Why do journalists remember nasty editors fondly?

Dean Baquet said it was “nuts” to elegize “‘the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and it made me a better person.’” I noted earlier today that John Robinson had recently tweeted some wisdom about the peculiar devotion some journalists have for tough editors, but I was curious what Jill Geisler, who directs Poynter’s management and leadership training programs, thought about J. Jonah Jameson types.

Geisler recently wrote about what a good management style looks like, and talked about the “bad old days” when “bosses could be behave like tyrants” as long as their team “cranked out some good work.”

She didn’t dwell on those days in the piece, though, so I put it to her: Why do so many journalists think fondly of jerks? Here’s what she wrote back:

The fond remembrances are very likely the result of several things:

1. It’s all seen through the rear view mirror. Those who are fondly recalling their super-tough, idiosyncratic bosses are proud of their survival, just like those who make it through fraternity or sorority hazing. They put greater emphasis on the positive outcome and tell war stories about the hardship. There’s a “coolness” factor to telling those “I was one of Mr. or Ms. X’s crew — what a wild ride that was. If you made it there, you know you had what it takes.”

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10 key skills today’s leaders need to succeed in 2013

What sets the most successful managers apart from others? You might be an expert in your field, even the smartest person in the room — but that’s no guarantee of success. You need an array of skills that are particularly well-suited to times of change and challenge. Here are 10 I recommend.

1. Strategic Thinking
Don’t just immerse yourself in today’s tasks. Think big picture. Step back from the dance floor from time to time and take the balcony view (Hat tip for that great metaphor to the book, Leadership on the Line.”) Review systems. Set priorities aligned with major goals. Learn new and scary things. Encourage innovation by backing good people who take smart risks.

2. Collaboration
Overcome the four barriers to collaboration I’ve written about before.

  • Distance: Stay on the radar with people you don’t see regularly.
  • Dominance: Change assumptions about the importance/subservience of certain roles in your organization.
  • Discomfort: Educate yourself and your staff about the work of others.
  • Dissonance: Check your demands and systems to make certain they aren’t undercutting collaboration.

Be a role model for effectively networking by showing the value of spanning old boundaries and busting old silos.

3. Emotional Intelligence
Your IQ alone can’t fuel the group’s success. Emotional intelligence is critical. Build your self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Recognize that as a leader, you are contagious. Be a source of energy, empathy and earned trust, proving optimism and realism can co-exist. Understand that resilience is key to leadership, especially in stressful times. One of my favorites reads of the past year, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” lays out the neuroscience of resilience and underscores that we can consciously build our capacity.

4. Critical Thinking
Critical thinkers question conventional wisdom. They are vigilant about identifying and challenging assumptions that underlie actions or inaction. They are automatically wary of generalizations, inferences and unproven theories. Among their favorite questions is: “How do we know that?” They strive to independent thinkers, careful to check how their own biases might color their decisions. They do this automatically to speed up good decision-making, not to cause “paralysis by analysis.”

5. Communication
This one seems so simple, yet it comes up continually in my seminars as a deficit in organizations — and it’s managers who point out the problem! Bosses who don’t communicate effectively get in the way of their team’s effectiveness. Make it your goal to master every form of interpersonal communication and make it powerful: one-to-one, small group, full staff, email, social media, and of course, listening.

Become an expert on framing, storytelling and finding the master narrative in a situation. If you don’t, others will — and the others may be your internal critics or your external competitors.

6. Motivation
Telling people “You are lucky to have a job” in no way qualifies as motivation. Nor does fear, unless it is fear of letting a great boss down. Nor, interestingly, does throwing money at people. Pay them fairly, of course, but don’t stop there. Understand the key intrinsic motivators: competence, autonomy, purpose and growth. Determine the prescription for each of your employees.

7. Feedback
Commit to wearing what I call “feedback glasses” — new lenses through which you look at people and their work. Through these lenses, you are always on the alert for opportunities to deliver specific, helpful information to people about their performance and their value to the organization. Upgrade the quality of all of your interactions by using them as opportunities for customized, effective feedback. In my new book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I devote a chapter to feedback as the key to performance management, with a complete tool kit of options.

8. Tough Conversations
Don’t avoid tough talks. Learn to do them deftly, avoiding the many pitfalls they can present. Become an expert at addressing challenges and problems early and often. Don’t let problems fester or bullies prevail. Build trust as a leader so people recognize your good intentions even in the midst or wake of challenging conversations.

9. Coaching
Are you among the legions of managers who habitually fix the work of others? Are you the non-stop answer machine for people who are overly reliant on you for decisions? And at the end of the day, do you wonder why you’re frustrated and exhausted and employees aren’t getting better on your watch? You need to learn to coach their growth.

Coaching is an entirely different skill from fixing. It helps people learn to improve their work and make decisions for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it; a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research says the most important tasks of effective managers are teaching skills that endure and fueling the motivation of employees.

10. Making Values Visible and Viral
Let people know what you stand for. Make those conversations a part of your daily work. Lose your fear of coming off as corny or holier than thou. Tap into the great reservoir of commitment and care that people bring to their work lives, but often fail to talk about unless they’re at some professional seminar (like ours), where it pours out. Why?  Because we make it safe to talk about values like integrity, diversity, community, and service. All we have to do is start those conversations, and they always take off organically. It should happen in the workplace, too. If you don’t inspire, who will?

Each of these is a skill you can learn. I know, because I teach them! And there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing careers improve as people grow from being okay managers to being great bosses who understand the key skills of leadership.

For an elaboration of this column, listen to this companion podcast:
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The 4 D’s that can derail a difficult conversation

It ranks among the least appealing but most important management duties: conducting tough talks with employees. Bosses are required to hold people accountable, let them know what’s expected of them, and keep them informed — even when the news isn’t good.

Many managers tell me they wish they were better at handling difficult conversations. Their reasons for avoiding or bungling them can range from “I hate conflict and come on too soft” to “I have a short fuse and talk myself into trouble.”

Few managers get specialized training in this area, other than perhaps an HR primer on company policies and protocols. But a real, practical immersion in what works best in a variety of situations — that’s a rarity. Managers usually learn by trial and error. And error.

That’s why we focus on tough talks in our management programs, why I devote a full chapter to difficult conversations in my new book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” and why we had a NewsU webinar this month that brought the book’s lessons to life.

It’s important to understand how easily a challenging conversation can be derailed — if a manager lets it happen (or even causes it to happen!) Here are the four “D’s” that can derail your conversation:

  • Denial: The other person rejects the information you’re putting forward, claims it is untrue, or completely shuts down.
  • Deflection: The other person changes the subject. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this. I can name three other people who are doing far worse things. And we have crummy computers. And no one every told me this before.”
  • Disruption: The other person shouts, swears, sobs, storms out — or all of the above.
  • Dumping on the boss: The other person declares it is your fault and tries to steer the conversation into criticism of you or the organization.

Are you prepared to deal with each of these derailments-in-waiting? Can you, in the moment, have the presence of mind to craft an appropriate response? Here are some tips to keep your talk on track:

  • To deal with denial: Preparation and specificity are key. Your goal isn’t to get the other person to cry “uncle,” it’s to get the facts you’ve confirmed on the table, along with a clear message about the next steps.
  • To deal with deflection: Don’t take the bait. Stay focused on the issue that brought you to this conversation. If you’re a debater, stifle your burning desire to respond to every off-topic utterance you hear.
  • To deal with disruption: Stay calm. Don’t be tempted to match the other person’s volume or vituperation. Stay rational in the face of irrationality or you will regret it later. Keep tissues (and compassion) handy for people who cry.
  • To deal with dumping on the boss: It isn’t about you. Let me repeat that: It isn’t about you. Take a cue from some recent research that says when we’re insulted or criticized, the best way to keep from getting aggressive ourselves is to “self-distance.” That means instead of digging in and focusing on the fightin’ words you just heard, you step back, almost like you’re watching from a balcony and witnessing some misguided person talking smack to a manager. With your angry impulses reduced, you can focus on moving the conversation back to your original goal.

I often suggest that managers role play a tough talk in advance with a trusted fellow manager, especially if there’s a high level of tension about that pending meeting and its potential for derailment.

That kind of case study, role play practice is something we do in our leadership programs. People often say it’s among the most enlightening sessions of any workshop. It’s exactly what I demonstrated in the NewsU webinar. After all, isn’t it better to learn from positive, practical examples than from our painful mistakes? See you in class!

In this companion podcast, I’ll add a few more insights into those dangerous 4 “D”s that derail a difficult talk.

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10 tips for preventing staff burnout in spite of more work, fewer resources

Motivation. It’s a popular topic in leadership teaching. Keeping staff members engaged, positive and productive has always been a management responsibility.

But today, the questions about motivation are often more blunt, even raw. How do we handle the human impact of an shrinking workforce tasked with increasing workload? How much is too much to ask of people before they break faith with management, or just plain break down?

Look at the word cloud of Digital First editors’ recent responses to the question “What obstacles do you face in getting things done?”

Nearly half of the people who responded to our Twitter poll said “staff” is the biggest obstacle to getting things done.

The big fat images are a shout out for support: staff, equipment, time — positioned near that most telling word, “lack.” It’s a billboard display of what most newsroom managers think, talk about, and struggle with today.

Look at the headline for a recent chat: “How to Tell When It’s Time to Get Out of Journalism.” In the conversation, chat host Joe Grimm, who’s coached countless careers, brought up the B-word:

The out-and-out “let’s get out” decision often follows a series of disappointments or a period of burnout. That indicates the craft has changed too much to be fun anymore, or we have changed and are looking for new things…

Joe’s right, but there’s another cause of disappointment and burnout I need to address: flawed management.

Leading in times of change and challenge takes skills far beyond helping people to get over it and get back to work. Bosses whose approach to employee engagement begins and ends with “you should be happy to have a job” can’t help but contribute to burnout. They inspire people — to look for better bosses.

Since you read this column, I’m betting you’re among the better ones.  As you do your best to meet your business objectives, you also want to fight against destructive disappointment and burnout.

That’s why I’ve developed a checklist for you: 10 things that bosses can examine and perhaps improve in these demanding times. In the process, you can remove obstacles to your staff’s success instead of adding to their stress.

Your Checklist of Ten Antidotes to Burnout

  1. Strategy check: When you’re clear on your business strategy, you can establish priorities. You can tell that employee who’s head is swimming (or nearly exploding) because of multiple demands, which tasks they should tackle first, or with more resources, and which should take a back burner. If you’re not clear on your organization’s strategic vision, make it your business to get as much clarity as possible from your bosses. And yes, strategy may change on a dime these days. Businesses are being advised to innovate and “fail fast” or “fail forward” -- which means today’s hot initiative may be tomorrow’s cold corpse. It’s your job to keep informed on the status of your strategy.
  2. Systems check: Smart managers constantly review workflow and systems for inefficiencies and opportunities. Where do things get bogged down? Why do we still hand off the work from department to department or person to person in this pattern? Where are the choke points or areas of frustration? It’s easy to focus on small fixes in daily work instead of re-evaluating the why and how of old — or even new — systems. Enlist your staff to help you. You may find that what you’ve been writing off as their “whining” about roadblocks are actual pressure points that may provide insights for improvement. Let people know you are open to hearing about problems, especially from those people who also offer pragmatic, realistic solutions.
  3. Resource check: Even when capital and operating budgets are anemic, make a “wish list” of hardware, software, and yes, people you would add right now if you could. Managers often lower their expectations in tough times, censoring themselves so they don’t look greedy, grumbling or goofy to their bosses.  But every manager should be prepared to make a business case for resources, especially when the argument can be tied to strategy, innovation, or any result that rings of return-on-investment. Even with no budget, be a “window shopper,” who knows exactly what you’d buy or whom you’d hire with your next real spending money.
  4. Training check: Somebody on your staff, right now, is less effective than he could be because of lack of training. Somebody on your staff is less engaged than she could be because she doesn’t feel like she’s learned something new in a while. Training is the first casualty of tough economic times, but smart managers persevere — finding everything from peer coaching to scholarships to bake sales to offset training costs. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to release someone for training. Just pretend. Pretend that the person who is away today getting smarter is home sick. The business wouldn’t shut down because of that sick day, right?
  5. Hiring check: Become a hiring genius. On the rare occasion you have an opening, “hire up” — don’t settle. Look for someone who takes your team to the next level. Set your standards high for skills related to your strategy, values for which you won’t compromise, and people smarter than you. You’re not just filling a hole when you hire, you are staking your reputation on the person’s ability to improve your work and your workplace.  Scout for that talent, even when you have no openings. You never know when opportunity may present itself and you’ll be ready.
  6. Accountability check: Here’s how to drive already hard-working employees to Burnout City: Ask them to pick up the slack for others on the team who can’t or won’t do work to that’s up to standard. To avoid this, make certain you don’t have blind spots about underperformers, especially if they are people you hired or frankly, you simply like. You don’t have to be a jerk to hold people accountable. You can be both kind and clear about expectations. Care enough to have tough conversations about performance issues. You owe it to your staff.
  7. Bad boss habit check: This could be (and probably will become) a column all its own. What bad habits of yours are making work harder for your team? Are you late to your own meetings? Do you delay decisions? Do you micromanage? Are you disorganized? Do you fail to follow up on conversations, emails, agreements? Do you resort to silence, sarcasm or screaming when you’re under stress? Recognize that your emotions are contagious and your bad habits may be the one burden you could immediately lighten for your team. I hope you have the courage to ask people about this, because I know there are employees who pray their bosses would ask for such input  and then act on it.
  8. Communication check: Even if you’re not silent, sarcastic or a screamer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator. In times of change, people crave information. Are you keeping people informed, and feeling included? Are you listening to them? When they feel they aren’t in the loop, employees can fill in the blanks with their worst fears. That creates constant anxiety, a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout.
  9. Feedback check: The most important communication is feedback. Let people know where they stand, how they are doing, what they can be doing better and what’s expected of them. Never, ever miss an opportunity to provide feedback. One of my favorite recent management books, “The Progress Principle,” talks about the surprising power of small wins to keep people energized. The authors’ research also shows that small losses overpower small wins in employees’ minds, which is why consistent, constructive feedback can be so powerful.
  10. Agent check: I’ve written about this before and teach it constantly. Today’s managers can’t promise people jobs for life or a smooth, fast path to their dream job in the company. The economy can too easily make liars of them. But what bosses can promise is to be an employee’s good agent. If you hired an agent to represent you, that agent would make certain you are building a portfolio of noteworthy work, a record that could serve you well in your current job or wherever the changing business world takes you. The agent would candidly tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to succeed, what things you’ve produced are worth saving and showing off, what next steps are within your reach and which would be too big a stretch. The agent would even tell you when you’ve outgrown your current role, and when a better opportunity might lie elsewhere. A good agent would protect you from burnout.  Bosses, are you that kind of agent?

I’m certain there are more than ten checks to be done. In fact, I know one more that’s an antidote to burnout. Call it a “culture check, which I explore in the companion podcast to this column:

If you enjoy these columns and podcasts, just a reminder that my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know”, will be released on June 5. Read the early reviews. Read more


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