosses” because they are takers. They rob people of opportunity, advancement and job satisfaction as they:

  • Take credit for the work of others
  • Take the spotlight when it could be shared
  • Take high-profile assignments for themselves
  • Take more control over their employees than is truly necessary

They may do it out of fear, insecurity, or some misguided response to that oft-heard business advice about “building your personal brand.”  But they are headed for disappointment.

Managers with a reputation for bigfooting others are unlikely to be seen as true leaders.  What they gain in short-term glory or power, they lose in respect and collaboration — and ultimately undermine their own success.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of one of my favorite books,”Give and Take,” has done extensive research about the impact of selfishness and selflessness in the workplace. Bosses, or people who aspire to management, should heed what Grant says in an essay for a business magazine:

In a wide range of fields that span manufacturing, service, and knowledge work, recent research has shown that employees with the highest rates of promotion to supervisory and leadership roles exhibit the characteristics of givers—helping colleagues solve problems and manage heavy workloads. Takers, who put their own agenda first, are far less likely to climb the corporate ladder.

So, how do you make certain that your staff doesn’t consider you a Bigfoot Boss, someone who puts your own agenda first?  Here are my tips:

  • Be proactive about giving credit to others.

Start with the assumption that you are honor-bound to give credit where it’s due. Then realize it takes more than good intentions to do it right.  Research says we often over-value our efforts and under-report those of others. After all, It’s easiest to remember our own contributions, but we’re less skilled at noticing and recalling all the efforts of others. Social scientists call this “egocentric bias.” But it can be mitigated by vigilance.  Pay close attention to what others are doing well, take notes if need be — so you don’t even inadvertently shortchange people.

  • Set the record straight when you are given excessive credit.

Be an advocate for accurate, genuine appreciation and recognition. Never let mistaken kudos stand, especially when the error builds you up at the expense of others. When you know that people have been left out of the credit conversation or their contributions have been minimized, speak up.  You may have to correct your own boss, but if you do it diplomatically, it will be appreciated by everyone involved.

  • Give employees a “seat at the table.” 

Look for opportunities to involve people in key meetings or gatherings. Be strategic about putting the right individuals into the right situations so they can show what they know, learn more and get opportunities to step up. Tell staffers why you are including them. Set them up to succeed by coaching them about the personalities, procedures and politics they’ll encounter.

  • Think twice before grabbing that coveted assignment for yourself.

Why are you taking the lead in this work? Will it fail without you at the helm? Is it especially risky? Or is it just potentially high-profile and rewarding? If it’s the latter, then how can you share this opportunity with others?  You don’t have to step away from all high-visibility, high-impact, or high-fun work — but you can certainly share the wealth.

  • Resist the temptation to put your footprints on everything. 

Bigfoot Bosses are often micromanagers. They may think they are improving the work by their close inspection, or worse, by keeping a hand in the process. Meanwhile, their excessive control is strangling their staff, especially their most competent employees.  Autonomy — a sense of control and independence — is a key intrinsic motivator.  Bigfoot micromanagers steal not just pride of authorship, but the authorship itself from employees. That’s a guaranteed demotivator.

If you want to keep employees engaged, give them as much autonomy as you can along with the every bit credit they’ve earned. As I write in my book, “Work Happy, What Great Bosses Know“:

We live in a world that shines the spotlight on the top leader. Widen the beam at every opportunity. When there’s a success, credit your co-leaders. Make it absolutely clear when their ideas, solutions or just plain hard work are the driving force behind wins and wise moves. When they mess up, stand with them and take your lumps. Then work together to find solutions.

Here’s the bottom line, bosses: If you do your best to keep from bigfooting others, something magical happens. When you take the next step up in your career, people will applaud your success. In fact, they’ll say you’ll be tough act to follow.

That’s because, despite leading with undersized feet, you’ll leave mighty big shoes to fill.

* * *

In the companion podcast to this column, I share a few more thoughts about avoiding a “Bigfoot Boss” reputation.

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Friday, Dec. 27, 2013

Business collection - Street quiz

How will you score on the ‘Great Bosses Quiz’?

I know there are many managers who aspire to be great bosses. So, I’ve developed a little quiz to see if you’re well on your way. Read the 10 questions, then select from the multiple choice answers. I hope the correct ones will be obvious to you and the others might bring a smile. You’ll find the correct answers at the end of the quiz.

The Great Bosses Quiz:

1. The most effective feedback from managers to employees is:

a. Serious and scary

b. Specific and sincere

c. Sweet and sour

2. Emotional Intelligence is:

a. Essential to effective leadership

b. A touchy-feely waste of time

c. An unreleased single by Hall & Oates

3. Micromanagers are:

a. Shorter than average managers

b. Rarely appreciated by staff and likely to impede employee growth

c. Beloved by all

4. Managers who are good coaches for staff know their most important tool is:

a. The question

b. The whistle

c. The deep breathing exercises

5. Everyone likes money.  But it’s important for managers to understand that motivation involves much more than extrinsic rewards like cash.  Especially important are intrinsic motivators such as:

a. Envy, greed, sloth and gluttony

b. Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy and Dopey

c. Competence, autonomy, purpose and growth

6. When managers apologize, they:

a. Sound like wimps

b. Should spread the blame around

c. Gain respect for holding themselves accountable

7. Performance management succeeds when supervisors:

a. Set clear expectations and priorities and provide ongoing feedback

b. Leave employees alone to figure things out

c. Use fear and humiliation to keep people on their toes

8. Change initiatives often fail because of:

a. Employees who are too lazy to change

b. Bad luck

c. Ineffective leadership regarding the education, emotion, motivation, collaboration and communication involved in change

9. To build a strong, cohesive team, managers should:

a. Emphasize shared values and goals, build trust and reinforce cooperation

b. Order people to get along or else

c. Identify enemies in other departments and gang up on them

10. People become great bosses by:

a. Strategically sucking up to powerful people

b. Getting an MBA from an impressive school

c. Using their values, skill, power and influence to help others succeed

*    *    *

Here are the correct answers — although I’m betting you already know them.  I’ve also included links to additional reading on each topic. Enjoy!

1. b. Effective feedback is specific, sincere and delivered by a credible person.  Even if you think you’re good at feedback, double it. Employees are hungry for more.

2. a. Great bosses work to develop emotional intelligence because it helps them manage themselves and lead others.

3. b. Micromanagers who chronically hover over a skilled staff impede their growth and job satisfaction. If you want to check if you’re a micromanager, here’s another quiz to take.

4. a. The most effective tool a coach has is the question. If you want to know more about coaching, here’s additional reading. And here’s more.

5. c. Key intrinsic (internal) motivators are competence, autonomy, purpose and growth. As I write in my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” the best bosses use extrinsic motivators (praise, rewards) in combination with intrinsic motivators for maximum impact.

6. c. When managers apologize, people respect the fact that they hold themselves as accountable as they do their staff.

7. a. Employees deserve to have clear expectations for their work and ongoing high-quality feedback (positive and negative) about their performance and progress. As we ask people to do more with less, we also need to set priorities.

8. c. Weak managers blame employees or bad luck when change initiatives fail. It takes skilled leadership to help people navigate the education, emotion, motivation, collaboration and communication involved in change.

9. a. Effective teams are all about shared values, goals, trust and cooperation. Great bosses build teams, not silos.

10. c. Great bosses know that the most important thing they do is help others succeed.

*   *   *

How did you do?  Here’s my simple scoring guide:

10 correct answers: Great Boss! Keep leading and learning.

9 or fewer: Keep trying. It’s worth it.

Here’s the companion podcast to today’s column, for those who want to listen again to the quiz and hear a little more advice:

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