April 19, 2016

At some point in your career, you’ve probably had this happen: One of your colleagues is becoming your boss.

Do you remember how you reacted when the announcement was made? How you acted toward the new boss on day one?

It can be awkward. One day you’re complaining to each other about management, and the next day your former crony is management.

It’s been a long time since I received my first manager’s role, but I still remember how it felt the first time I was assigned to manage the work of two of my friends. I can only imagine how they felt when they heard the news; they must have wondered what kind of manager I would be.

For my part, I wondered how they would respond to me — to my story ideas, my editing of their writing, my praise, my critiques. Though I knew that I could, depending on the management style I adopted, have some impact on their reaction to me, I also knew that ultimately the choice was theirs.

Yes, just like in any relationship, both parties contribute to its success or failure.

Last week I suggested some ideas for the newly-minted editors who suddenly find themselves supervising former colleagues. Today let me offer some suggestions to you, the colleagues who find one of your own now in charge.

Let me suggest that you do a little “give and get.”

My longtime teaching partner, Jill Geisler, introduced me to the idea of starting a leadership seminar by asking the participants to suggest what expertise they might “give” the group during the week, and what wisdom or tools they hoped to “get” in return.

For staffers about to work for a former colleague, I think it makes sense to consider the same deal. You absolutely should expect to get something positive from your new boss, and I suggest you also might consider what you can give.

Let’s start with several gets:

Clarity: You might not get it on day one, but as soon as possible, get clear with your new boss’s expectations for your work and how you do your job. Ask how much work you’re expected to produce; what level of social media you’re expected to engage in, what areas of coverage you’re responsible for. Find out how available you’re expected to be after hours and on days off. Make sure you know what goals you’ll be measured against. This conversation should be two-way: Share your preferences, too.

If at any point the boss says she doesn’t know yet, tell her the assumptions you’re working under and ask if that’s OK until you are told otherwise.

You must have clarity about what’s expected of you, and it’s your boss’s responsibility to provide it.

Willingness to listen: Most bosses, especially new ones, are — like you — plenty busy. But being available to listen to your ideas, questions, observations and even complaints is part of their job. You can increase the chances that you’ll have good access if you use some good judgment. For example, don’t stop by the boss’s desk six times a day. Think: Does my question or idea or complaint really require my boss’s involvement? Remember that the boss will mete out his access based on a simple calculation: Is listening to your issue more important than what he would be doing instead? You want to do anything you can to make sure the answer to that question is “yes.” Finally, once you’ve had your conversation, do whatever is within your power to make sure it resulted in something worthwhile. Hopefully, your boss will do that same.

Feedback: One you have clarity about what’s expected of you, ask for regular feedback from your boss about how you’re doing. Some staffers say they assume that if they don’t hear anything, they assume all is well. Bad assumption. Some bosses just don’t place a high enough value on offering constructive feedback, either positive or negative. If your new boss isn’t forthcoming with evaluations of your work, ask for them. Not bureaucratic, formal documents; just a conversation that cites specific things that you’re doing well, or areas that you need to work on.

Respect for your ideas: Some new bosses, especially those feeling pressure to quickly establish their editing chops, assume they are expected to give you ideas for all of your assignments. Save the boss from herself. First of all, you don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t let you pursue any of your ideas. And the editor doesn’t really want that, either. No one wants the pressure of having all of the good ideas a staff needs. But you might have to lobby for yourself. Just know the effort is worth it. Ideally, you and your boss will get to a point where you improve each other’s ideas. That’s a good relationship.

Good assignments. Every job includes some amount of work that is, to some degree, unattractive. No job, however, should consist entirely of that kind of work. If you get from your boss the first four items on this list, I’m betting conversations about the quality of your assignments should occur naturally. For example, a clear talk about expectations should include an understanding of how the staffer’s workload can accommodate assignments that stretch her. Useful feedback should point toward deeper, more demanding assignments. Lobby for assignments that both benefit your newsroom and help you grow. That’s a win-win.

Now how about a few Gives:

Learn about your boss’s job. Staffers who don’t know — or worse, don’t seem to care — about the boss’s responsibilities ultimately do themselves a disservice. Not only do you develop a reputation for placing your needs above everyone else’s, you miss the opportunity to use your understanding of the boss’s job to your advantage. When is the best time for the boss to talk? If you know that, you’ll get easier access. What are your boss’s most important goals? If you know that, you have the chance to align your desire for meaningful assignments with his objectives. When does your boss’s boss expect story pitches? If you know that, you can make sure you always have something worth pitching at the optimum time. Do some reporting on how your boss works; it will help both of you.

Ask before you assume. An inexperienced boss can struggle with sending accurate signals. For that reason, don’t read too much into things he says or does. Instead, ask whether your assumption is correct. For instance, a new boss, feeling overwhelmed, might be slow returning email and compensates by catching up at home after hours. Should you assume you need to respond to his email immediately? Does he expect you to monitor your email 24/7? Let’s hope the answer is “no.” So rather than assume the worst case, ask. A boss who’s serious about sending the right signals might learn a valuable lesson from your question.

Ask, “How can I help you?” I know you don’t have any spare time. Who does these days? That’s why it means so much when a staffer asks a boss if she could use some help. Truth is, the question sometimes invites the boss to weigh the importance of what she has on her agenda against what you were planning to do today. Maybe you both will agree to shift priorities. Most of all, though, you’re just trying to make your relationship “helpful” in both directions.

Honor commitments (including deadlines). Whenever an editor tells me she has a staffer who fights deadlines, I suggest assigning that staffer to a boss’s job for a couple of weeks. For some, the importance of deadlines only becomes clear when they experience first-hand the impact of blown deadlines on the entire enterprise: web reports miss heavily-trafficked time slots; editing is rushed, inviting errors; delayed press runs result in late delivery. Every staffer has projects that take longer to complete than expected, and sometimes delivering the work late is the right call. But your efforts to make deadlines (and honor other commitments) reflects your interest in serving the entire enterprise.

Offer collegiality. New and inexperienced bosses often struggle with how friendly to be with the staff. They worry that their new “management” role requires them to distance themselves from former colleagues. As someone who rejects that management principle, I would urge staffers to make it clear you’re not moving your former colleague into the “them” camp. Can your relationship with your former colleague/new boss be exactly as it was? Maybe not. He can’t participate as freely in your management bashing sessions, and he occasionally might have to withhold some information with which he’s been trusted. But you can still share a table at lunch, grab a beer after work, even attend your kids’ birthday parties. And most of all, you can talk seriously about your work and your lives — the kind of stuff people in solid relationships talk about.

And a solid relationship is what you, former colleague, can build with your new boss. Good luck.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
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