Hey, boss: Future managers are watching you. What are they learning?

March 4, 2016
Category: Business & Work

Who taught you to be a manager?

A lot of people taught me, some of them a long time ago.

There was the boss in my early days as an editor who telephoned me on the city desk about 10 one evening and, in a drunken fog, promised to ruin me over a perceived slight. Too young to know better, I spent the next 24 hours terrified.

He eventually sobered up. And I’m still around. But I never forgot how it felt — and how counterproductive it was — to be terrorized by a boss with power.

Another, very different influence on my management style was Jim Naughton, who for many years helped to lead the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jim brought his humanity to work. He spent as much or more time talking with staff about their lives as about their stories. He bought presents for staffers who had babies, sent us birthday cards and mourned with us when our loved ones passed. And in that miniscule cubicle crammed into a corner of the newsroom (even as deputy managing editor he never took an office), he spent hours listening to our ideas, our complaints, our anxieties.

Oh, and he also was an incredibly gifted reporter and editor.

Watching him, experiencing him, I learned. So did many others in that newsroom, and it helped shape the culture of the Inquirer.

Lucky for me, I drew my management lessons from many more good editors than bad. What I don’t know is how many of them were conscious of the influence they had on those of us who would become — or already were — managers, too. But they did. Watching them, listening to them, experiencing the impact of their style on our work, we formed and refined a style of our own. For better or for worse.

We learned lessons we promised to employ someday if, God forbid, we became bosses. And we learned lessons we swore we would never impose on a staff of our own (or on our worst enemies).

As I thought about these two very different managers, I sat back and tried to remember vividly an occasion when I was in their presence and experienced these lessons. Bringing those moments back with detail — where I was and what it looked like, who else was in the room, what we said to each other — helps me to learn the lesson all over again, wiping away the dust that time uses to obscure our most important resolutions. Try it.

I share this with you today for two reasons: First, to help you think about the lessons your bosses taught you so you can recommit to carrying them out. And second, to remind you that as a boss, you not only are managing, you are teaching.

Think about it: Because you’re a boss, everyone is watching you and listening to you. If they’re not, your attempts at leadership are probably not working out.

And among those who are watching and listening to you are current and future managers whose leadership styles you are influencing.

It’s a responsibility you need to take seriously.

To help me demonstrate the range of lessons that our bosses teach us, I turned to a group of women leaders with whom I’ve had the great pleasure to work. They are the members of the first ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, which met last spring for a week at Poynter. Members of the second Academy will come to Poynter in early May.

I asked last year’s cohort to share lessons — good and not-so-good — that they learned from their bosses. Here are some of the good practices they told me they try to emulate.

Rebekah Monson is co-founder of New Tropic, a Miami startup that produces media and events aimed at creating deep, long-term community engagement. She said:

“One of my bosses implemented weekly face-to-face critique and brainstorming for our team. That made a huge impression on me as a newbie, and I find it incredibly valuable as a manager, too. I want our team to feel empowered to help each other succeed, and that means we need to be both critical and enthusiastic about our work. Creating less hierarchical and more public forums for these conversations, and being a manager who is willing to admit my own shortcomings there, too, creates a more creative culture, ramps up collaboration and accelerates our improvement.”

Megan H. Chan, director of digital products at POLITICO, said:

“From two great bosses, I learned how important it is for your team to feel that you trust them and their expertise — that you don’t question them ‘just because.’ Two implementations:

  1. ‘Here’s a big project you’re ready to lead. I want high-level updates, but take it, run with it and send me a postcard every once in awhile.’


  1. ‘I trust you to be an adult.’ She never time-checked me. ‘I don’t care if it takes you 24 hours or 30 minutes a day. Do what you need to do from where you need to do it. Just get it done.’ This made me focus on the work, not the time. I ended up working 24/7, but I loved every minute of it.”

Kari Cobham, social media analyst for Cox Media Group TV stationsalso learned a lesson about trust. “I had a great boss who gave me the freedom to build, the authority to act and support should I need it. Him saying, ‘I trust you,’ but still being available as a sounding board, made me feel more confident and empowered, and I knew he had my back.”

Holly Moore, manager of network engagement, USA TODAY Network, said: My boss regularly refers to himself as a hurdle clearer — and he takes that role seriously. It’s empowering to know that I can make decisions and he’s always there to remove the roadblocks. I hope to be that for someone one day — or now.”

Libby Bawcombe, senior visual product designer at NPR, recalled a boss who “taught me the importance of visibility and face time at work. We used to take weekly strolls around the office to departments we didn’t normally work with. Without explicitly saying so, he taught me it’s not enough to do good work, but to be visible and personable. The weekly strolls were a way to build little relationships with colleagues we didn’t normally see.”

Heather Battaglia, innovation specialist at 18F, said: “I had a boss who gave me assignments that he knew would stretch me. They terrified me, but he always had my back when I started floundering. I learned so much from being allowed to try new things and fail at them. If you’re not growing, you’re dying, and I think that’s just as true for teams as individuals.”

Members of the class also told me about lessons that they did not intend to incorporate into their management style. Several said they learned to make sure your team is clear about your expectations and about their progress in meeting those expectations.

For example, one member of the group, after being managed by a boss who gave “unclear direction,” committed to giving her staff clarity — “to talk through the uncertain aspects of a project” and “not leave a junior-level team member to figure things out for themselves.”

Having experienced the disruption caused by a boss who tended to “wait until the absolute last minute to give feedback on things,” another member of the cohort learned “the importance of making sure you know where your team is with things, just in case something needs a little nudge in the right direction.”

One member had a boss who occasionally emailed feedback to staffers and their managers that was sometimes critical and always vague. She described the emails as “time bombs in my inbox” that “disincentivized innovation.” The experience taught her the importance of open, consistent and specific feedback to creating an innovative, fear-less team.

Another member of the cohort remembered how a boss’s micromanaging “chipped away at my confidence.” She said she became “even more determined to care about my team as people, not just as workers, and show it.”

And one member learned from bosses in general: “Business is business, but kindness goes a long way.”

Bosses, your staffers are watching you, listening to you, and deciding: Do I want to be that kind of manager?

If you care about the answer — or even if you just care about how your leadership is playing — here are three suggestions for gauging and maybe improving your effectiveness:

Take a look around you. First, make your own assessment of how your leadership style is playing. Let down your defenses and take some time in the days ahead to observe how members of your staff are responding to your management style. Do they freely share ideas? Willingly collaborate? Are they improving over time? Have they bought into your goals for the newsroom? Is your group producing better journalism?

Get another perspective. This suggestion, to produce anything meaningful, really requires your openness to honest feedback. How about asking a few colleagues and a direct report or two for some feedback on your effectiveness? Ask them which of your practices and techniques they aspire to emulate. Ask if any of your efforts are having an undesired impact. Make it safe for them to tell you.

Do some explaining. Invite a group of colleagues, direct reports and others for a conversation about what you intend the various pieces of your management style to achieve. Share with them why you try to make your feedback to them specific and in-person. Tell them why you send them emails at 3 a.m. Tell them why you send those birthday cards. Tell them why you ask them for so much detail about how one of their projects is progressing.

Your goal here is to assess the effectiveness your own management — the good and the bad — and to either adjust it or, if its working, to encourage others to adopt it, too. It’s all part of embracing your dual role as manager and teacher.

Of course, you could always wait until your staffers become bosses and see whether you recognize any of their moves.

Will they make you cringe?

I hope not. I hope they make you proud.