February 22, 2016

What, I ask managers, would you like to change about the way you lead?

“I’d like to be a better planner,” one says. “I’d like to be more flexible,” says another. “I’d like to be less impatient,” says a third.

Be, be, be. I’d like to be…

But what will you do in order to be a better leader?

That’s the hard part.

When asked to describe our leadership, we or those who know us usually resort to adjectives like supportive, accessible, impatient, empowering, unfair. But those words merely reflect the behaviors that, in the course of carrying out our jobs, we do.

If we want to be different, we have to do something different.

Let’s take an example. What can you do differently if you want your staff to see you as more supportive?

You could more aggressively promote their work in news meetings. Nominate them for special assignments even when newsroom stars have the inside track. Ask for them to receive training on a new skill. Protect them from routine assignments when they’re working on something that is potentially more important.

Sometimes doing something different can be surprisingly simple.

A participant in one of my seminars shared that he used to have a problem with temper and sometimes said things he later regretted.

What did you do to address that, I asked?

I listened to my mother, he said. I started counting to 10.

Pretty simple. Not necessarily easy to do — but simple.

But for some bosses, the hardest part about changing the way they manage is acknowledging that they can change. Maybe you’re one of those managers.

Do you feel like you control the way you manage? Do you believe someone else is directing you to be a particular kind of boss? Do you find yourself often saying, “I’m sorry, but I had to do this?”

I wish I could erase that phrase from my vocabulary — because it’s just not true. Here’s a fact: I did not have to do it.

I chose to do it.

Maybe I weighed my options and decided the price for noncompliance was too high, but ultimately, I chose to do it.

Now don’t hear me saying that we can control the things that happen to us. We can’t control the kind of boss we get. We can’t control the reasonableness of the goals we’re given. We can’t control our health or if we will be laid off.

But we do get to control our response to all of those things. And for a manager who wants to make changes in her approach to the job, that is an incredibly liberating reality.

You can do what you need to do, in order to be the boss you want to be.

Think about it:

Your boss isn’t directing you to come up with all of the story ideas yourself. She just wants the staff to produce good stories. It’s your decision whether to make idea generation an inclusive exercise or your own heroic mission.

Your boss isn’t forbidding you from giving the staff consistent feedback. He just wants the staff to get better. You get to decide whether the best way to help people improve is to coach them or to fix their work yourself.

Your boss isn’t telling you to keep working on your computer while a staffer is talking with you. You get to decide how much of your attention to devote to the person seeking your help.

The point is, you have a lot of control over the way you do your job.

And that’s good news. Because if we identify areas in which we want to achieve better results, we can make changes — do things differently — in order to produce better outcomes.

Let’s practice this idea. Let’s take a few areas in which managers frequently say they would like to improve, and offer some thoughts on what they might do differently.

  1. Be more empowering. Embrace one simple question: What do you think we should do? When someone comes to you with an issue, ask what they propose as a solution. After all, they usually know more about the issue than you do.

    When giving someone a new assignment, clearly lay out your expectations and goals, but then invite the staffer to come back in a day or week with some ideas for carrying out the role. Agree in advance with the staffer on how you plan to measure success, and let the staffer do the measuring — and be accountable for the results. None of this suggests you stop offering to support your staff’s work; it is to suggest that if you want the staff to take more responsibility for the work, you have to give them more autonomy to do it.
  2. Be more flexible. Change up some of your organization’s routines. Assign different people to run routine meetings. Drop in on meetings you don’t typically attend (and don’t worry about looking like you’re checking up on people; you’ll only be suspected of that if you seize control of the meeting or routinely second-guess its decisions). Invite feedback for ongoing newsroom initiatives — especially your “favorites” — in order to demonstrate your openness to make mid-course changes. Give staffers short-term, special assignments — maybe around a hot story or the introduction of a new technology.

    Be as comfortable with the pace of change as you want your staff to be. Be absolutely unyielding on the things that matter most — quality, ethical standards — and flexible in all of the areas that invite experimentation and revisiting.
  3. Be more focused. Ask yourself, what areas within my purview most need my attention? How can I schedule my day to give significant attention to them for as long as necessary? Perhaps it’s the introduction of a new product, or the implementation of new technology. Maybe it’s the creation of a plan for election year, or a long-overdue campaign to give staff useful — and regular — feedback on their work. Free up time for these efforts by skipping meetings that someone else can attend in your place. Explicitly identify initiatives to put on hold — or delegated to someone else — while you are focused on these more important areas. And within these areas, practice these other “new” behaviors: empower staff to take on significant responsibility in these areas and be flexible as you work toward solutions.

The best news about doing things differently in order to achieve better results is that the changes are not permanent — no more so than the ways you are doing things now. If they don’t work, try something different.

The best bosses routinely evaluate their performance and ask what they could do differently in order to improve. In that, they are simply doing what they ask their staffs to do — to be open to change in order to grow.

What will you do to be a better manager?

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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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