How to manage a ‘newsroom star’ and keep everyone happy

This is the core message of my teaching: The most important things leaders do is help other people succeed.

So what happens when they indeed succeed, and in a really big way? What’s your responsibility when a member of your team builds a massive fan base, wins coveted awards, or rakes in high revenues for your organization?

Congratulations, You get to manage a star – with all the joys and challenges that accompany that responsibility.

I hope I haven’t frightened you.

Not all stars are problematic, although recent high profile management/star conflicts (Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Simmons, Don Surber) might leave that impression.

How stars wield the clout born of their contributions determines whether they’re what I call “low maintenance” or “high maintenance.”

Low maintenance stars are collegial, productive, interested in the organization as well as themselves, and committed to core values including integrity and quality.

But low maintenance stars aren’t sheep. They may still be tough salary negotiators, seek more staff or tech support, and expect creative scheduling or other perks in exchange for the value they add to the business.

Low maintenance stars also push back against management. In fact, their colleagues often ask them to use their influence to speak up for the team. In the many years I’ve taught leadership seminars for television news anchors and seen feedback from their peers about their performance, it’s clear the anchors’ starring role provides them a platform others lack. They can more safely serve as the “loyal opposition” — questioning quality lapses, system flaws, or unwise management decisions. When they do it effectively, it’s appreciated by both their buddies and their bosses.  Honest. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it in my own newsroom.

Then there are the high maintenance stars. In that category you find egocentricity and narcissism, and an expectation that they’re exempt from standards that apply to others – from civility to process. They chafe at being edited or even supervised. They specialize in going around their immediate supervisors and demanding to deal only with top-level bosses. The people who work with them live in fear of outbursts and insults. At worst, they not only flout workplace rules of the road, but their off-the-clock behavior becomes a headache for their organizations as well.

The management migraine, as we see in the Ghomeshi story, pulses at the intersection of fair process for an employee accused of wrongdoing, public relations, and transparency with staff and the public. This Toronto Star story lays all that out quite well.

Who’s to blame for high maintenance stars?

The stars themselves, of course, but also the organizations that let them thrive. The high-maintenance stars aren’t really being managed, they’re being enabled. Their co-workers take the brunt of their behavior as long as they can stand it, and feel it’s useless or even risky to complain about them. (Reach back ten years ago to the Jack Kelley fabrication scandal at USA Today to see a vivid illustration of that phenomenon.)

So, how do great bosses manage stars? With these understandings:

  • High performers and high producers deserve managers who reward that success in every responsible way.
  • Managers of stars should always be upfront about what the limits of the rewards will be and what’s non-negotiable.
  • Treating colleagues as servants or punching bags is non-negotiable.
  • Ignoring standards and ethics of the organization is non-negotiable.
  • Star performers often experience insecurity, fearing their success is tenuous. They may overreact to small mistakes — their own or those of others — as a threat to their status. They need managers who help them reframe those situations, calm their fears and find solutions.
  • Staying close to stars rather than keeping a distance is wise. Access to managers enables them to have a sounding board for their ideas, aspirations and concerns.
  • No matter how celebrated or accomplished, high performers still appreciate honest positive and negative feedback from a trusted manager.
  • We get what we hire – for better or worse. If we a bring someone into the workplace because we like their “edginess” or the “in your face” style of their work, and don’t manage them well, we can’t be surprised when they take that approach to their colleagues, managers or the public. We created our own monster.
  • The co-workers of stars matter, too. If the stars’ perks and privileges seem excessive and unfair to their good (if not yet great) colleagues, it can be demoralizing and demotivating. Tomorrow’s stars may leave.

Finally, remember this:

There’s always room for one more star in any organization. Find them, grow them, groom them – then manage them well. After all, the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed.

 * * *

 My work with TV news anchors in our leadership seminars provides me additional insights into “stars” — including some surprises.  I share them in the companion podcast to this column.

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The 10 powers of leadership and why they matter

Jill Geisler delivered the commencement address to this year’s graduates of Duquesne University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, where she received her master’s degree in 2004. This is an adapted version of her speech.

Because I sat where you sit today, dressed as you are, I can truly say I know what you are thinking. I know that the men and women in this room are asking themselves one compelling question about the future:

What is my hair going to look like when I take off this mortarboard?

You will look fine. Trust me.

And you will BE fine going forward.

How do I know? Because I believe you have power. In fact, I want you to recognize that, fully and even ferociously. Here’s how:

Would you please turn to the people nearest you in your row and introduce yourself. Please say your name and include this simple phrase:  “I am a power hungry Duquesne leader.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Why do we laugh when we say those words? What is it about the term “power hungry” that makes it so uncomfortable, so negative? Especially for women, as I note in my book.

What’s wrong with craving power? Not a thing – provided you use that power in service of important values. Enduring values. If you use your power for good.

This is why I say today – more power to you. Go for it. Earn it. Multiply it. Share it.

But let me be specific. Let me cite 10 powers I wish for you, 10 powers that distinguish the finest of leaders, no matter where they live or work:

I wish you…

1. The Power of Appreciation: I often ask a class of managers, “Who in here gets too much feedback?” Hands rarely, if ever, go up. In fact, my experience is that employees at all levels are starving for feedback. They have bosses who say, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job.” That’s asking people to accept neglect as a compliment. Or “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to.” And we wonder why some organizations struggle with employee engagement.

Now ask that same class how many have saved a thank you note from a boss, a client or a customer. Hands go up. The handwritten note of thanks is treasured, often for years to come.

I wish you…

2. The Power of Encouragement: Somewhere, at this moment, there’s a 5K run under way. Runners are trying for a personal best, or showing support for a cause, or trying to stay healthy. They’re nearing a hill, some are winded and wondering about the wisdom of this adventure – and then there’s the band off to the side, playing the theme from “Rocky,” and the people poised to clap, LOUD, and the crazy signs like ones I’ve seen that say, “They’re running out of beer at the finish, hurry up,” or “You’re so smart and pretty.” And somehow, the power of encouragement provides a second wind. When life and work get challenging, for whom will you provide that second wind?

I wish you…

3. The Power of Critical Thinking: The most important thing my academic career taught me is how much I don’t know  and why continuous learning happens via critical thinking. That’s why questions are such important tools. It’s why assumptions are to be explored before they’re embraced. It’s why biases and blind spots can overtake our best selves, or what we think to be our best selves, unless we’re vigilant. Check sources and context, challenge generalizations and inferences, and never lose sight of the core values that guide you.

I wish you…

4. The Power of Optimism: Emotions, as you know, are contagious. When you are a person of influence, people look to you for cues and clues. We all know people who make the workplace better and brighter just by showing up. They combine realism and pragmatism with hope and a relentlessly positive outlook. And we want to be a part of that person’s team.

I wish you…

5. The Power of Resilience: Resilience is the space and time between disappointment and recommitment, between sorrow and healing, between offense and forgiveness, between setback and, “So what? I’ll try another way.”

May your space and time be a short and sturdy bridge that takes you and those you lead from darkness into light.

I wish you…

6. The Power of Laughter: I write in my book that my guiding values of leadership are humanity, integrity and levity. Levity, not cruel or crude jokes, just humor that brings genuine laughter and happiness into teams and relationships. May you have the power to bring smiles to the faces of others and to laugh at yourself.

I wish you…

7. The Power of Collaboration: Here’s my secret. It’s not all that complicated. Find out what makes a great day at work for someone who does a job you don’t do. Learn what their bosses expect from them, who people in their field mention when they talk about the all-time greats, find out what obstacles get in the way of their success, discover their personal hopes and dreams – and you’ll become a powerful collaborator. You’ll be known for inclusion, always listening for untold stories and unheard voices. You’ll span boundaries and break barriers.

I wish you…

8. The Power of Apology: When they make a mistake, true leaders put taking personal responsibility above saving face. They step up and fess up. Not with squishy passive voice: “Mistakes were made…” With bold active voice: “I let you down.” Not the weasly conditional: “If anyone was offended…” but with the bold and definitive: “I was wrong.” A sincere, specific apology can not only can heal injury, it can raise credibility and build trust. Apology is a hallmark of integrity.

I wish you…

Duquesne University graduates stand during Geisler’s speech.

9. The Power of Choice: You’ve been patient with me through eight powers now, as I took the liberty of imposing my list on you. But you have equally, if not better, thoughts about the power you’d most like to have. And everything we know about motivation says autonomy – the power to choose — is a potent intrinsic motivator. We are most likely to embrace solutions and ideas of our own creation.

So I pause now, before I get to number 10, to invite you to create your personal number nine. I’ll be quiet for a few moments as you choose your preferred power. When you’ve got it, please stand up and stay standing. I’ll wait.

And now as you stand proudly here today, I wish you number 10.

10. The Power of Love: I was tempted to make number 10 the power of inspiration. But on reflection, I chose the power of love. You see, at the root of all inspiration you find love. Love of country, or of faith or of nature or of one’s vocation, love of people who are dear to us. To inspire is simply to put a beautiful frame around that love so it is on display for all to share. And that’s how I want to leave you today – framed in love. There are people who would have treasured being with you today, but could not be. Pause again for a moment, close your eyes if you’d like, and see their faces. Feel their love.

And now, turn your attention to the loved ones who ARE here today. Can you see them? Loved ones, I know you have cameras with you, so get ready to use them. Graduates, please take this moment, to share the power of love – out loud, a true shout out, with whatever words are most meaningful to those who came here to cheer for you. Go for it.

That’s my bonus – Power number 11: The Power to Make a Memory.

Never miss the chance to make a memory.

* * *

Here’s the accompanying podcast to today’s column:
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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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Great bosses know: Hire good people, but don’t leave them alone

Ever have someone send you a link to an article, knowing it’s a hot button issue for you? It just happened to me, as my editor Julie Moos called my attention to a brief post on The Atlantic’s website, by the author of “Quiet,” a highly regarded book about introverts. Susan Cain makes an excellent argument for hiring introverts and I say “amen.” Unfortunately, Cain tried to buttress her good case by invoking a dusty management bromide that’s more than a pet peeve of mine:

Hire good people and leave them alone.

I know what Cain is trying to underscore: that many introverts do great work in solitude and managers should respect that. They shouldn’t assume that quiet employees are devoid of ideas or initiative because that’s simply not true. But bosses, promise me you won’t take the “leave them alone” message literally — no matter what type of personalities are on your team.

That phrase, and variations on it, fly in the face of truly good management. I know some bosses use it in a self-effacing way, suggesting their people are so talented they barely need a boss, or as an earnest rejection of micromanagement. All good.

But here’s what I also know: Employees — both introverts and extroverts — are hungry for feedback. They don’t want to be left alone to figure out how they matter to the organization, what they’re doing well, or what they could do to get even better. It comes up time and again in the thousands of 360-degree feedback reports I’ve read about managers. I’m so passionate about the subject that I devote a whole chapter of my new book to feedback, and how to deliver it effectively.

The feedback chapter of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” begins with an assault on the very management chestnut Cain had mentioned:

At some time or other, we’ve all heard this one. A manager is asked the secret to success and replies:

“Hire good people and get out of their way.”

On the surface, it sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s terribly misleading — as bogus as those weight loss ads that claim you can take a magic pill and your pounds will melt away while you sleep. No way. Whether it’s dropping pounds or building a quality workforce, you won’t get results without hard work.

By all means, hire good people, and don’t micromanage them. But never become an out-of-the-way manager. Keep in touch, with just the right touch. That’s the challenge of performance management.

So what’s the right touch? That’s where Cain and I would no doubt be back in agreement.

The right touch starts with knowing that each introvert on your team is unique, and tailoring your management approach accordingly. They may share some common characteristics of introversion, but to varying degrees. Some may enjoy working solo and avoid the spotlight, but don’t assume that’s the case for all. Want proof? In every leadership class I teach for TV news anchors, we do the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I’ve found that in each class, at least one out of four of these folks — who are the face and voice of a station’s journalism, who talk for a living and can deftly ad-lib — happen to be introverts.

I’ve written a good deal here on about how to understand and get the best from introverts and extroverts alike, and how easily each type can misunderstand the other. My Poynter colleague Butch Ward and I recently did a Poynter chat with advice on how managers can get the best from the introverts and extroverts on their staffs (you can view the replay here). While we advocated different approaches for different personalities (Butch is an introvert, I’m an extrovert, so we spoke from personal and professional perspectives), neither of us advised employers to “hire good people and leave them alone.”

That’s because we both believe that the most important thing great bosses do is help others succeed. As I write in “Work Happy,” the way to accomplish that is to modify that hot-button management mantra I so dislike into something far more helpful:

Hire good people and give them great feedback.

Listen to this column in today’s podcast, the 115th in the Great Bosses series:
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To build the team, build the trust, with these 8 tips

Take a look at a photo I really admire. It’s a little soft-focus and the framing is a bit off. That’s what makes it perfect. After all, the photographer had only seconds to shoot and only one free camera hand. His other was in that stack.

It was a surprise moment at the end of recent seminar for new managers, one that meant a lot to them. For me, the image is a vivid reminder of how trust and teams grow — under the right conditions. I’ll share the photo’s back story, but first let’s focus on trust.

Great bosses know it’s important to build trust in organizations. But managers can’t simply mandate it, any more than Poynter faculty can command people in our programs to reach out to each other. It must be their own choice.

But leaders can create an atmosphere where the choosing comes easily.

That’s important work with a great payoff. So here are eight tips for building trust among a group of people, whether they’re in a workplace or a workshop:

1. Know each other as people, not just professionals. We’re all so much more than our job titles; we have stories that connect us.

2. Talk about values early and often, but don’t lecture from on high.  Just share yours, listen to others, and walk your talk.

3. When you create rules, connect them to values. When guidelines support beliefs that people share, they’re more likely to respect them.

4. Respond to disappointments, misunderstandings and honest mistakes constructively, not vindictively. Start with an assumption that the other person has positive intentions.

5. Recognize that teams are stronger when people bring diverse skills, experiences and viewpoints. A team of clones is a closed club with limited potential.

6. Respect and encourage thoughtful, civil debate. Give greater credence to those who “show their math” rather than just shooting off their mouths.

7. Provide ongoing and useful feedback so people never wonder where they stand with you or their co-workers. Uncertainty feeds fear. Fear erodes trust.

8. Work — and PLAY — well together. Play is an antidote to tension, a vitamin for creativity, and an opportunity to make a memory.

We try to practice what we teach when bringing people together for leadership training. Our “icebreaker” asks each person to display a photo of the “Real Me” and tell the story behind it. (Most choose images from outside their work lives.) We talk about the values of the best bosses they ever worked for.  We explain our philosophy that “the wisdom’s in the room” — already there among them to share and build upon.

We put a priority on building a seminar group that’s diverse in media, gender, ethnicity, age and geographic background. We change the seating each day so people make new connections. We infuse our teaching with interaction and even goofy play.

We encourage people to respectfully disagree, or, as a Poynter colleague put it, “challenge with passion, not poison.” And we simply suggest that people agree to look out for each other by asking permission before they quote a fellow participant outside the seminar. (Just as I did for this column.)

Without trust in the room, people won’t open up about fears, frustrations, failures, challenges, half-baked ideas or personal ambitions. Fear of criticism or gossip is a candor-killer. I’m happy to report that candor was alive and well among the people in the photo I like so much.

So, what was that picture all about?

Those 20 new managers came to the seminar from across the globe.They spent a little less than a week together. But in those days, in the right environment, they discovered the kind of trust that builds and binds a team. They learned that it’s their role as leaders to cultivate that atmosphere at work for those they supervise, and to make it last for more than one magical week.

The seminar had ended. It was time for people to dash off to airports, back to work and to families. But the affable Ernest Hooper of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times stopped people in their tracks.

“Huddle up, huddle up, everybody,” he called out with a strong voice and a serious smile. He herded them toward his outstretched hand, toward one more connection.

Scott Simmie of the Toronto Star decided two things: he wanted in on that gesture and he’d capture it, too. In this shot by Kristin Gazlay of the Associated Press, you see Scott, cell phone cam hovering over Ernest, grabbing the image that inspired this column.

Kelly Brown of Denver’s KCNC-TV, described the scene this way:

At first, I thought he meant a group hug – like the classic last scene from Mary Tyler Moore…not being able to let go. But then I realized it was a cheer leading us forward and a promise to remember what we learned together… The perfect ending to an inspiring week.

And that’s the lesson for leaders. People will assemble, at your request. They’ll smile at the camera for an official “group photo.” That’s nice:

But in the right environment, when trust transforms individuals into a team, then they’ll decide what their team photo should look like. I predict it will be better than any you envisioned:

And if you aspire to be a great boss, they just might invite you into the frame, too.

* * *

Here is the companion podcast to today’s column, with a reminder of three key building blocks of trust in any situation:

Note: Jill Geisler’s new book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” will be released on June 5. Read more


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