February 18, 2016

Somewhere along the line, I realized that two kinds of managers worked in newsrooms.

The first kind I could always find; they were working at their computer screens.

The second kind often tested my tracking skills. They might be in the cafeteria. They might be sitting in a quiet conference room. They might be across the room, leaning against a staffer’s desk.

They were with someone. And they were talking.

Sometimes the subject was the story the reporter was working on. Sometimes it was the page the designer was creating. Sometimes it was last night’s Phillies game, or how the kids were doing in school. In fact, the subjects were so varied that you might think they were simply random.

Not so. I came to understand those conversations were anything but random.

In the hands of the best managers, they were purposeful, strategic. And yet authentic.

I’ve written before about the need for managers to talk with their staffers (and how long it took me to figure that out). I’ve also written about the manager’s need to take an intellectual approach to leadership; to think about what you are about to do or say, its purpose and its possible outcomes. To think.

Those editors who were just as likely to be talking to their staffers as working at their desks were putting both of those ideas to work — they had thought about their job and then created a strategy for carrying it out. And among the tactics they used was frequent interaction with each staffer.

Strategic coaching, you might call it.

Let’s think about the thought process behind strategic coaching:

As a manager with a staff, I am — broadly speaking — responsible for two things: the content my staff produces and the development of the members of that staff.

That means when I come to work each day, my goal is to help my staff do the best work possible — even better than they think they can do. I want to look back in six months and be able to identify areas of improvement. If I do, I will have satisfied both responsibilities: to produce good work and improve the people who do it.

But how will I help my staff improve? The intellectual manager — the manager who thinks about what she will do or say, its purpose and its possible impacts — will devise a strategy. And the best managers I know devise a strategy for each individual staffer, one that addresses what each one needs to excel.

Next, every strategy needs tactics: the specific actions you’ll take to carry out the strategy. It’s at this point we need to acknowledge a crucial truth about good strategies — they play out over time. Understanding that influences the tactics you’ll choose.

For example, think about that editor who gets up from her computer and walks across the newsroom to talk with a staffer. If the story that staffer wrote today was the sole determinant of the staffer’s success, then editing it would be the manager’s most important job. But if the ultimate determinant of the staffer’s success is his progress over time, then the reason for editing today’s story becomes something more — a starting point for a good conversation with the staffer about asking better interview questions.

What kinds of tactics contribute most to long-term improvement?

The very nature of an individual strategy argues against making a list of one-size-fits-all tactics. Having said that, there are a number of broad managerial tactics you can employ, customizing them to match a staffer’s specific needs. Today I offer you eight. I hope they help you.

  1. Start with clear expectations. For you and your staffer to work effectively toward her improvement, she needs to know what the goal is. Staffers often assume what they should focus on by what they see happening around them: which stories get the best play, what kinds of writing receive your praise, who gets the best assignments. While all of these “signals” might have value, they might not be what you need this staffer to work on. For example, think about the staffer who struggles with clear, organized writing, but who spends all of his time chasing investigative leads. His success is being stymied by failing to focus on an area that, left unaddressed, will always hold him back.

    Have you been clear with each member of the staff about your expectations? When was the last time you updated them? What kinds of coverage do you expect? What areas of the staffer’s writing need improvement? How often do you expect stories on the Web to be updated? By what means do you want to communicate with the staffer? What are your expectations around the staffer’s availability after working hours and on weekends?

    Bottom line: Don’t take for granted that your expectations are known and understood. You need to be clear about them, and update them regularly. Once your expectations are clear, you have a solid foundation from which to carry out your strategy.

  2. Commit to two types of feedback. The key word in this tactic is “commit.” The best managers understand that feedback is crucial to a staffer’s improvement. Expecting me to get better is unrealistic if my only source of feedback is the voice inside my head. I need you to tell me how well I am meeting your expectations.

    The best feedback, though, comes in at least two ways. First is the feedback you give me based on something I did today, or yesterday. It’s timely, specific and addresses something that’s still fresh in my mind.

    The second type of useful feedback is “occasional.” Think of this feedback as pulling back the camera to capture a longer, broader view of my work. Maybe it’s every few months. What’s important is that it answers the question, “am I getting better?” How are we doing in meeting my coverage goals? In improving my story organization? In posting for the website? You want to make this feedback as specific as the daily type, but with more context. Remember, the goal of your strategy is my growth over time.

  3. Find out how I do my job. So you know what I do. After all, you gave me the job. But do you know how I do it?

    My colleague Roy Peter Clark introduced me to this idea; I watched him literally interview a reporter about how, specifically, he does his job.

    Imagine you’re interviewing me. Do you know how I use a notebook? Do I highlight the material I want to make sure gets in the story? Do I return to the office and transcribe everything into my computer? Do I index my notes? My answers might give you insight into my challenges with organization. Or time management.

    Your ability to help me get better will be enhanced by your understanding of how I go about my job—from how I get ideas to what kinds of questions I ask to how I write my first draft. Encourage me to explain in detail how I approach my work; those details might provide you with an insight for helping me think differently about processes I take for granted.

  4. Encourage life outside work. Lots of bosses and employees talk about work-life balance, but from the frequency with which it’s still discussed, I suspect we’ve probably lost ground in achieving it. Let me suggest that if you’re serious about your staffer improving over time, this is an area you need to address.

    But let’s change the conversation just a bit. While this is an issue that definitely involves how many hours we spend at work, it also hinges on another factor: What’s in my life besides work. Think about it: you will get a lot more serious about doing what’s necessary to leave work if there’s something out there that you really want to go to.

    Early in my career, I spent a lot more time at work than necessary to carry out my job. What caused me to change? I realized I was jeopardizing my relationship with my wife and son — and that got me serious about taking action.

    This isn’t about being nosy. Just include in those conversations with staff some questions about how their life outside work is going. If someone doesn’t want to talk about that, no harm done. You’ve made it clear that you think a life outside work is important.

    Then prove it. Do what’s necessary to help that staffer leave work after a reasonable work day.

    (And be a role model. You go home, too.)

  5. Help me stretch. At some point in your career, a boss invited you to take on an assignment that forced you to go outside your comfort zone. And if that invitation was part of your boss’s strategy for helping you grow, your boss also worked to make sure you succeeded.

    Stretching is not always about a new beat or a major change in responsibility. It can be asking a reporter to fill in on the desk for a week. It can be asking a page designer to take a shot at page one. It can involve suggesting to a videographer a different approach to lighting. In fact, many staffers will respond much better to a series of small “stretches” — they wake up in six months to find the small growth spurts have added up, and they are much improved.

    Like feedback, this tactic requires your commitment — in this case, to be on the lookout for opportunities to challenge me. Do it well, and over time your staff will significantly expand their individual skills while, as a group, increasing their confidence to tackle new ideas.

  6. Turn every interaction into something more. By necessity, you have a certain number of interactions with individual staffers every day: Assigning a story, asking a question about a web post, editing some video. Why not turn those routine interactions into something more?
    If you keep each staffer’s progress in mind, you’ll be much more likely to recognize an opportunity to talk with them about a facet of their work. While you’re editing a story, take an extra five minutes to focus on the writer’s tendency to use quotes to merely repeat something that she had paraphrased in the previous paragraph. Maybe point out an example where the writer used a quote to add something to the story instead of simply repeating a point already made.

    You’ve just turned that routine interaction into a coaching moment. You’ve been strategic.

  7. Talk about the kids’ soccer games — or anything involving the staffer’s life. The point of this tactic is to is to engage staff in conversation that broadens how they get ideas.

    Many journalists depend on a number of reliable sources — some human, some not — for ideas. They talk with officials, read journals, pore over data — all legitimate starting points for stories. But those same journalists often fail to see the story potential in something that happens to them outside work: The trip with their mother-in-law to the emergency room, the injury to a child on the pee-wee soccer field, the much higher price of asparagus at the grocery store.

    Ideas come from everywhere, and journalists who expand their sources for ideas often produce more work that resonates with the community — because it’s work inspired by real life.

  8. Talk in person. Here’s the last tactic, and maybe the most important one:

    Whenever possible, talk with your staffers in person. Walk across the room to their desk. Go get coffee together. Take a walk around the block.

    Email and messaging are valuable tools for handling routine information—a production issue, a deadline update, a change in a story budget. But if you’re going to address my work or my life, please talk with me. Maximize the odds that what we say to each other will be heard correctly, and enable the best possible exchange.

    This, like most of the other tactics I’ve suggested, cannot be an “always” approach. The pressure to carry out your responsibilities will cause you to rely on email, or just get that that routine interaction done, or pass up an opportunity to offer feedback.

  9. But remember the goal of the strategic coach: To help each staffer improve their work over time. The more consistently you pursue that goal, embracing tactics like these as often as possible, the more attainable that goal will become.

    Think of it this way: Of the two types of managers, which would you rather work for? The ones focused on getting their work done?

    Or the ones focused on your growth?

    It’s worth thinking about.

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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…
Butch Ward

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