Articles about "Best Practices: Leadership and Management"


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

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 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


Slow down and read this: 6 ideas for making better decisions

Lessons in management, like all good stories, pop up almost anywhere.

Case in point: a recent episode of “Restaurant Impossible,” the weekly effort by the Food Network’s Robert Irvine to “save a failing restaurant” in just 48 hours.

Having seen many of the show’s nearly 100 episodes, I can tell you that in almost every case, poor management contributes to the troubled restaurant’s struggles. In this particular episode, the restaurant’s manager had alienated the staff to the point of near mutiny. Enter Irvine with his body-builder physique, skin-tight polo shirts, brutal critiques and renovation fund of $10,000.

He quickly recognized the manager as an issue and, shall we say, “persuaded”  her to change her management style. In a reflective moment, she described her epiphany:

“I was decisive,” she said, “but ineffective.”

Decisive but ineffective. Hearing her say that, I thought about how many leaders struggle with decision-making. They know it’s a key measure of their effectiveness — in fact, many of the leaders I work with say the best bosses they ever had were “decisive.”

What exactly do they mean? One dictionary says “decisive” people make decisions “quickly and effectively.” Another says “quickly and surely.” Still another says “quickly and confidently.” Notice what they have in common. Decisive people, the dictionaries say, make decisions quickly.

And that’s what I think got the restaurant manager in trouble. She, like many leaders, was honing the wrong skill. The question is not: “How can I be more decisive?” The question is: “How can I make better decisions?”

Or, even better: How can my organization make better decisions?

Let me propose that we begin by doing this: Slow down.

I know that sounds counterintuitive when the environment in which we are working is moving faster and faster. But this is, in a way, the speed-versus-accuracy debate applied to the decision-making process. In the end, which is more important: a quick decision or a good one?

Actually, my suggestion to slow down is a relative one. The challenge is to apply a process — it might be just an additional few minutes — to do whatever is required to make a better decision. To ask an additional question. To consult one additional person. To read the organization’s guidelines. To recognize and consider one more potential impact.

This is not an argument for being indecisive, for bringing the organization to a standstill by refusing to confront issues. But here’s a reality: the people who look to you for decisions frequently believe a situation is more urgent than it is. Why? Because they are living with the situation — and they want it to be resolved.

That’s why leaders, on behalf of the overall organization, have a responsibility to reserve the word “urgent” for situations that truly are urgent. Staffers who arrive at your door with the words, “we need to make a decision,” should trigger an alarm:

  • Do we really have to fill that vacancy today?
  • Do we really have to file that FOIA today?
  • Do we really have to decide on that departmental reorganization today? Maybe the answer is yes. But even if it is, ask yourself:
  • How can I slow this process down?

Here are five ideas for giving yourself the time to make better decisions — and for being more effective.

1. Get comfortable with these words: “I don’t know.” In many situations, that’s the honest answer to the question, “What should we do?” If you’re just being presented with a situation, how fair is it to expect you to render judgment immediately? Even after an extended discussion, you might feel the need to consult others, do some research, just think.

Remember that no one has all the answers — and admitting you don’t can make you a more credible leader.

2. Ask questions. Speaking of having answers… The great irony about many leaders in journalism is that when they were reporters, they knew their most powerful tool was a great question. Then they became bosses and assumed that now they were expected to have answers, not questions.

What a shame.

The best bosses I ever had never stopped asking questions. They refused to make decisions until the questions they had about the problem were answered to the extent possible. Even if you are dealing with a truly urgent problem, asking the right question can be the difference between making a good decision and an uninformed one.

3. Encourage alternatives. Leaders who overvalue speed in decision-making — whether it’s ethical or operational — often allow the question before them to be reduced to “yes” or “no.” Do we air the violent video or not? Do we hire the inexperienced reporter for the City Hall beat or not? Do we allow the use of anonymous sources or not?

Truth is, many situations are not “either-or” — we need to ask for alternatives. It’s one of the most effective tools I learned from my Poynter colleagues, Bob Steele and Kelly McBride, in their teaching of better ethical decision-making. Maybe we air the video with a warning to viewers. Maybe before making that City Hall hire, we contract with the inexperienced reporter for five freelance stories. Maybe we write guidelines that strongly encourage on-the-record attribution, and require permission from the top editor for anonymous sources.

Don’t settle for either-or. The more alternatives you surface, the more nuanced your decision can be.

4. Trust your judgment. Resist making decisions that you are not comfortable making.

Sometimes you can’t satisfy your every last concern. But if the story fails to answer questions you think are important to answer, you probably shouldn’t run it. (Or you might include in the story the unanswered questions you’re still pursuing.) If you doubt the tenacity of a reporter that your staff wants to promote to a tough beat, you probably need some questions answered more fully before you say yes. If you can’t envision how you would explain on camera tonight at 11 your decision about airing the disturbing video, you might not be ready to make that decision.

Don’t base decisions on gut feelings — but don’t ignore them. Treat them like “Jiminy Crickets,” urging you to slow down, ask more questions, do more research.

5. Engage others in the decision process. I’ve often told the story of the editor who responded to every staffer’s “we need to decide” with a question: “What do you think we should do?”

That question sent powerful signals to the staff: first, the editor had no intention of being the “Answer Man.” Second, the editor trusted the opinions of staff who actually knew more about the problem than he did. And third, the editor wanted to be clear that if you worked in that newsroom, you were expected to contribute to — not necessarily make — good decisions.

Notice that involving your staff in decision-making does not cede your responsibility or authority. That still belongs to you. But many leaders determined to build capacity in their organizations see good decision-making as a collaborative exercise.

And notice, too: Even that one question — what do you think? — slows down the process in the name of a better decision.

6. One final point. Building these ideas into your decision-making can make your process more intentional, more efficient. When staff come to you with situations and are armed with alternatives, ideas and information to answer your good questions, you actually may find yourself making faster decisions. Most importantly, though, they will be better decisions — and your organization will have contributed to making them.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had a misnumbered list of tips. It’s six, not five. Read more

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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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Detail of using a telephone keypad. Shallow dof.

Managing by telephone? 10 ideas for a better conference call

How can I manage people I cannot see?

That’s a question I get from a good number of managers who work with remote staff and freelancers and communicate with them via Skype, Google Hangouts, email, online chats and, yes, the telephone.

It’s clear from what the managers ask that despite the innovations in communication technology, it remains challenging to communicate effectively with people who work in another location.

I remember the challenge well. In my first assigning desk job at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I coordinated the paper’s coverage of New Jersey, and learned a lot about casino gambling, cranberry bogs, Superfund toxic waste sites and corrupt politicians. Because I was in Philadelphia and most of my staff worked in bureaus located in Trenton and points south, I also learned a lot about managing by telephone.

In the years since (and there have been quite a few), my use of the telephone often has  involved gathering groups of people for conference calls. Some were called to make announcements or share information. Others provided a way to brainstorm ideas or discuss approaches to a problem. Some were held monthly, weekly or even daily so that members of my decentralized staff could brief each other and plan together. And some were called to deal with specific, one-time issues.

Recently I heard from a manager who asked for tips on facilitating an effective conference call. Acknowledging that this is an art, not a science, and that you should tailor your individual approach to the unique needs and qualities of your group, I offer these ideas. I hope they’re helpful.

1. Know the participants. The first step in making a successful conference call takes place long before anyone dials in. You need to know the participants — and they need to know you. So visit your remote locations as often as possible. Be able to put faces with the voices. (I worked with two freelance stringers in Jersey for four years and never met them in person.) You may not be able to visit your bureau staff and freelancers every week, or even every month, so when you can, make the visit count — address work issues that let each of you see the other in action.

2. Set a goal. Even if the call is held every week to discuss issues like the upcoming Sunday edition, your website’s metrics or a long-term project’s progress, establish a clear goal for each call. If all you want to do is make sure everyone knows what their colleagues are working on, you can tell everyone to submit something in writing and dump a meeting. But if you want to identify the week’s best story and share ideas for its presentation, make sure everyone on the call knows that in advance — and helps make it happen. Remember that if you invite me to a call, I need to understand why I’m there and what I am expected to contribute to its success. That begins when I understand your goal. (And be realistic. You can’t create a social media strategy in one 60-minute call. But you might agree upon a process and assign tasks to those involved in the project. That’s progress.)

3. Prepare an agenda. And share it. Before the call, send an email to the participants  that includes the goal for the call and any specific discussion points. Telling me beforehand what we’re going to discuss gives me a chance to think about the issue and what I might contribute. If I’m introverted, you’ve just helped me a lot. Also, include in the email the names of those who will be on the call. It will help me picture who’s sitting around this virtual conference table.

4. Start (and end) on time. If it’s difficult to run an in-person meeting when folks are arriving at all times, it’s even more difficult when they are entering a conference call after it’s begun. If the call is to start at 2 p.m., start it at 2 p.m. and follow up with those who chronically arrive late. And for your part, make sure to end the call when you said it would end.

5. Take roll. At the beginning of a call, I like the participants on the call to announce their presence. This accomplishes two things: it helps the participants picture who’s sitting around the virtual conference table; and it gives me a chance to make a checklist of who’s on the call — so I can make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

6. Set expectations for participation. Call on people. Conference calls, like all meetings, allow you to send a variety of messages, like: “We need the ideas of everyone in this organization.” “The loudest voices will not have an advantage.” “We will treat everyone’s ideas with respect.”

Too many conference calls, like too many in-person meetings, violate these principles, and the organization is poorer for it. As facilitator, keep track of who’s doing the talking and ask those who are quiet what they’re thinking. If someone is about to talk for the 26th time, politely say, “Before you speak, William, why don’t we hear from Susan?” Don’t forget, this is your call.

And be careful about discouraging participation with your opinions — your words carry a lot of weight. Again, remember that the meeting is yours. You can speak whenever you want. So let others go first.

7. Stay on track. Keep your eye on your goal and the conversation on point. When a discussion designed to surface ideas for improving deadline performance wanders into an argument about who did what on one night in October, reign things in. Repeat the goal and summarize the group’s progress so far. Then let the discussion resume.

8. Don’t be afraid of silence. Interpreting the silence on a conference call is something of an art. Many facilitators assume that silence means the discussion has stalled and it’s their responsibility to kick start the conversation. But remember the good reporter’s response to silence: let it hang. The person being interviewed often fills it — and sometimes takes the conversation to a deeper place. Or, respond to the silence by reframing the issue under discussion; ask a question that helps the group look at the issue from a different perspective. Bottom line: Don’t let silence cause you to abandon a discussion too quickly. It still might have good places to go.

9. Agree on next steps. As you’re nearing the end of a call, summarize what the group has accomplished, relate it to the meeting’s stated goal and propose next steps. What will you do with the meeting’s output? What do you need the others on the call to do? Who will report back during the next call? When will it be? Leave everyone with a clear sense of why the call was a productive use of their time.

10. Follow up with email. Some managers like someone on the call to take detailed minutes and distribute them to the participants afterward. I usually lean toward a shorter follow-up email in which I sum up what we accomplished and what we agreed would be next steps. But let the situation guide your follow-up. If your goal was to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming election campaign and the call generated 57 ideas, an email that lists all of them tells the group it has a lot of good ideas. If your goal was to mark the progress of an ongoing staff training program, a succinct paragraph might suffice.

Most importantly, remember that managing staff via telephone relies on the same fundamentals as managing in person. Your success will rise and fall on the quality of the relationships you build with that staff. And every interaction you have with them — whether it’s one-on-one or in a group — contributes to the quality of those relationships.

Dial away. (Just kidding.) Read more

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SXSW Interactive and Film Festival attendees crowd the Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 9, 2013 in Austin, Texas.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the first in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

One of the great libels against newspapers is that they’re averse to change. It’s true that newspapers could have changed more to forestall their decline. But they have changed — the newspaper of 2014 little resembles the newspaper of 1984.

I recall Orwell’s famous year – 1984 – as a tumultuous one in the history of the news business. Old gray papers were suddenly filled with color. Vertical columns gave way to modular boxes. Word processors replaced typewriters, and new forms of news writing challenged the inverted pyramid. Page designers entered the building – some with little experience in journalism – bringing with them a new lingo about white space, grids, and color saturation. Women and minorities began to establish themselves in newsrooms, reforming our sense of mission and purpose.

These innovations challenged old ideas and created friction among the players. One memorable standoff pitted the “word” journalists against the “visual” journalists. The VJs disdained writers who produced endless columns of gray text, while the Wordinistas ridiculed designers who wasted news hole with poster pages that crowded out more important content.

That was the historical context in which I began to work with Mario Garcia, the man who in the last three decades has changed the face of news across the globe, redesigning newspapers, magazines, websites, and now tablets and mobile platforms. I was the first full-time teacher hired at the Poynter Institute. Mario was the second. I taught writing. He taught design. We came to admire each other’s work. What can I say, we fell in love.

And one day, we decided to get married.

That marriage, of course, was metaphorical, a union of the minds and of professional disciplines. Mario gave it the acronym WED, the marriage of Writing, Editing, and Design. The WED concept became the subject of numerous conferences, seminars, essays, and countless newsroom conversations across the globe. We even created avatars for ourselves (though we didn’t call them that back then), manifestations of our more single-minded points of view. My avatar was Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason, a solid gray eminence so stoic and purposeful he never seemed to smile. Representing Mario was the Brazilian film actress of the 1940s Carmen Miranda, a woman of a thousand colors and textures, often photographed with a headdress that looked like a bowl of fruit.

If Raymond Burr (who in real life was as gay as a day in May) hooked up with Carmen Miranda, Mario and I could have been their love twins.

The WED honeymoon turned into real work, a re-imagining of how creative and effective news organizations could be.

We imagined:

  • that the old assembly-line production model of news could not and should not survive.
  • that collaboration across disciplines would improve journalism and serve the public good.
  • that visual and word workers had more in common than they thought, including elements of craft such as focus, emphasis, shape, color, dimension, detail, information, the power of white space, and, most important, story.
  • that versatility would become an increasingly important virtue. Versatility did not require designers to write stories or writers to design pages – although we tried that in workshops — but it did require the development of a common critical vocabulary that allowed one craftperson to speak to another “without an accent.”

One example will suffice: I learned from designers that white space was a crucial element in the creation, say, of an informational graphic describing the primary causes of an economic downturn. That white space was an antidote to clutter, visual ventilation that let the page breathe and helped relax the reader. I took that concept and began to apply it to text. Turns out there’s white space within a story or report too. Most of it occurs in the margins. But within the text itself there are bars of white space that mark the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. I teach journalists that the words immediately before that white space get special attention from the reader. Save a key word or phrase to use in that location, I tell them. It will play jazz.

One objection to the WED concept was that it did not include enough of the players or disciplines. Where was leadership? a colleague asked. Where was photography? Why limit the players? If we added leadership, they argued, it could become the LEWD concept. Well, I said, we could add Leadership, Photo, and Ownership and create the PLOWED concept. “Turn your weapons into plowshares,” could have been our motto.

But we never intended for our WED concept remain an exclusive club of three. Writing’s W included all the word workers in the shop. Design’s D included all the visual workers. And Editing’s E included all those in a position of leadership, who needed to build bridges across disciplines. The editor needed the ability to work with words and visuals the same way that the director of a film had to understand the elements of acting, cinematography, editing, music scoring, and all the other tools of filmmaking.

During Mario’s travels around the world as a news designer, it’s become clear to him — and now to me — that the values, virtues, and practices of WED are more important than ever. In the age of the Internet, more disciplines than ever must be integrated into the creative process — including, for example, computer programming, Big Data, stories written from Big Data, data visualization, and multimedia. Journalists of every stripe must work across platforms, including mobile delivery systems. Maybe in the morning, it’s our job to help the reader lean forward with her iPhone; or at night to lean back with his iPad.

So Mario and I would like to welcome you to iWED, the integrated marriage of writing, editing, and design – a collaborative process of planning and execution that gets the very best from all creative workers in the enterprise and produces multiple products designed to build audience and serve the public interest. The two of us know no better framework for balancing the enduring values of journalism with the innovations necessary in an age of tumultuous change.

Please join us at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Monday, March 10, at 12:30 pm. Who knows? Maybe we will end our session, as we did 30 years ago, with a dance. Read more

Two multi-ethnic businesswomen talking

Gasp! How news managers can get better at listening

Here are five signs that your boss – specifically your editor – isn’t listening to you:

1. Looking over your shoulder for the next person to enter the room
2. Looking at his watch
3. Checking her cell phone
4. Staring at a computer screen while talking over his shoulder
5. Interrupting you to run off to another meeting

Been there, seen all of the above.

We’re familiar with the signs of someone who’s not listening. But what does listening — on those rare occasions it occurs – look like and sound like?

You heard it here first: It sounds like a Danish woman.

That realization first struck me about 20 years at a seaside bar in St. Pete Beach. A Danish woman – her first name was Dorthe – had traveled a long way to interview me. She was a professional journalist working with students and flew to Florida to check out some of my experiments with young writers. As I answered her questions, something strange began to happen.

She began to gasp.

It might have gone something like this:

Me: In my writing classes, the students create the texts that we study.

Dorthe: [gasp]

Me: I teach kids to read, write, and talk about their reading and writing.

Dorthe: [gasp]

It went on and on until I began to flatter myself: Roy, you are so special. You are taking this woman’s breath away!

More technically, I would describe Dorthe’s gasp as a sharp, audible intake of breath, delivered not randomly, but at moments of acknowledgment or affirmation. I found it wonderfully idiosyncratic and charming, a sign that Dorthe was listening to my great ideas.

Over the years, I worked with Scandinavian journalists at more than a dozen week-long seminars at Poynter and during workshops in Copenhagen and Aarhus. And guess what? Dorthe’s gasp wasn’t idiosyncratic at all. I experienced it over and over again, almost always from Scandinavian listeners, most of whom were women.

When I called this move to their attention, the Danes looked puzzled. Then, when I caught them in the act, they said it was unconscious.

“We do it all the time,” a woman told me. “We are just not aware that we are doing it.”

At a recent Poynter seminar on “Coaching and Creating Great Long-Form Journalism,” I had the chance to work with 15 Scandinavian journalists and watch them in action. When we began to exchange ideas about the signs of listening, I brought up the Danish gasp and told them I’d discovered it had a name.

“In linguistic circles,” I said, “it’s known as the ‘pulmonic ingressive,’ known popularly as ‘the Scandinavian nod.’ ” (I had Googled “Danish speaker sharp intake of air.”)

It turns out the pulmonic ingressive exists in many cultures, but is most commonly known as an attribute of Scandinavian speakers, especially women. Let’s break down the technical term. The move is called “pulmonic” because air is sucked into the lungs, and “ingressive” because of the passage of air into the vocal tract. The nickname — the Scandinavian nod — affirms that the sound is made to express something positive about the listener’s response to the speaker. While it can mean “I agree with you,” it can also mean “I’m hearing you,” “That interests me,” or “Tell me more about that.”

According to the scholarship, such reactions are “paralinguistic,” that is, sounds other than words that enhance the meaning of a communication, the way I use “hmm” or “uh-huh.” Another phrase to describe such responses is “back-channeling,” which describes all the symbolic gestures of communication other than direct language.

It is in the act of coaching that all of this carries practical weight. I would argue, for example, that when writers approach editors to pitch a story idea, a lead, or a draft, they are looking for one sign in return: reflected enthusiasm. When we don’t get it, when we see the editor look at his watch, doubt begins to set in.

In a beautiful piece of hyperbole, the great writing coach Donald Murray once described listening as “an unnatural act.” That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn. I’ve learned, for example, that listening can surface some gender differences. As a man, I assume that I can listen and read the newspaper at the same time. But as a husband and father of three daughters, I’ve learned that the women in my life demand evidence that I’m listening. They want me to put aside the newspaper or click off the television or not answer my smartphone. It helps when I look them in the eye, lean forward, and repeat the key things they are telling me – all signs of my full attention.

I’m not sure I can pull off an authentic pulmonic ingressive. But I know how to listen – and how to nod. Read more


News managers: Think like great writers, focus on the right details

Sometimes sadness is like a drug that won’t let go.

On the morning after actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York with a needle in his arm, I spent several hours reading news stories, appreciations and old profiles written during his remarkable stage and film career.

With each story that I opened, I promised myself this one would be the last, that it was time to get to work on this column about leadership. Then I read another, and another, unable to shake my need to understand a man I had met in a hundred different ways, yet never really at all.

In story after story, I found myself looking for details — telling details — the ones that good storytellers use to build compelling characters like the Lomans and Capotes that Hoffman played. Characters who make me care, characters I can’t stop watching or reading about; characters who are real.

In many of the stories about Hoffman, the writers detailed his unremarkable physical attributes — “lightly freckled skin,” “the sideways wheedle of a voice,” “the doughy, malleable face and Baby Huey physique of a character actor.” Of all the details they could have chosen, they selected those — and they did so to make a point, expressed by actress Meryl Streep: “Philip is not particularly any one way, which means he can be anybody at all.”

As my mind moved slowly back toward writing this column, I began thinking about details in another context — the role they play in a good leader’s management style. But not just any details.

Telling details.

The best bosses I know, like good writers, select well. They know what to “put in the story, and what to leave out.” They pick their words, their directives, their initiatives deliberately — to make a clear point, to obtain a specific, intended result. As a result, they bring order to the organization’s agenda, beat back the staff’s feeling of being overwhelmed, keep everyone focused.

And they can do it whether the job at hand is implementing a new business product, reorganizing workflow, or editing a story. The best bosses recognize the telling details — the questions, measurements and tactics that help their staffs prioritize their efforts.

Back at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992, the company installed new color presses and the newsroom needed to make a number of changes to the newspaper’s design. Editor Max King and Managing Editor Gene Foreman took the opportunity to refresh the newspaper’s look — preserving the Inquirer’s classic design while modernizing a number of conventions.

Unlike most redesigns, however, this one was not intended to be noticed. Aware that readers in some markets had reacted badly to redesigns, King and Foreman wanted readers to wake up in nine months or so and read a newspaper that had undergone a total redesign — without anyone noticing.

Needless to say, the effort required great attention to detail, including a very specific rollout schedule that called for incremental changes to be made over the nine months. Some changes were pretty obvious; some were very small. (I seem to recall that one week, we merely made a minor change to story bylines.)

When it was complete, and you placed a new Inquirer next to the old one, the changes were easily apparent. But King and Foreman had achieved their goal: over the nine months of rollout, only one complaint reached the newsroom — a postcard with a single phrase, “Too much sans serif.”

That’s one story, and you know others, I’m sure. I’m imagining Philip Seymour Hoffman, striped tie loosened, shirttail sticking out of his trousers, and black horn-rimmed glasses perched atop his head, playing one of those bosses right now:

The weekly meeting on the rollout of the website’s redesign is sidetracked. The participants are debating a question about coding. The boss listens for a few minutes, and then interrupts. “As important as this conversation is,” he says, “let’s take it somewhere else. Why don’t we focus on next week’s audience tests, and the most important thing each of us needs to accomplish between now and then? Then we’ll know whether any of our priorities for the next week needs to change in order to be ready for those tests.”

Notice, Philip didn’t just stop a sidetracked discussion and return everyone to the agenda. From a long list of rollout issues, he selected one as most important — the audience’s reaction to the new site. He wanted everyone focused on that telling detail, and ready to hear it next week.

And how about these scenes:

A reporter, back in the office after covering a story, sits down at her desk, opens her notebook and prepares to write. Suddenly she realizes Philip is standing next to her. “Before you write,” he says, “let me ask you something. What do you think your readers will learn from your story that they didn’t know before?” After listening carefully to her answer, they talk about a possible lead and nut graph. “One more question,” Philip says. “What would you say your story is really about?” A few minutes later, as her editor returns to his desk, the reporter realizes how much clearer she feels — thanks to a few carefully selected questions.

Another reporter is receiving a performance review, and the subject is his writing. “I can see,” Philip says, “that the quality of your writing came up during last year’s review.” “I know,” the reporter says. “My boss told me my writing was muddled and asked me to work on it.” “What does ‘muddled’ mean to you?” Philip asks. “I’m not sure exactly; too many words?” the reporter answers. “How about if we do this?” Philip asks. “For the next week or so, we’re going to focus on how many dependent clauses you use. They can slow your story down, often without adding much benefit. Try eliminating as many as possible. Then, one at a time, we’ll tackle another part of speech — verbs, adverbs, adjectives. Think we can do that?” The reporter nods, and leaves the conversation understanding more clearly what he has been asked to try. He has received feedback — detailed feedback.

Newsroom managers are complaining to the boss that two reporters detached for a special report are needed for daily assignments. The boss has listened for several minutes to the managers. “Send any complaints you get about missed daily stories to me,” the boss says. Then he reminds his visitors of the newsroom’s goal: to produce stories that no one else will have — to get a reputation for exclusive content. “Let me add that I appreciate the extra effort you’re expending while you’re short-handed. Believe me, it will be worth it.” The newsroom’s priorities are clear.

Here’s my invitation to you: Think about how you decide what to say when you’re introducing a plan, explaining strategy, critiquing a program, editing a story. Are your choices of words, metrics and tactics leaving the staff feeling more focused — or overwhelmed? Are they clear about what you expect — and what they need to do?

Remember, it’s a matter of what you “put in the story, and what you leave out.”

It’s a matter of selection.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name. Read more

leadership conceptual compass

PoynterVision: Step up to leadership by volunteering

Poynter’s Jill Geisler, senior faculty of leadership and management, shares her story of how she became the news director of a major market network affiliate at age 27 in the 1970s when only a few handful of women ran newsrooms.


Related Training: The 10 powers of leadership | Advice for the Newly Named News Director | What Great Bosses Know About Leadership Styles Read more

Creative management (Depositphotos)

Building a creative news environment can be a matter of routine

Newsroom managers have always needed to be good jugglers. When someone asked how I was doing, I often answered:

“I’ve got a lot of balls in the air — and I’m trying not to let too many of them land on my head.”

But listen to managers talk today about their daily challenges, and the juggling metaphor no longer feels sufficient.

Not when they say things like, “I’m just trying to survive.”

With more work, over-stretched resources and frequently changing expectations for themselves and their staffs, managers say their top priority is to get the website updated, get the paper out, get the show on the air.

Just get the work done.

Notice what’s missing from that statement: “Get the work done … well.”

It’s implied, you say? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Too often, managers respond with a polite “you must be dreaming” to the idea of improving the work with more coaching, brainstorming or long-term planning. We know those things would help, many say, but we don’t get time anymore for lunch. When will I get time for coaching?

Instead, they describe turning to whatever strategies or tools or decisions helped them make it through yesterday’s ordeal — and then using those approaches again today… and then tomorrow … and the next day…

They are on a quest for routines.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily — if you choose the right routines.

And therein lies the trap. Because repeating the same approaches to your job day after day can be the death of creativity. Too many stories with anecdotal leads become ordinary, boring. Too many interviews with the same sources become predictable and distort reality. Too much negotiating story length and deadline instead of brainstorming better story ideas leads to a preoccupation with production concerns — at the expense of the stories.

At the expense of doing the work well.

On the other hand, the right routines, applied appropriately, can help you survive and pursue excellence. The challenge is to choose routines that enable the pursuit of excellence, not frustrate it.

Said another way, the right routines provide a framework for creativity. They not only protect against every day becoming an unstructured, “reinvent the wheel” experience, they also enable an environment for pursuing new ideas and more ambitious work.

Here’s my challenge to you today: Identify three routines that you could adopt to enhance your staff’s creativity.

Here are three examples:

1. Meetings. Start on time and end on time. Every day. (If you’re not running the meeting, show up on time anyway. And then ask if others could, too.) Meetings that start late and go on forever encourage attendees to view them as burdens instead of opportunities. And stick to the agenda — it will help you end on time. If the meeting is about tomorrow’s morning show, it’s not the time for discussing the company’s new health insurance plan.

Those two practices — honoring start and end times, and sticking to the agenda — are useful routines. They give your meetings structure. Once you have that structure, you can defy routine in the cause of creativity:

  • Deal with mundane issues quickly. They are mundane.
  • Rotate responsibility for running the meeting.
  • Encourage discussions you want more of — the ones that take coverage deeper, beyond the obvious.
  • Assign attendees to share with the group examples of best practices.
  • Be clear about next steps, timelines, and who’s responsible for them.

2. Coaching ideas. Every story starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a tip from a source, maybe it’s a suggestion from a neighbor, maybe it’s a thought that woke you up in the middle of the night. Whatever the idea, pursuing it usually involves a routine.

In too many newsrooms, that routine is heavily weighted toward production concerns. How long will it take to get the story? When can you file to the website? What visual support do you need? How long will it be? Does it need graphics?

These concerns are important. But they seldom guarantee that the story will leave viewers or readers talking afterward. Why not adopt a routine of asking, for starters, three questions about the idea:

  • If this story is totally successful, what might our audience know that they didn’t know before?
  • What questions do you need to get answered?
  • Who do you need to talk with?

Yes, you caught me: the answers to those questions might lead to more questions — and they should. Because done well, this routine can lead to reporting that both you and your reporter are invested in from the start. The rest of the day — including deadline — may well go more smoothly.

3. Access to you. The busier you get, the more difficult your staff finds it to talk with you.  Yes, you have lots of conversations with them about story budget lines, deadlines, web postings, etc. But your busyness discourages the kinds of conversations that staff are referencing when they call their manager a really good listener. Here are two routines that can help you increase the number of those conversations you hold.

  • Stop, at least once, on your way from the newsroom entrance to your desk. This routine gives you options. You can stop at the desk of someone you’ve been meaning to check in on, and spend five minutes there. But once you establish this routine, your staff will feel comfortable stopping you on your way across the room. Maybe the 10 minutes you spend at someone’s desk or at the coffee machine just lets you catch up on how someone’s kids are doing — but they might be spent hatching a great story idea.
  • Schedule one conversation a week on how someone’s job is going. Daily feedback is really important, and the more useful feedback you can give your staff, the better. But routinely checking in with staff to talk about how their job is progressing over time can allow you to realign expectations, shift course, brainstorm new ideas. It also lets you communicate your commitment to the staffer’s success. And if you’re looking for motivational tools, that’s a big one.
  • Linger after meetings. Yes, it’s really important to end meetings on time. It also can be helpful to hang around afterward with someone, or walk back to your desk with a staffer. Maybe you’ll talk about something related to the meeting you just attended. Or maybe it’s something you or the staffer has been hoping to talk about. The important thing is your accessibility — and the fact everyone in the newsroom can see your accessibility.

So go find three routines. And then find three more.

If you pick the right ones, they’ll help you get your work done — and do it well. Read more