Best Practices: Leadership and Management

Personality inventory

PoynterVision: Use Myers-Briggs to understand your coworkers

Poynter’s senior faculty in leadership and management Jill Geisler uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in her leadership seminars at Poynter. She introduces the test to new managers and experienced leaders to help them understand themselves better and better manage their staffs. Geisler, a certified practitioner of Myers-Briggs, says knowing your Myers-Briggs type can help you find harmony with your colleagues.


Related NewsU training: What Great Bosses Know About Leadership Styles | Advice for the Newly Named News Director | Challenging Conversations: A Step-by-Step Guide for Great Bosses | Managing Change: Creating Strategies, Setting Priorities Read more

When managers fumble, they need to work at repairing their reputations. (Depositphotos)

When managers fumble: 5 tips for repairing your reputation

We customarily think of managers as the men and women who pass judgment on the performance of others.

But managers are evaluated, too. It may come in the form of annual reviews, employee surveys or union grievances. They may get feedback from conversations with colleagues and staff. 

And from those interactions, even good managers learn that they have performance gaps. That’s a nice way of saying the boss has some flaws.

Because the managers in our Poynter programs get 360-degree feedback from colleagues, I get to see a lot of compliments, along with solid, constructive critiques of bosses. Among the more common concerns:

  • Delegate more, micromanage less
  • Listen more, interrupt less
  • Keep people better informed
  • Cool that temper
  • Disconnect from digital devices during conversations and meetings
  • Distribute work equitably
  • Set clear priorities
  • Follow up on conversations and emails
  • Provide better feedback
  • Post work schedules on time
  • Don’t let underperformers cause extra work for others

The real test of a manager’s character is how he or she responds to such feedback.

There’s often an immediate sense of defensiveness, the feeling that others don’t know how hard you work or how hard you try or how the complaints fail to take into account all the other good things you do.

That’s human.

But what really matters is your next step: how you move forward in the face of well-founded criticism.

The good news: you can make things right. I know this from the countless coaching sessions I’ve done with aspiring great bosses. Here’s my advice:

1. Take the critique to heart. It may sting. It may stink. But if people are asking you to change a behavior, do your best to see the world through their eyes, not yours. You may think that when you shout, you’re just letting off steam and mean no harm. To others, it’s a morale and confidence killer. You may think a delayed work schedule or email reply is merely a misdemeanor offense. To those who can’t plan their personal lives or get their work done because of your missing info, it may feel like a felony. You may think you’re being efficient by eyeballing your computer while talking with staffers. To them, it’s a signal of their unimportance. Give credence to their concerns.

2. Apologize to those affected by your bad habits. I’ve known managers who think apologies undermine their authority. Not so. When bosses express sincere regret for wrongs they’ve done, they can gain credibility. No need to grovel or blubber. Just take responsibility. If you say: “I’ve given a lot of thought to your feedback. I didn’t realize how often I shoot down your suggestions — with sarcasm. I thought it was just debate, just give-and-take. I was wrong. I apologize for humiliating you – and for stifling some creativity, too,” you are demonstrating strength.

 3. Chart your course of change. Start by informing people of your intentions. Go on the record. “I heard the concerns about the late posting of work schedules. That’s my fault and I apologize. Effective immediately, I’ll make sure they’re posted two weeks in advance. I’m arranging to have a backup scheduler as well, so there are two of us on the case.” Look for quick wins – things you can do immediately to demonstrate good faith, while you work on long-term, lasting improvements. Determine how you’ll measure your success, so you have a plan, not a wish.

4. Invite observation and feedback. Let’s say you’re going to do a better job of responding to emails. Seek out not only those who’ve complained, but also other respected colleagues. Tell them about your plan to improve your response time. Be specific. Then ask them if they’ll keep an eye on your progress and let you know how you’re doing. Not only will they keep you honest, they’re likely to spread the word about your improvement. That’s a win all around.

5. Be authentic in the process. You may be an introvert who’s asked to spend more face time with people or an extrovert who’s asked to be less dominant in meetings. When you respond, don’t overreact. Step up or pipe down a bit more, not radically. If you’ve committed to being less of a micromanager, don’t simply withdraw. Define what it means to be less involved in the work of others, make sure others share that definition, then use it as your guide.

Remember, when you choose to change, you are modifying your behavior. You’re not becoming a different person, just a better version of you. 

And much better boss, too.

* * *

Whenever you’re working on improvement, it’s important to have allies in the organization. I’ll list the most important ones in this column’s podcast:


Read more


How managers can lead newsrooms in a digital age

Digital First Media Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady doesn’t know who Olivia Pope is, but is more than willing to find out about the central character in the TV series “Scandal.”

That openness to the interests of diverse workers can be counted among the new skills required of leaders managing today’s digital staffs, the topic of a workshop Saturday at the Online News Association conference in Atlanta.

Brady said when he first became a manager, he modeled himself after Lou Grant, the grumpy, bombastic editor in the television series of the same name who ruled his newsroom with a top-down management style. By doing so, Brady admits, he probably alienated his reporters.

“Today, you have to listen to everyone else or you will fail,” he said.

Managers further need to empower workers and encourage experimentation. Callie Schweitzer, director of digital innovation at Time magazine, recalled that when the government shutdown caused the National Zoo’s panda cam to go dark, the magazine set up its own livestream with a stuffed animal, drawing a devoted audience.

In an earlier day, the fake panda cam might not have flown at the magazine, but there are no rules in the digital age, Schweitzer said.

“You have to try different things outside of your wheelhouse,” Brady agreed.

Time management may be among the most challenging issues for editors making daily choices about which tasks get their attention.

Schweitzer advised managers to concentrate on the things that matter the most. She said she regularly asks herself if she is doing the work that will get her closer to her goals.

Journalists can also get flustered by the apparent need to do everything. Brady advised managers not to overwhelm their reporters, but to allow them to pick the right tools — whether video, audio or photos — for their story, as opposed to all the tools.

“Let the journalist be the journalist,” he said.

Young journalists looking to move into management should raise their hands whenever an opportunity presents itself, Brady and Schweitzer said. Brady’s advice: Don’t wait, but step up as soon as a position opens.

Management is very hard today, Brady acknowledged. But the industry faces a dearth of good managers, he said, and newsrooms should be looking for those who can be coached and can grow into those important roles. Read more

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Question Wall Puzzle Piece Answer Complete Understanding

One simple question that can change a manager’s relationship with staff

When I was a little boy, I remember grown-ups had a favorite question:

“And what do you want to be when you grow up?”

With each year, my answers changed: Cowboy, firefighter, priest, Perry Mason. (Not sure I ever wanted to be an astronaut, probably because I didn’t like roller coasters.)

In college, people kept asking me the same question, and with more urgency; after all, I needed to get a job someday. And over four years, my answer still kept changing: lawyer, teacher, writer.

I finally settled on the writer idea, and the search for a paycheck led me to the rewrite desk of the News American in Baltimore, my hometown. There I faced a new challenge: figuring out how my daily output of crime briefs, obituaries, dictated staff stories and occasional news features would get me to the cover of the Rolling Stone.

In a way, almost 40 years later, I still have that same question:

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Answering that question is my responsibility. But someone else has the great opportunity to help me answer it:

My boss.

Even as a child, people whom I trusted — parents, teachers, coaches — helped me recognize my strengths and urged me to develop them. They also pointed out my shortcomings, and the best of my mentors helped me discover how to grow in those areas.

Good managers understand that dreams and ambitions don’t die once we land in the workplace. In fact, they know that taking an interest in their staff’s future can help build  strong working relationships with them. Once I believe that you really care what I want to be someday, I’m much more likely to trust your advice, respond to your suggestions and take an interest in your needs.

It’s really a no-brainer. Then why do so many managers run as fast as they can from asking their staff about their aspirations? They think:

  • “Their ambitions are completely unrealistic.”
  • “The conversation will just encourage expectations I have no control over.”
  • “Chances are, they want jobs they’re not good enough for. Why should I be the one who breaks the news?”

Responses like these are understandable, but they result in two unfortunate and unnecessary situations:

First, managers who never ask staff about their aspirations make assumptions about what they’d like to become. The cop reporter, it is assumed, would like to be promoted to courts or maybe City Hall. Truth is, the cop reporter has a passion for the arts, and wants to be a critic someday. And the day inevitably comes when the manager, having just named a new arts critic, receives a visit from a visibly upset cop reporter, who asks: “Why didn’t I have a chance to apply?”

Second, managers who show no interest in the staff’s future create relationships that, like so many in today’s newsrooms, revolve around production: Bosses give out assignments. The staff completes them. Other staff fix them up the best they can. And the whole process is repeated tomorrow.

Am I oversimplifying? I don’t think so. And it’s not that way everywhere. Find a journalist who works for a manager who has taken a genuine interest in that person’s development, and you’ll hear statements like:

  • “My writing was clunky. He helped me simplify it.”
  • “I had a terrible habit of missing deadlines, and it was holding me back. She helped me organize my day differently, and everything changed.”
  • “He saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself.”

During my career in newsrooms, I watched good editors offer the people around me jobs that took the staffers by surprise. Since coming to Poynter, I’ve met journalists who can’t wait to tell me about the boss who took a risk on them — and how it paid off.

Here’s my bottom line: Whether you’re a new manager or a seasoned pro, if you want your staff to believe that you are dedicated to helping them do the best work they can do,  start building their trust by asking:

“What do you want to be someday?”

Their answer might be a specific job. It might be more vague (as years went by, my answer became, “I want a job in which I have influence. I want to be at the table.” Any number of jobs gave me chances to do that.)

Once you as a manager know what your staffers aspire to do, you have a choice — and how you choose will determine how honest your relationship with your staffers can become. You can invest in their ambitions. Or you can say, “That’s great. I hope you get there.”

If you choose to make that investment, I’d suggest these next steps:

  • Candidly assess the staffer’s strengths and weaknesses. And don’t minimize the strengths. Look for opportunities for the staffer to do more work that builds on them. Your efforts to help them grow will be enhanced if they learn to do what they do well even better.
  • Give them specific ideas for addressing their weaknesses. If the issue involves  writing, identify a specific habit (too many adverbs, backing into too many sentences) and offer to work on that one specific problem together before moving on to the next one.
  • Help staffers see how improving the problems you’ve identified will help them be  better candidates for the jobs they aspire to. The clearer that connection, the harder they will work to improve in that area.
  • Be clear, especially in these uncertain times, that your journalists might have to go elsewhere to find the jobs they want. But don’t let that change your willingness to help them become better qualified to get that job. Every day they improve in your employ will benefit your newsroom’s audience.
  • Look for opportunities for them to test their ambitions. If a member of the staff aspires to a job in another department, you might be able to send them there as a vacation replacement and let that editor get to know their work. Or maybe you can help them get a freelance assignment with that department.
  • As time goes on, if there is improvement, say so. If not, remind the journalist that progress has to occur if their ambition has any chance to come true. The good news is that once they believe that you’re invested in their future, your staff will hear your feedback through that filter. They might not like everything you tell them, but they will know why it matters. You’re trying to help them him get better.
  • Finally, don’t assume that aspirations stay the same. Ask your staffers from time to time how they’re looking at the future. And be willing to suggest other assignments that you think they’d be better qualified to do. Maybe you see potential in them that even they don’t see.

Think about this: On many a day in today’s newsroom, your staff — and maybe, you — are struggling mightily to see how your ever-expanding workload can lead you to the future you aspire to. Maybe you’re even finding it hard to identify the future you want.

We all could use some help on this journey. As a leader, you have the opportunity to offer that help, and maybe, just maybe, affect the direction of someone’s career.

Or maybe, someone’s life.

Just ask that question. Don’t miss your chance. Read more


To change your leadership style, rewrite your leadership story

Have you ever been at a funeral and, as the clergy or relatives or friends offer tribute to the deceased, found yourself wondering:

What will they say about me?

While the Irish Catholic in me winces at thinking about myself during another’s tribute, I must admit the moment of introspection can get me thinking, both personally and professionally.

Now I’ll stop short of recommending that managers attend more funerals. But I’m thinking that those of us who take responsibility for leading others would do well to pause on a regular basis and ask, “What will they say about me?” Especially when we’re still in a position to influence the answer — and we are, every day.

Think about it. Leaders are the authors of their own leadership stories. We write them with every decision we make, every conversation we have, every promotion we award, every meeting we lead. We’ve been writing our story since the day we accepted the job. And those we lead have been reading our story—and writing their own reviews.

Unfortunately, too many leaders settle for what amounts to their story’s first draft, and ride it until everyone around them knows each chapter by heart. Some never ask what others would say about them; others ask, but don’t respond to the answer.

Why not rewrite your leadership story?

You can, you know. And the good news is, rewriting doesn’t require that you change who you are. It requires that you change what you do. And that’s totally under our control, each and every day.

Let me repeat that. What I do is totally under my control. No, we cannot control what will happen to us; we cannot determine whether we have a lousy boss or impossible goals or even a dictate to lay off staff. But we absolutely control our response to those situations. And if I have been responding in one way to a situation, I can decide — beginning today — to respond differently.

If I choose to.

Once I accept that I can, in fact, rewrite my leadership story, I can change my entire approach to managing. I can see growth as a real possibility. I can stop seeing my shortcomings as character flaws and begin identifying behavior changes that can  transform them into strengths.

But let’s be frank; this can be hard work, and I’m already too busy. If I’m going to really follow through, I need a process.

Since I’m writing a story, how about using the writer’s process?

As you’ve read on this website many times before, every writer follows these six steps (whether consciously or not):

  • Develop an idea
  • Report the story
  • Focus the story
  • Organize the material
  • Draft
  • Revise

Let’s see how the writing process can work for our leadership story.

Develop an idea: Every leader needs to have an answer to the question, “What kind of leader would I like to be?” Sometimes the answer is based on your experiences with past bosses; sometimes it’s the product of your successes and failures in trying to lead others. Remember that at this point in the process, you haven’t done any reporting yet, so the idea is untested. Maybe you think you’re too easy on people. Or you need to be a more vocal advocate. Or manage your time more efficiently. What does your leadership need?

Report the story. While your take on your leadership style is important, it needs to be tested against the perspective of others — those you lead. These are your leadership story’s “sources,” whose feedback can help you identify the gap between your assessment of your leadership style and the reality of its impact.

To be most valuable, make sure your sources have different perspectives: your boss, members of your staff and peers in other departments. Find one source who no matter what their job, can be trusted to give you straight talk — even if you didn’t ask for it. Not only will your sources help you identify the gap between the impact you aspire to have and the one you are having, they also will help you identify the behaviors you could adopt — or abandon — in order to achieve that desired impact.

Focus your story. The most important question a reporter can ask before beginning to write is: “What is this story really about?” For the leader, the answer can help organize the information you’ve gathered from your sources and prioritize how you’ll use it. For example, let’s say your boss and members of your staff talked about your tendencies to be distracted during one-on-one conversations; to write curt emails, to cut people off during meetings. This story, you decide, is about communication.

Organize the story. Now that you know what the story is about, you can identify the areas you most want to work on. Yes, you also heard from the sources that you play favorites in making assignments and sometimes let mediocre performers slide, but those areas will have to wait for another day.

This rewrite of your leadership story will emphasize behaviors that could improve your effectiveness as a communicator: more attention to listening, fewer memos and more spoken messages, a determination to treat people’s ideas with more respect. Remember, you’ll have opportunities to address other aspects of your leadership. For today, it’s communication.

Draft the story. In all likelihood, making changes to your leadership style will take time. The distractions that occur during one-on-one conversations will not go away, and you’ll occasionally succumb to them. That’s why it’s important to see your first attempts at changing a behavior as a draft — a work in progress. Look for progress and try to identify what helps you; similarly, be conscious of what causes you to fall into old habits. And most importantly, check back with your sources to see if they notice any changes.

Revise the story. Over time, based on your own evaluation and what your sources tell you, you can adjust your tactics. For example, you might have set a goal of meeting individually with each member of your staff every two weeks. A recent downsizing has made that impractical, however, and you need to reduce the frequency of those meetings. In another circumstance, you might decide your bi-monthly meetings are insufficient, so you increase the frequency. The key is to keep sight of the goal — in this case, become a better communicator — and the fact that achieving it requires you to do something.

One last thought: rewriting your leadership story requires a healthy dose of humility. Asking others to honestly assess the effectiveness of your leadership can be sobering. But looking back and realizing you passed up the opportunity to become a better leader also can be sobering.

Don’t let someone else write your leadership story. Slap your own byline on it and start rewriting.

You can become the leader you want to be — one choice at a time. Read more


How managers can put themselves in a position to succeed

Anyone out there recognize my conundrum?

With each passing year I became more aware that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. Sure, I walked a lot: to and from work, to the supermarket, pretty much everywhere. But nothing that broke much of a sweat.

I even knew what exercise I wanted to do. While I’ve never been a runner, I enjoy fast-walking. The problem was finding the time to do it.

On many a night, I’d go to bed planning to get up early and start the day by walking several miles. Then come morning, I’d wake up and check my email. Or decide to get to the office a little early to get organized. Or just sleep an extra half hour.

So much for good intentions.

One afternoon I was sharing my frustration over this with my colleague, Kelly McBride.

“As soon as you wake up,” Kelly said, “put on your running shoes.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “If you put your running shoes on, chances are, you’ll use them. If you don’t, you’ll probably keep finding excuses not to.”

Bingo! In the past 18 months, I’ve done a combination of walking and running about three miles on more than 300 mornings.

I just had to put on my running shoes.

Put another way, I just had to put myself in a position to succeed — something more of us journalists need to do.

Think about how many mornings you arrive at work determined to tackle something important: a brainstorming meeting about the upcoming campaign; a feedback session with your best reporter; a half-dozen check-ins with new sources; a difficult conversation with a chronically-late staffer.

Now think about how many nights your ride home is spent lamenting the fact you never got around to doing any of those things.

The road to deadline is paved with good intentions.

How can we put ourselves in a better position to succeed, to do more of the “important things” on our agendas?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Use your calendar. If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to put on your calendar. Think how often you’ve run into someone in the hallway and said, “Hey, we should talk – stop by my office later.” And then what happens? You both get busy and the meeting never happens. But suppose you scheduled a meeting with that same person at your desk at 9:30 a.m. Chances are, you meet. And you drive home tonight knowing you crossed an important item off your list.
  • Make a list. You cannot comprehend how difficult it is for me to even write those three words. I am so not a list person. I made my first To Do list on the day I became a managing editor in Baltimore (figured it was time to be a grownup.) At the end of the day, I looked with frustration at the list and realized that despite being busy all day, I had not crossed off one item. So I wrote down the things I had done — and immediately crossed them off. I felt better, and I didn’t make another list for months. But today, as the rust collects around my memory lobes, I’m finding that making a list — at least once in a while — can help me keep my most important priorities at the front of my brain. And let’s face it, with the variety of tasks you are responsible for in today’s newsroom, age isn’t the only contributor to a leaking memory. There’s just a lot to remember. Why not write it down?
  • But … make entry to your list difficult. Remember, the purpose of this exercise is to turn more of those good intentions into completed tasks. If your list includes every phone call, meeting and routine responsibility you have, the important stuff will continue to get lost. Your list should facilitate quality of work, not quantity. Be selective.
  • Share your good intentions. Tell your assistant. Tell a fellow reporter or photographer. Tell your spouse. Tell someone who will ask you if you had that feedback conversation, that meeting with a source, that planning session. (You can tell your boss, but make sure you’re ready to do the work; your boss almost certainly will ask about your progress.) The purpose of telling someone is to enlist support, even a friendly nudge.
  • Find five minutes of quiet to evaluate your day. Whether it means leaving the music off in the car or taking a more circuitous route to the bus stop, give yourself a chance to be alone and think: What did I accomplish in the past 10 hours that had impact beyond today? How did I get it done? Or, why didn’t I get something important done? How can I make tomorrow different?

These tools help me, and you undoubtedly can come up with others that can help you. After all, we wear different shoe sizes. But we all have the same goal:

We want to succeed. And we need to take some concrete steps toward putting ourselves in a position for that to happen.

What are yours? Read more

Jeff Bezos

How Bezos, in his first memo to Washington Post staff, achieved believable optimism

Imagine this:

You’re a reporter at The Washington Post and you’ve just heard your company has been bought by, of all people, the guy who created Amazon.

Graham. Bradlee. Woodward. Bernstein.


Think you’re nervous?

Now imagine this:

You’re Jeff Bezos and you know that you’re about to own a building filled with thousands of employees as nervous as that reporter. And you also know that the first thing you say to them will be remembered as vividly as their first kiss, first car or, maybe, the first time they bought a CD on Amazon.

If you’re really good, you’ll say something that leaves them as optimistic about the future of their company as you are.

If you’re really good, you’ll say something they really believe.

Well, I don’t work for the Post, and so I won’t speak for the staff there. But I think the memo that Jeff Bezos released shortly after the purchase was announced is one fine piece of work.

It’s conversational. It acknowledges the tough realities of the news business. It points to the need for change.

And it makes promises. Bezos promises to honor the values of the Washington Post, to own up to mistakes, to “slow down” in order to get it right, to be courageous in the pursuit of truth.

He does not say everyone will keep their jobs. But then, no one has promised that at the Post for a long time. What Bezos demonstrates is that an empty promise of continued employment does not create optimism — but a genuine promise to commit to important journalism can.

Yes, this memo communicates optimism. In the face of tough realities, Bezos says to that building filled with apprehensive employees, we can “invent” what we want to be, and we can succeed.

I don’t know what lies in store for The Washington Post. Maybe one day journalists will be quoting this memo for stories about failed strategies. But for today, it stands as an example of what to say when you want a room filled with nervous employees to believe.


I was about halfway through this piece on Jeff Bezos’ memo when my colleague, Jill Geisler, rushed into my office and said she also was writing about how much she liked his message to Post employees. So as we have done a whole lot of times over the past decade, we teamed up. Here’s Jill’s take on why Bezos’ memo worked so well. She writes:

When I’m teaching about leadership and change, one of the key change “accelerators” I invoke is communication. It’s a skill that many managers — even those in media — take for granted. At a time when emotions and uncertainty are high, when people are learning new things and letting go of the old, when people on the outside are questioning and the people on the inside want to believe they know the right answers — they turn to their leaders.

Too often, they get management-speak that’s aimed at boardrooms, not boiler rooms, and certainly not to newsrooms filled with people who write for a living and know fluff when they read it.

That’s why I really liked the message Jeff Bezos sent to the staff of the Washington Post.  Here it is, with my comments:

To the employees of The Washington Post:

You’ll have heard the news, and many of you will greet it with a degree of apprehension. When a single family owns a company for many decades, and when that family acts for all those decades in good faith, in a principled manner, in good times and in rough times, as stewards of important values – when that family has done such a good job – it is only natural to worry about change.

Bezos starts by acknowledging their shock and fear. He invokes the best of the past and connects it to their worry about the future.

So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

Values matter to journalists, so Bezos makes certain he is speaking their language. He uses language he’s no doubt heard his friend Don Graham use when talking about the role of journalism in a democracy.

I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.

It’s now the third paragraph, and only now does he write about himself. He does so with humor and even here, he puts the focus back on the newsroom and its strengths.

There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

This is the “let’s get real” part of the memo. He acknowledges challenges without flinching, then makes a call to action. It’s forthright and gutsy – and human. He lays out a plan in the simplest terms and invites people to sign on.

Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post — as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States — is especially important. I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost. While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.

This paragraph hits a home run. It’s got civics, history, values – and humor. It’s written like an insider in the building already.

I want to say one last thing that’s really not about the paper or this change in ownership. I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man.


Jeff Bezos

And in the end, he pays tribute to a person whom he knows must be deeply, personally affected by this business move. After all, it’s not just business to Don Graham, any more than it is for the Post employees. Bezos is wise enough to know that in honoring Graham the leader, he also salutes his team.

  Read more


Irish journey reveals important reminders about storytelling, leadership

The two-room cottage is a shed now, a white-washed place for Jimmy O’Toole to store hay for the livestock, a few pieces of farm equipment, a cupboard, a china cabinet and the family stories that he keeps alive for visitors to Ireland like me.

Gone is the thatched roof that kept the home a wee bit dryer in the raw Irish winter, replaced by a corrugated roof and proper downspouts. Gone, too, are the 11 children whom my great-grandparents raised on this rocky land against the sea – including my grandfather, Coleman, whose decision to leave for America 100 years ago redirected his life and, a generation later, helped shape my own.

My grandfather’s two-room cottage.

I have come here with my wife Donna after talking with her for many of our 38 years together about visiting the home of my ancestors. Now we are standing on my cousin Jimmy’s farm in Tiernee, Lettermore, in County Galway, and walking for the first time on rock-strewn paths that somehow seem familiar, perhaps because one of the most important men in my life walked on them, too, in a far different time.

In the days to come, as I tell friends about my visit to this place, I will confess to feelings I never anticipated I would have. I will think about our legacies and the lasting impact of our choices and about how much where we come from affects what we become. And I will think about our journalism, how context changes everything and the power of stories when we tell them well.

But at the moment, standing in the middle of this postcard in the warm July sunshine, looking out to the sea beyond land partitioned by a dozen stone walls, I am moved by a sensation that I am part of something greater, and ongoing, and deeply personal. I have never been here before, but I have come home.

Jimmy’s farm.


In my work with managers, I look for metaphors that help them connect with the ideas I’m trying to explain. When I teach about optimism, for example, I share my experience with the doctor who told me I had prostate cancer.

In Tiernee and the story of my grandfather’s journey to America, I quickly found metaphors for two ideas I’ve been thinking about lately. One is the importance of context in our storytelling, and I’ll return to that later. The other deals with the need for all of us who manage to become more conscious of the choices we make, and the impact of those choices on others.

Coleman’s decision to leave Ireland, to state the obvious, had a huge impact: He created the opportunity for me to exist. That’s a good metaphor.

Though less dramatic, most management decisions have some level of human impact. Some are significant and we have come to expect them, like when we announce unpaid furloughs, change work schedules or downsize the staff. Think about how our decision to refocus the newsroom on digital journalism requires the staff to master new skills. We know that for some, the impact will be a much-welcomed expansion of their resumes. For others, however, the same decision may accelerate their departure from the staff.

Sometimes, because the decisions seem routine, we underestimate their potential impact. When we do, we risk missing an important opportunity. Think about it. Assigning someone to a new beat can change the direction of a career. Taking time to work with a writer or photographer on a chronic weakness can open the door to new assignments. Confronting staffers about a performance issue — this is no exaggeration — can save their job. These may be routine choices, but their fruits can be very significant.

As I think back on Coleman’s decision to leave his homeland, perhaps forever, I wonder how much he thought about the impact it would have on others. Wondering too much about the possible impact of our choices can sometimes paralyze us from taking action. That’s obviously not the goal. But anticipating the possible impacts, and thinking about how we can respond to them, will help us make choices that avoid consequences we never intended.


By 1913, when Coleman boarded the boat to America, the British had ruled Ireland for more than 700 years. They had executed the Irish for the crime of being Catholic; executed or imprisoned them for political activity and evicted them from their farmlands. Oliver Cromwell himself banished the O’Tooles from the lush hills of Wicklow to the rugged coast of Connaught, offering them a choice: “To Hell or Connaught” — confident they would not survive either destination.

Add to the mix the great Potato Famine of 1845-49, and generations of Irish men and women like Coleman found it all but impossible to find hope. Between starvation and emigration, the Irish population that stood at more than 8 million in 1845 was cut, by 1913, nearly in half.

And so it was that of the 11 children born in that two-room cottage in Tiernee, only my cousin Jimmy’s dad, James, remained to take over the farm. The others — Stephen, John, Mary, Henry, Coleman, Mark, Tom, Sarah, Martin and Nora — came to America. Coleman was among those who settled in Baltimore; most of the others went to Pittsburgh. Sarah made a home in Minnesota.

In Baltimore, Coleman built the life he could not have found in Tiernee. He first found work as a fireman on the B&O Railroad, and then in 1922, joined the Baltimore City Police Department. He met and married Nora Nolan, an emigrant from County Mayo, and together they had three children, the oldest being my mother, Margaret. They bought a three-story row home on Ashton Street in southwest Baltimore, then another, and eventually owned four houses on the block. Times were hard, but they had steady work and electricity and indoor plumbing.

And, most importantly, they had hope.

By the time I was born in 1952, Coleman and Nora together had written a classic Irish story of joy and sadness. Their two oldest children, Margaret and Coleman, graduated from high school; Margaret went on to business school and Coleman got a college degree. Margaret got a job at the Westinghouse plant in the neighborhood and, after the war, met and married one of the draftsmen, Al Ward.  (My grandfather never embraced my mother’s choice of husbands for a simple reason—he wasn’t Irish. The irony is that my Dad may have been Irish; we just don’t know, and Dad didn’t care to find out.)

But Coleman and Nora also had their heartaches. They buried their youngest child, Thomas, after a truck backed over the 8-year-old boy while he played in the back alley. And then, in 1950, Nora died of breast cancer, leaving alone in the three-story house on Ashton Street a quiet husband who became even quieter.


How I wish that my grandfather had told stories. But he didn’t.

Only in the past few years, thanks to cousins who visited Tiernee, did I learn about the two-room cottage and the poverty and the rocky soil that made the use of farm machinery a fantasy. I asked my cousin why he thought Coleman and his siblings spoke so little about their home.

“I think maybe he was embarrassed by it all,” Pat said.

His answer makes me think. Standing against one of the stone walls, looking toward that two-room cottage and imagining the voices of children and the smells of burning turf and whatever was cooking in the pot, I feel many things — but no embarrassment.

I feel admiration. I feel respect. I feel pride.

But it’s all about the context, isn’t it?

In 1913, the farm along the sea at Tiernee was home to struggle and hunger and that damp Irish cold and, worst of all, no promise of change. Those who left may not have created their circumstance, but as he walked aboard the boat that took him to America, I can imagine Coleman feeling determined to leave behind the struggles of his homeland forever.

Unlike Coleman, however, I have my grandfather’s life in America to help me place Tiernee in a very different context. For me, Tiernee still represents struggle — but it represents a struggle overcome. Not just for Coleman, but for his brother and my cousins who persevered on this property — and prevailed. And the storyteller in me knows that I cannot tell you the story of how Coleman O’Toole, like so many thousands of America’s immigrants, overcame great adversity to build a successful life, without telling you about the adversity.

All of this makes me think about the role that context plays in our journalism. How often have our stories lacked the context that helps readers understand the whole story? Do our stories on America’s immigration debate begin and end in a legislative chamber? Or in a vegetable field in California? How often do we take our readers back to the “Tiernees” of Mexico or the Ukraine or Cambodia to create a context that helps explain why people choose to leave families behind and come here?

Do our stories about health care or gun violence or the efforts to save a local arts group include the context necessary for the community to fully understand why the issue matters?

Yes, I wish my grandfather had told me stories — but only if he could have brought himself to talk about life at Tiernee. Then he would have had a great story to tell.


Coleman lived to be 90, and he only returned to Tiernee once. In 1962, after retiring from the Baltimore City police force at the mandatory age of 70, he took what was to be a three-month visit home. He returned to Baltimore after three weeks.

“Those people haven’t come an inch since I left,” he told us at the Cunard Line pier in New York.

Indeed, the Ireland that Coleman found on his trip home in 1962 was still poor. Well over half the population was on welfare. Emigration remained a problem. And even though his nephew, Jimmy, had built a lovely home on the farm, Coleman had to walk to bed by candlelight because electricity had not yet reached Tiernee.

“They don’t even have sidewalks,” Coleman said. (And for a man who loved nothing better than to give his sidewalk a good sweep, this was a big problem.)

Today, Ireland has sidewalks and plenty of electricity and thousands of pubs and restaurants to serve the millions of tourists who come each year with their iPhones to photograph the castles and medieval graveyards, rolling hills and rugged mountains, all embraced by a fickle sea.

In many ways, then, a lot has changed over the 100 years since Coleman first left his home.

Or not.

Today Ireland is struggling through a new economic crisis, following an all-too-brief period of explosive growth known as the Celtic Tiger. Beginning in the second half of the 1990s, Ireland was an economic success story, enjoying annual GDP increases that in 1997 reached 21 percent. Today, though, unemployment has risen from 4 to 15 percent and housing prices have fallen more than 50 percent.

The Irish are emigrating again.

Indeed, on the very July day that I am with my cousin, Jimmy, for the first time, hearing stories about cousins I’ve yet to meet, I know that somewhere in Ireland a young man, maybe named Coleman, is about to leave his country in search of work.

In search of hope.

When I think about that young man’s search, I better understand why this visit has touched me. Why I keep thinking about the choices I’ve made and could still make; why I do the work I do, and how I can improve it.

I realize that I, too, am looking for hope.

Even more importantly, Tiernee has helped me remember that my search is not mine alone. It belonged to Coleman before me and to the Colemans still to come. It belongs to refugees from Darfur, political prisoners in Syria, frightened children in gang-controlled neighborhoods in Chicago.

It is a search that connects us all.

It is that connection that gives our journalism the potential to matter. For when the stories we tell help our readers and viewers to connect, personally, with other people — no matter if they live across town or across the world—remarkable things can happen. Laws change. Children are fed. Corruption is punished.

People find hope.

And helping that to happen, to quote an old journalist friend, is an ennobling way to spend one’s life. Read more

Optimism boulevard plaque

Tough times signal need for managers to express genuine optimism, not ‘happy talk’

When I ask journalists to reflect upon the qualities of their best bosses, they almost always include “optimistic.”

That’s not surprising; one dictionary defines “optimistic” as “hopeful and confident about the future.” Most of us are grateful when we work for (or with) people who help us feel good about what lies ahead.

That’s why it’s a shame so many managers misunderstand what real optimism is. Their staffs are looking for reasons to believe, and what they get is happy talk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Communicating genuine optimism is the result of a process — a straightforward, and potentially wrenching, process.

Any leader, at any level of the organization, can do it. In fact, all leaders owe it to their staffs to rigorously seek genuine optimism that they can share with others, credibly.

Let’s be clear about what genuine optimism is — and what it’s not. First, optimism is not a substitute for a good strategy. It is, however, an important ingredient in the effective manager’s ability to lead others to carry out that strategy.

Second, optimism is not happy talk. Over the past two decades, we’ve heard gigabytes worth of happy talk, often from top managers who are trying to fire up the troops after the latest downsizing. Standing before staffs that have said goodbye to friends, longtime colleagues, sources of institutional memory and expertise and yes, some underachievers, these managers have been known to say something like:

We will look back on this as the best thing that ever happened to us.

Really? If the staffs listening to these pep talks were given those hand-held meters that record real-time reactions to what’s being said, I’m guessing they’d be looking for PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating.

That’s happy talk.

When I think of genuinely optimistic leaders, I think of Winston Churchill, emerging from his bunker and walking through the bombed-out ruins with his fellow citizens. I can hear him asking them to believe that no matter how bad things are right now, they can prevail.

Real leaders do not deny reality. In fact, the credibility of their optimism stems from the fact that they believe in the future despite the current reality.

Let’s be clear about our current reality: after 20 years of downsizing in all kinds of newsrooms, members of our communities are less likely to see themselves in a news report. They get news products that receive less editing, and it shows. And the coverage they receive frequently lacks the expertise of beat reporters who, thanks to downsizing, have been replaced by generalists. (Imagine being told to run down to the courthouse and get a story online ASAP about a complex corporate bankruptcy filing — the first one you’ve ever covered. This is the best thing that ever happened to us?)

As managers, we need to remember that the people most familiar with the current reality are the people who work in that reality. Our staffs sit next to the empty desks. They scramble to cover topics they’ve never covered before and learn technology they haven’t been trained to use effectively. They take the phone calls from readers and viewers who ask why we didn’t cover that story, why the story that broke at 10 p.m. wasn’t in the morning paper, why we didn’t photograph this game or that graduation. Managers don’t get credibility by denying or sugar-coating that reality.

The current reality should give us hope for the future. Why? Because in many places around this country, staffs are producing examples of print, digital and broadcast journalism that help their communities make better decisions, help people make sense of their increasingly complex world, help all of us interact with each other all day, every day.

It’s happening. Newsrooms that are, in some cases, one-third their previous size, are producing work that matters. Could they produce more of it if they had bigger staffs? Absolutely. Would their communities benefit if they were producing more good work? Yes they would.

But here’s the point: Managers in many newsrooms have gone through the process of seeking optimism, have found it, and are producing work that makes a difference. What I am suggesting today is that knowingly or not, they found optimism by following a process. Here it is:

  1. Identify your ambitions. What does your community need from your news report? What kind of journalism would address those needs? What’s your vision of success for your newsroom’s staff?
  2. Confront those ambitions with your current reality. What can you expect to accomplish with the human resources you’ve been given, the technology and training you’ve been allocated, and the goals you’ve been assigned? Be ruthless in your consideration of these questions. Remember, your credibility with your staff is riding on this exercise. Can you succeed with the hand you’ve been dealt?
  3. Answer “yes” or “no.” If your answer to question 2 is “yes,” you are capable of communicating optimism to the most skeptical of staffs. If your answer is “no,” you need to ask whether you should remain in a job that you don’t believe you can do.

Three steps. One process. Now that you honestly believe in the future you are responsible for leading, you are ready to credibly address the staff — no matter if it’s the entire newsroom or three page designers. When you talk with them, here are a few things to remember:

  • Acknowledge reality. Don’t shy from talking about unpleasant facts, like the new population of the newsroom or the impact of a new round of furloughs. Your audience knows those facts, and they want to know you are as conscious of them as they are.
  • Share your own fears. Think of it this way: You want to help your staff confront their ambitions with the current reality, just as you did. So tell them what concerns you and how you got to “yes.” Religious people say faith means more when it survives a confrontation with doubt. The same is true of optimism.
  • Don’t dis the past. Some managers say their staffs resist change by clinging to their past. Instead of disparaging work from the past (and by extension, the staff that produced it), emphasize how the newsroom can meet the current, changing needs of the community by building on the best of the past — with interactive technology, enhanced storytelling skills and delivery platforms that take you where the audience is.
  • Communicate your (revised) vision. Newsrooms that have most successfully dealt with downsizing have focused on specific coverage goals, like Watchdog reporting, sports, consumer news or politics. They identify areas that the community needs its news report to cover, and work to own those areas. Sharing your strategy with the staff adds specificity — and hopefully credibility — to your optimism.
  • Ask for help. You can’t do it without them. Say it.

Is this a process that can lead to genuine optimism? I believe it can. Genuine optimism can help you unite people behind a sound strategy for your newsroom’s future. It can set the tone for sound, day-to-day management of a staff in times of change.

And it can help you dump that foolish pep talk for something like this:

I’m standing before you today with very mixed emotions. I, like you, am aware of the people who are missing from this room, and I can’t help thinking about how much we will miss them and their work. I hope we never forget the contributions they made to this newsroom and to the community we serve.

At the same time, I have to admit to a feeling of excitement. I’m thinking about the challenge of covering our community in a time of constant and confounding change. Our public needs strong journalism from us more than ever, as they try to make sense of the chaotic information world in which we all live. They are waiting to see if we can respond.

I believe we will. And do you know why?

Because I’m looking at all of you. When I do that, I believe that we can do it.

I know it won’t be easy. We’ll all have to learn a lot of new things. We’ll have to make some smart choices about the coverage we’ll focus our remaining resources on — and we’ll have to stick to those choices. And we’ll have to interact a lot more with our community than we’ve ever done before about the issues they struggle with the most.

And so, I’m also a little scared. Maybe just like you. But I believe we can do this. We can do it because of the talent in this room, and the desire you and I share to be excellent. That’s our tradition and we’ll honor it by making it our future.

We can do this.


Join Butch Ward, Jill Geisler and managers from all over the world for Leadership Academy, Poynter’s premier management seminar, this October 20-25 in St. Petersburg. Apply here now to guarantee yourself a seat. 
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How managers can improve the quality of feedback they offer

I know the answer even before I ask a group this question:

“Does anyone here get too much feedback at work?”

The reply, amid snickers and eye rolls, is “No.”

No matter who is in my audience, from employees to supervisors, there’s a shared belief that feedback is in short supply.

Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” report confirms that sentiment. In its surveys on workplace engagement, Gallup asked employees if they’ve received positive feedback for good work in the last seven days or had a conversation about their progress in the last six months. Again, the answer often comes up as “No.”

Gallup found that 70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged. Many simply go through the motions, while others actively undermine the operation. That’s a huge problem.

Some workplace problems are expensive to fix — technology upgrades, understaffing, massive retraining. But providing feedback is FREE!

I don’t apologize for that all-caps shout. I’m a raving evangelist for feedback because I know the power it can have to improve the quality of work, the workplace and the lives of people on the job. Gallup even offers data that connects feedback to employee engagement and engagement to a better bottom line.

In my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I outline strategies for effective feedback of all kinds and help managers build a feedback tool kit. Feedback for effective performance management has become one of the most requested topics that I teach and write about. I take that as a very good sign that supervisors are aware they’re responsible for closing the feedback gap.

In fact, an organization I visited recently declared this the Year of Feedback and brought me in to help managers perfect the art. We had a great time building that toolkit of feedback and customizing it for individual people and situations. Then, one of the leaders in the room raised a question. If managers suddenly deliver copious doses of feedback, how will employees react?  Isn’t it possible they’ll be skeptical or scared?

It’s a darn good question. When it comes to feedback, three factors converge: the source, the content and the recipient.

That convergence has maximum impact when:

1. The source of feedback is credible and respected.

2. The content of the feedback is fair, understandable and useful.

3. The recipient of the feedback hears it as the speaker intends, then acts on it.

All of us, managers and co-workers alike, deliver and receive feedback, so it falls to all of us to work on each of those three dynamics.  Even as I teach, coach, and encourage managers to become great bosses and deliver first-class feedback, it won’t matter if people choose not to listen, or if they do, don’t take the information to heart.

It’s easy for any of us to miss or to misread the feedback we receive. We may view an interaction with the boss as just passing conversation while she’s presuming she’s delivered a memorable message.

We may wonder if the positive stuff we hear really matters, while the negative stuff may rock our world. Because we tend to remember situations that trigger our emotions, it’s possible that the pain we feel from criticism takes up much more space on our mental “feedback ledger” than the little lift we get from everyday praise. It can lead us to focus on the negative and forget the positive, as in, “The only time I hear anything around here is when something goes wrong.”

Perhaps that’s why a recent study found that the among members of high-performing teams, feedback had a positive to negative ratio of 5.6 to 1. People on those teams make sure the positive stuff is delivered early and often — and it sticks.

I also believe that if we consider it our responsibility as employees to seek out and be open to feedback, we’ll be better for it. New research about happiness underscores the point. In an experiment, employees at a number of Fortune 500 companies were sent a daily email inquiring about their level of happiness. Some received the question worded this way: “How happy were you today?” Others got this version: “Did you do your best to be happy today?” Over time, the latter group reported a significantly higher level of happiness, because they came to see it as a goal for which they were personally responsible.

What would happen if you ask yourself each day: “Did I make a point to give and receive some valuable feedback today?” You’d be upgrading all three facets of high impact feedback — the source, the content and the recipient.

Here’s my deal: I’ll keep nagging bosses about raising their leadership chops along with the quality and quantity of their feedback. At the same time, let’s all make it a goal to keep an open mind — and ears — to feedback from others. Recognize it, process it, and put it to good use.

We just might close some gaps.

High-impact feedback is on the agenda for the 2013 Poynter Leadership Academy, October 20-25. 

Join Jill Geisler, Butch Ward, a terrific faculty and leaders from around the world for a career-changing week. Information and applications here. Read more


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