Articles about "management"


Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Who is this wise man?

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

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

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

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

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

Businesswoman stressed out

Overworked and overwhelmed? Consider these 7 questions

If you’re feeling swamped at work these days, you’re not alone. I’m not talking “I don’t get to go out for lunch very often” busy. I mean “I’m buried in work, never fully off the clock and still feel I’m letting people down” busy. I hear it regularly from the managers I teach and coach.

It’s a function of the downsized staffing but increased demands and responsibilities in changing organizations.

The story is familiar: to hit budget numbers, the company cuts head count but leaves fully intact the expectation of quality, service and measurable results. (I’ll give CNN president Jeff Zucker credit. Referencing the depressing specter of buyouts and layoffs, he didn’t try to spin it as some great opportunity for the survivors to work smarter, not harder. He said “We are going to do less and have to do it with less.”)

Businesswoman stressed out

But what about those who are doing so much, perhaps too much, these days?  Their leaders often suggest that they do a better job of delegation. They may be right. Even when staffing is strong, managers often hesitate to delegate. For perspective, I looked for my first column on delegation: “Why We Don’t Delegate, but Could.” I wrote it in 2002!

But delegation alone isn’t enough today. Front line managers need to work with their leaders to take a comprehensive look at workloads, workflow, strategies, systems and shifting priorities in changing times. They need to constantly communicate about effectiveness, efficiency and yes, exhaustion.

As I work with organizations that are trying to do just that, I developed 7 questions for leaders and managers to ask themselves. I hope you find them helpful:

1. Whose job is it, anyway? This is a call for clarification of the manager’s role. What are the most important responsibilities he/she should have? What tasks have gravitated to that person because of tradition, or a particular talent, or simply by default? What assumptions underlie the manager’s list of duties, and is it time to challenge some of them?

2. When I feel guilty about delegating, what’s the reason?  Some managers fear that delegating is simply dumping on others, a confession of incompetence and or a sign of slacking off.  Empathy, expertise and work ethic are all commendable qualities of managers, but shouldn’t stand in the way of a rational review of one’s workload.

3. Do I secretly love certain tasks and don’t want to let go? This one is self-evident. If you simply love keeping a hand in certain things, even if they are not essential to your management role, what’s the cost/benefit ratio? Only you and your leaders can assess whether the joy is worth the ripple effect it has on other work and people. It may be. Just be transparent about your decision to keep doing that task – and open to revisiting the impact.

4. What do I have to learn to teach before I can delegate this? Managers often keep doing a task because they’re ill-prepared to train others how to do it. They don’t want to take the time to build an instruction guide or plan, or don’t feel comfortable training others — so they keep doing the work themselves. Admit it: this is a problem you can solve.

5. How can I maintain quality over things I delegate? Concern about quality control often causes managers to avoid delegating. But you CAN keep close enough touch to ensure things will go well. When I wrote about delegation in my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I highlighted a quote taken from some terrific feedback that a boss in one of my seminars received:

He never rests on his laurels and is always seeking ways to improve our performance, even as resources contract and the pressure on staff increases. He is not afraid to delegate; he stands back and lets you get on with it, but he is always close at hand, seeking updates on how the job is going, asking if assistance is needed.

6. What ambitions of ours are most helpful? When do we get too distracted by shiny objects? Management teams need work together to determine when they are committing to projects without sufficient analysis of the potential impact. It looks like this: We go to a meeting to talk about a new idea, initiative or tool. We’re high achievers, so we attack that idea with 100% energy and attention. We don’t think in terms of tradeoffs of time and effort. We plunge in. And later, we may celebrate it or regret it. Innovation is critical to business success, so I’m not arguing against it at all. But be strategic rather than impulsive on the front end as you choose to pursue opportunities.

7. What can we kill without fear of capital punishment? There’s a reason I saved this one for last. If you, as a manager, want to persuade your leadership that it’s time to STOP doing something, you need to demonstrate that you’ve looked at every other alternative, especially your own performance. The powers-that-be can see that you aren’t whining or not up to the task of management. Rather, you’re a self-managing, high-performing partner. Together, you’ll assess whether a task or project produces sufficient return on the investment of your time and talent.

* * *

There’s one more critical piece of advice I give to managers who want to delegate effectively and help those to whom they delegate succeed. I share it in this companion podcast.

Read more

Controlling business puppet concept

5 reasons managers are addicted to “fixing” – and how to recover

I admit it. I’m a recovering fixer. Show me a piece of copy and my fingers get itchy. I crave contact with a keyboard, with a gnawing urge to tweak someone’s writing a little — or maybe a lot.

Then I remind myself of the pledge I took years ago:

“Remember, Jill. Sit on your hands. Coach, don’t fix.”

I adopted that mantra so I’d have to learn how to help my newsroom staff improve their work without taking away their ownership, responsibility, and too often, their pride in performance. I’d have to learn to teach, not just do. Moreover, I’d need to teach in a way that would help people discover ideas and approaches for themselves, instead of just following instructions from the boss.

Now, in my leadership workshops, when I identify myself as a recovering fixer, I ask if there are any others like me in the room.

I’m never alone.

Many of the aspiring great bosses my workshops say they, too, are hooked on fixing. They’re also the ones who play catch-up on all their other daily duties as they hand-polish the work of others. But it’s become their way of life. Maybe it’s your reality, too.

Why are managers so addicted to fixing? I’ve identified top five reasons:

1. Vanity: Your company promoted you to management because you were really good at your craft – a top producer. Now, your supervisory duties are different from the front line work at which you excelled, and it’s hard to give up something you love. So, when a chance to demonstrate your old chops presents itself, you can’t resist.

2. Efficiency: To review a piece of work with the person who produced it takes time. For expediency sake, you just repair it. You hope the employee will learn from the changes you made, as if by osmosis. You’re wrong, of course. But you do it anyway.  Again and again.

3. Quality: You have high standards. The one person whose performance always meets the mark is – you. So, for quality assurance, you assign yourself the task, even though it adds to your list of duties and often lengthens your work days (and nights and weekends.)

4. Responsibility: You never want to let your organization down. You’re dedicated to making deadlines, achieving goals and beating the competition. When anything on your watch isn’t as good as you think it could be, you personally deliver the solution. (Even though others could, should and probably would do their part, if you used the right leadership skills to guide them.)

5. Incapacity: Fixing is the lone tool in your repair kit. You’re capable of critiquing a product by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” but you can’t articulate the why and how of that assessment in detail. You don’t yet know the right words that describe a path to improvement. You’re talented, but you haven’t learned how to coach. So you keep relying on what you know – jumping into the fray – and you miss opportunities for both you and your staff to grow.

Your addiction to fixing causes problems.

By fixing, you let mediocre performers off the hook. They can keep churning out substandard work because you’ve led them to assume it’s YOUR job to elevate it, not theirs. You’ve created an assembly line where they produce a first draft and expect you’ll doctor it up.

Meanwhile, you’re frustrated, and wonder why they never seem to get better.

On the other end of the spectrum, the high performers on your team resent your interference. They are proud of their work and may feel you’re hijacking it, just to put your own mark on things. Even if you’re making minor modifications, you come across as the “corrections officer” rather than the coach who helps them discover options, try new things, see what they’ve overlooked and enjoy taking good work to an even higher level.

How do you become a coach instead of a fixer?  Here are some tips:

  • Become a student of quality work, including your own. Deconstruct it; take it apart to identify the decisions, the process, the steps that built it from the ground up.  None of us “just does it.”  We operate through a series of identifiable actions with certain assumptions and values attached. If it’s writing, for example, look at a resource like Poynter’s inexpensive e-book “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism” that puts the work of top performers under a microscope and asks them questions about how that quality came to life. Familiarize yourself with the answers.
  • Develop coaching language. Once you see distinct pieces, parts, techniques or barriers related to quality, name them. Build your own book of smart, descriptive terms. There’s a famous phrase around Poynter; “Get the name of the dog.” It’s shorthand coaching language for: Stories are made memorable by key details, as in “The firefighter stepped out of the still-smoking house, cradling a dog Buddy in his arms.” In my journey to become a coach, I built my own coaching lexicon. To help writers remember how passive voice can take the life out a sentence, I’d massacre a Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit by singing, “The Sheriff Was Shot By Me.” They got the point. Have fun; craft a coaching language that works for your craft and for your team.
  • Remember the power of questions. The most important tool a coach has is a question. How can I help? What’s your goal here? Can you think of another way to do this that’s less complicated? What would happen if…?  Being good at asking questions helps people discover their own answers, which you can then applaud and they can then execute. When I made the commitment to be a writing coach instead of a fixer, I started each review of a story by asking the writer: “What do you love about this story?” It turned out to be a very effective opener.  Most writers would talk about a few things they really liked, but often blurted out what they were concerned about, making it an easier coaching opportunity. My “love” question also let them know I expected people to care about every story, every day. For the record, once you make questions your primary coaching tool, you can also give direct advice. But do that strategically and sparingly, so people don’t revert to being dependent on your wisdom instead of their own.
  • Enjoy a new level of satisfaction in your work. Where once it was all about “What I produced today,” it’s now about “My employees’ success.” Your fingerprints aren’t all over the good work. In fact, your input is almost invisible to an outside observer. But you and to your grateful team know the real story. The work, the workers and the workplace are all improved when a fixer becomes a coach.

Remember, great bosses don’t fix the product, they coach the people.

* * *

Coaching also works to help people make better everyday decisions, too. More on that in the companion podcast to this column:
Read more


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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Joe Maddon_AP

Great journalist or great manager: Who would you prefer for a boss?

I am going to begin this essay on leadership with an extended baseball analogy. I realize that this will make my argument sound “gendered,” and not in a good way, but I’ll take my chances.

There are a lot of good baseball managers out there, and one of them is Joe Maddon, skipper of our local team the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are struggling this year with injuries to their pitching staff, but under Maddon’s leadership they have become – with one of the lowest salary budgets – one of the consistently best teams in baseball.

There are lots of reasons for this success. One of them is Maddon. Players like to play for him. He has high standards for his players. He demands maximum effort. But he is patient, positive, supportive, and experimental. And he likes to have fun. In short, he creates the conditions in which his players can be productive and satisfied, proud and happy to be a Ray.

I hope he never leaves here for Boston or New York, but if he should, I have the perfect job for him: executive editor of The New York Times.

But he’s not a journalist, you must be thinking. That’s OK with me. At this moment in time – in the wake of the firing of Jill Abramson – what that paper needs is not a great journalist at the top, but a great manager. I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that you can’t have both, that, in fact, the qualities that make people great journalists (urgency, skepticism, doggedness) make them bad managers. If you think I’m being cynical, come visit me some time and I will open up for you a 30-year file of bad editor anecdotes for you.

Let’s go back to Joe Maddon for a moment. When I began to write this essay, I had no idea as to Maddon’s history as a professional baseball player. A quick Wikipedia search uncovered these revealing paragraphs:

He is a former minor league catcher, who never advanced higher than A ball (the lowest level of minor league baseball), which he played for four seasons. In his four seasons, he never had more than 180 at bats, and the most home runs he ever hit was three for Salinas in 1977.

He worked in the Angels organization for 31 years, including time as a minor league manager, scout, roving minor league hitting instructor, and coach for the major league team.

In short, Joe Maddon had one of the least distinguished playing careers of anyone who ever became a manager in the major leagues. Instead, as a catcher and then a coach, he became a student of the game and of its players. He brought to the task of leadership an emotional intelligence that allowed him to set a standard for excellence, but also to develop relationships with individual athletes to help them meet those standards in their own way.

The great baseball players who became great managers are exceedingly few in number.

My old friend John Harwood says that Jill Abramson is a “great journalist,” and I believe him. And so, I would argue, is another old friend, Howell Raines, who also led the Times. But whatever made Abramson and Raines great as practitioners of their profession, it was not the same stuff required to create a place where people feel that they can do their best work.

About an hour ago, I asked this question on Twitter: Who would you prefer as your boss, a great journalist or a great manager? If u can’t have both.

Not a single person who responded chose “great journalist.” The overwhelming preference was for a great manager, said most powerfully by Bill Schiller, a veteran of the Toronto Star: “I’d opt for a great manager, one who creates the circumstances in which you can do your very best work.”

Of course, there are fine journalists who are good managers. Having known him for many years, I have the feeling that Dean Baquet, the new executive editor at the Times, is one of them. If he succeeds, as I predict he will, it will not be primarily because of his journalism chops. It will because he has the capacity to support and motivate in the most positive ways a habitually cranky and unruly tribe.

We pose the question again for you and your workplace. If you had to choose, what would you look for most in a boss: great journalist or great manager? Read more

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

Why employees resent a ‘Bigfoot Boss’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Be proactive about giving credit to others.

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

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

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

  • Give employees a “seat at the table.” 

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

  • Think twice before grabbing that coveted assignment for yourself.

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

  • Resist the temptation to put your footprints on everything. 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Read more

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Business collection - Street quiz

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

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

The Great Bosses Quiz:

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

a. Serious and scary

b. Specific and sincere

c. Sweet and sour

2. Emotional Intelligence is:

a. Essential to effective leadership

b. A touchy-feely waste of time

c. An unreleased single by Hall & Oates

3. Micromanagers are:

a. Shorter than average managers

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

c. Beloved by all

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

a. The question

b. The whistle

c. The deep breathing exercises

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

a. Envy, greed, sloth and gluttony

b. Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy and Dopey

c. Competence, autonomy, purpose and growth

6. When managers apologize, they:

a. Sound like wimps

b. Should spread the blame around

c. Gain respect for holding themselves accountable

7. Performance management succeeds when supervisors:

a. Set clear expectations and priorities and provide ongoing feedback

b. Leave employees alone to figure things out

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

8. Change initiatives often fail because of:

a. Employees who are too lazy to change

b. Bad luck

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

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

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

b. Order people to get along or else

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

10. People become great bosses by:

a. Strategically sucking up to powerful people

b. Getting an MBA from an impressive school

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

*    *    *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

Read more

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


As brands start building digital newsrooms, what do they need to succeed?

Thanks to social media, we’re getting used to big companies talking directly to us instead of just advertising next to what we’re reading.

When you’re consuming content in a stream — as we do when using Twitter, Facebook or one of the many other social networks — a story from The New York Times, an update from your crazy uncle, and a link to a cleverly captioned photo from Oreo all flow in the same river, and get equal weight.

Today, tools such as Twitter and WordPress have led to an explosion of brands producing and spreading content, competing with traditional media for audience attention and employing journalists as creative storytellers.

If all the content marketing statistics floating around the Web are to be trusted, brand publishing is now a staple of the modern marketing diet. This is why the term “brand newsroom” has been floating around advertising circles in 2013 — brands have recognized that in a social-media world, telling true stories is a better way to win hearts and minds than interrupting people with ads.

Traditional media have known for a long time that good publishing requires not just talent but also smart organization. But the new wave of brand publishers are starting at zero. A company whose business is helping people file taxes or making the world’s most-dunkable cookie rarely knows how to create a publishing organization within itself. Moreover, for many of these companies, the word “newsroom” conjures up images of a TV studio with out-of-focus people behind a pontificating anchor, or a cigar-smoking J. Jonah Jameson yelling at frantic print reporters.

The fastest-growing newsrooms of the 21st century couldn’t be more different than such cliches. I wanted to know how brands that have built successful newsrooms have learned, and so I decided to ask some of today’s hottest brand publishers questions about how they’ve organized themselves for the digital age.

Here are some of the answers:

How should a brand newsroom be structured?

The Verge, one of the fastest-growing media properties of the last two years, breaks its newsroom into a three-pronged battalion: a real-time newswire team, a reports team and a magazine-style features team. Each team has reporters, writers, a designer, and editors.

“We model each team after a real-world analogy,” Nilay Patel, The Verge’s managing editor, said in a phone interview. “We need to do the news in real time; that’s why people come back to us. They also want really in-depth news and analysis and reporting, and they love our big features.”

The Verge’s newswire team constantly monitors and reacts to industry news as it happens, while the reports team chases stories, conducts interviews, and goes to events, producing stories with a one- or two-day lead time. Meanwhile, the features team spends months producing big, beautiful long-form stories and videos, which go through multiple design and edit passes.

“As we got larger, we started to hire more specialized talent,” said Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer and former editor-in-chief of Mashable, which shot from obscurity to become one of the top-trafficked news destinations on the Web in a few short years.

As Mashable’s audience grew, its need for focused reporting and storytelling expertise increased. “We now have senior editors running our Tech, Business, and Watercooler channels and managing small teams of writers that own a respective area of our coverage,” Ostrow said via email.

Despite fears that we live in a “post first, correct later” world, the leaders of these new digital newsrooms repeatedly emphasized the importance of editorial layering — having multiple people review every piece of content. For them, that usually means staffing up with editors who can review stories for style and fit, then having a separate set of eyeballs look at grammar and presentation.

“The staffing will vary depending on the kind of company, but one key role is essential: someone in charge,” said Neil Chase, former New York Times editor and senior vice-president of content for Federated Media. (Disclosure: He also works with me at Contently as a consultant).

That person must be the defender of the publication’s message and voice, the arbiter of quality, and a decision-maker with the power to choose and optimize “the technology, tools and partners needed to produce and distribute content effectively,” Chase said via email.

In a traditional newsroom that would go without saying, but it might be the most-neglected thing I’ve seen among brand publishers that say they want to run a newsroom.

What sets great digital newsrooms apart?

1. Great talent, and a strong, unified voice

There’s no getting around it: great stories are told by talented people, and even the most-talented people tell better stories when they work together. That’s why the best newsrooms invest in talent.

“The most important thing that we’ve found is you have to hire people that have really strong voices,” Patel said. “It’s really about filling in that structure with talent that is native to the platform, native to the audience, and ready to be passionate. They understand that there is right and wrong and the big narrative of news all adds up to something that means something important.”

2. Technology

Look at the fastest-growing media properties of the blogging era and you’ll notice most of them made heavy investments in technology. Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Bleacher Report, The Verge and others built their own powerful content management systems, while sites such as Mashable scaled up using highly customized versions of WordPress and strong social-media platform integrations. And each has dedicated tech and design resources for maintaining its system.

The main benefit of strong technology is the ability to eliminate repetitive tasks inherent to publishing, such as scheduling, reporting, revising, tracking, composing and post-production. Additionally, companies such as Huffington Post and Upworthy have boosted traffic strongly by split-testing headlines, a process that’s arduous by hand but can be automated with technology.

“One of our advantages has always been that we’re all power users of the tools we write about on the site,” Ostrow said. “Everyone on the team understands how to craft stories that readers will want to share, and how to use social media for newsgathering, collaboration and content distribution.”

3. Data

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said in a phone interview that the best way to operate a newsroom is to be “data informed.” That means striking a balance between monitoring results and chasing the kinds of stories that have done well historically, and trusting years of publishing experience to predict what things people should be interested in.

While the last few years have seen an obsession with real-time data about page views, both publishers and advertisers are increasingly focusing on metrics such as engagement and sharing as measures of success, and leading indicators of audience loyalty and future traffic.

4. The myth of centralization

One myth about the success of great newsrooms persists because of the word itself: that a newsroom has to be a physical room. That isn’t true: a newsroom is an organization, not a place. Some of the most effective newsrooms today are virtual, and almost every successful publisher — from GQ to CNN — employs remote staff and freelancers for reporting, shooting, writing, and editing.

“A lot of people don’t realize we were a completely virtual company for the first four or five years,” Mashable’s Ostrow said. That virtual newsroom grew to about 15 people before the company got its first office, but Mashable still has remote employees and freelancers.

Truth is, publishing is one of the easiest industries in which work can be done remotely. If magazines and blogs can do it, so can brands.

But that doesn’t mean building a newsroom is easy. Fortunately, modern technology has allowed the cookie makers to tell their own stories without buying printing presses and trucks. And if they start thinking about how the best new-media companies would tell that cookie story, they might never have to design another “takeover” ad.

What do brand newsrooms need to succeed?

1. Put quality first.

In brand newsrooms, “speed is often stressed over quality,” Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for Edelman, said via email. “The latter is far more important. Everyone is competing for the same attention bandwidth and that means brands are going up against media pros with decades of experience.”

Digital publishing today is an arms race, with more and more people getting into the game. With content increasingly spreading — or not spreading — because of what people do on social media, the quality of storytelling has to improve. A story must inform, surprise, inspire and delight the reader — and make him or her look good to friends.

2. Have a strong relationship with the business side of the house.

“I share a lot of people with marketing,” said Mollie Chen, editorial director at Birchbox, which produces a monthly magazine and dozens of blog posts every week to grow its beauty-supply subscription brand. “Everyone is by design expected to understand every layer of the business.”

Birchbox’s newsroom success stems in large part from its integration with the core business; in fact, Chen was the company’s first hire. “It’s important to hire people who know how to tell stories,” she said in a phone interview, but added that “nothing gets created in a vacuum. There’s always a consideration of all three of our stakeholders: the customer, Birchbox, and our brand partners.”

3. Iterate.

Ostrow said survival as a digital publisher — whether or not you’re a brand publisher — requires “doubling down on what’s working and moving away quickly from what’s not.”

“One of the things brands forget is iteration,” said Michael Hess of Weber Shandwick, who helped design Verizon Wireless’s news center. “Regular publishers are constantly adapting.”

In a large organization where change is takes even more time, the best way to past this hurdle is to empower the publishing team to make some decisions on its own, he added.

4. Make sure you have things you can talk about without involving the lawyers.

A typical brand’s legal department is more hands-on than a traditional publisher’s. This can cause bottlenecks in the publishing schedule and hamper a brand’s ability to capitalize on time-sensitive events.

“In traditional publishing, you have legal supporting on the back end,” Hess said in a phone interview. “In brand publishing, you have legal approving on the front end.”

To minimize the disruptions that arrangement causes, he said, “you have to have a road map already” that lets you talk about some things without legal approval, letting you keep a consistent stream of stories flowing to readers. For content that still needs sign-off, Hess added, there has to be a clear approval process.

5. Get out of your own head.

“The vast majority of brands today are still leveraging social media as an extension of corporate communications,” said Ostrow. But, he pointed out, most brands’ efforts to “be the next Oreo” have felt contrived.

“I think the biggest things that brands need to think about are the topics and themes that matter to their customers and how can they be a valuable member of that conversation – not just the conversation that is trending at any given moment in time on social media,” he said.

Birchbox’s Chen said brand publishers must have a “willingness to ignore traditional marketing” in favor of great stories the audience actually wants: “Customers are smart. They don’t want to be talked at. They want to be talked to.”

6. Create original material.

Edelman’s Rubel said his top concern for brand newsrooms is that a lack of originality will dilute their efforts.

“There’s too much emphasis on ‘news jacking’ instead of creating content that fills a true void and enriches people’s lives,” he said. “I am concerned we could be seen as ambulance chasers.”

If the goal of a brand newsroom is to gain the audience’s attention, trust, and engagement with that brand, recycling pieces of other brands’ content or inanely riffing off obvious news isn’t going to work. As I’ve written before, in the world of branded content, original always wins.

7. Be patient.

Newsrooms are marathons, not sprints. Even new-media publications that consistently see their material go viral — such as Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and The Onion — needed months to get noticed and years to build trust.

“We worked our way up,” Weber Shandwick’s Hess said. “And we’re getting to a point where the audience is getting much bigger. It’s allowing us to experiment with the kinds of content.”

Becoming a publisher isn’t like an ad campaign or some other short-term initiative — it’s a cultural change within an organization.

“The key question brands must ask here is this: ‘Are we committed to using this investment to the fullest and for the long haul?’ ” Rubel said. “This means all of it – the technology, the people and the processes. If they are committed and patient, then a newsroom is a worthwhile investment.”

Shane Snow is a technology journalist and co-founder of Contently, a New York City-based technology company that empowers brands and journalists to connect and tell stories. He writes regularly for Wired, Fast Company, Advertising Age, and more. Read more


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.

Read more