January 25, 2016

During Poynter leadership programs, newsroom managers receive feedback from their staffs, colleagues and bosses back home. The participants can use the feedback to help decide how well their leadership is working.

In recent months, I’ve seen an interesting trend in that feedback—one I would call worrisome.

Staffs are letting their bosses off the hook.

First, here’s what hasn’t changed: Asked to give their bosses candid feedback, staffs continue to ask their supervisors for more interaction, especially more feedback about their work. They also ask for more communication in general—information about newsroom strategy or the company’s overall performance or how all manner of decisions get made.

In recent months, however, an increasing number of respondents to the feedback questionnaires include an expression of empathy. They say things like:

“I know my boss would like to give me feedback, but she just has too many responsibilities. She’s too busy.”

While I applaud the staff for its willingness to put aside their own needs, it strikes me that what they are really saying is this:

“He has too many responsibilities. He’s too busy to do his job.”

If I’m a newsroom manager, that gets my attention. Am I really failing to do my job?

Think about it. Think about the role that useful feedback plays in helping all of us improve our work. So if you’ve stopped giving your staff feedback, how are you carrying out your responsibility for performance management?

That’s your job.

But this isn’t just about feedback, or even about performance management. This is about how you are choosing to spend your time. What else are you too busy to do? And what impact is that having on the newsroom’s performance?

In the past few months, I’ve worked with a number of managers who say they are frustrated with their busyness and the feeling that being stretched so thin is killing their effectiveness. And so they are trying to rethink their workload and focus on activities they believe have the most impact.

But how do you make those choices?

Let me offer three questions to help you recalibrate the ways in which you spend your time. I preface them by assuring you that we’re not going through this exercise because anyone is wasting time; chances are, you make significant contributions to your news organization through whatever work you are doing.

But is it the most effective use of your time? You only have so much. Your choices can make a huge difference in whether your staff and their journalism improves, and how fulfilling you find your work.

Question 1. What work can I alone do? The answer to this question can help you identify work that, simply put, does not get done if you don’t do it. For example, let’s say you have been given responsibility for managing a staff of digital producers. With that job comes responsibility for managing their performance, which includes giving them useful feedback on their work.

So ask yourself: If I don’t give them feedback, who will? Chances are the answer is: no one. If you don’t give it to them, it’s unlikely they will receive any praise or encouragement, reinforcement or appreciation, clear expectations or constructive suggestions for improvement.

Once you realize that only you can perform a piece of work—and if the work is important—then the choice is not about whether you need to do it, but how you will get it done. It becomes a priority.

Question 2. Is the work I’m doing having any impact on our future? The late management guru Stephen Covey observed that most managers spend most of their time in work he called “urgent and important,” activities that address current obligations. For newsrooms, think about the work necessary to keep the website running, air the newscast or publish tomorrow’s newspaper.

The best managers, Covey said, find time to engage in activities that move the organization forward—activities like planning, coaching staff, offering feedback, brainstorming new ideas. He called those activities “important but not urgent,” because although they make us better, if you never get around to them, your organization still can meet its obligations.

Newsrooms offer plenty of evidence that he was right.

Covey was careful to stipulate that every manager has to spend some time doing “urgent and important” work; but he argued that those who spent more of their time in “important but not urgent” activities were most successful in moving their organizations forward.

Think about it. Time spent coaching a reporter on a problem in his work not only will improve today’s story, it also can help that reporter solve the same problem for the rest of his career. You’ve moved the organization forward.

If you find yourself spending most of your time getting today’s paper out, preparing tonight’s newscast or updating today’s website, ask yourself Question 3.

Question 3. Who else could be doing this? This will help you determine how the work you’re giving up will still get done. (If it needs to get done.)

That sounds easy, but I meet a lot of bosses who are more reluctant than ever to delegate work to someone else. The bosses feel guilty that they are asking others to take on more work.

That’s worth thinking about. But before you let that concern paralyze you, consider these points:

First, remember the staffers who observed in their feedback questionnaires that their bosses were too busy to offer them feedback? Some of those same staffers urged their bosses to let them help. Give us some of your work, they said, so you can do what you should be doing. They weren’t suggesting that they don’t have enough to do; they were saying they were willing to help find a solution to getting everything done, if it meant you could do what only you can do: your job.

Second, think back over your career. At some point, someone asked you to take on some additional piece of work, and you did not feel put upon; you saw the request as a chance to demonstrate that you had the skill to take on more responsibility, handle bigger challenges. You already had a lot to do; but you saw the new work as an opportunity.

Delegation is not a dirty word—as long as you replace what you’re delegating with work that moves the organization forward.

In the end, no matter what your level of management, you’re searching for a workload that helps the organization be the best it can be, both today and for months and years to come. You want to spend your time at work producing journalism that responds to the community’s needs and interests today, and building your staff’s ability to respond even more effectively to those needs and interests in the future.

Put another way, you want your labors to help produce good work and to improve the people who produce it.

For that to happen, you need to make some choices. They might help you move your staff forward — and in the process, feel a lot more fulfilled.


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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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