March 15, 2016

Like a lot of people, I’m more than halfway through this year’s observance of Lent. And something I read the other day about reaching a deeper spirituality got me thinking about another of my aspirations — understanding how to be a better manager.

Here’s the author’s admonition: Unless you make time for spiritual exercise every day, your journey will surely be derailed.

I’m familiar with the derailed part. My life is littered with all types of resolutions that, looking back, became best — and unfulfilled — intentions.

Lose five pounds.

Read more books.

Keep a journal.

The list goes on.

The same challenge exists for managers who are trying to change something about the way they do their jobs. Give staffers more feedback. Brainstorm ideas more frequently. Improve communication with other managers or departments. Arrange sessions for the staff to learn new skills or re-imagine old ones.

All great ideas. But what can you do to increase the chances you’ll stick to those plans?

A number of tactics can help: For starters, share your resolutions with a colleague who can be your ally, your Jiminy Cricket, reminding you of your resolution when it’s apparent you’ve strayed. Finding allies for this journey is crucial. It’s too hard to go it alone.

But you also could apply the spiritual author’s advice. What can you do every day in order to stay committed to your leadership plan? What habits can you adopt?

Let’s start with four. What if you resolved to:

Schedule one in-depth conversation every day. The key word here is “schedule.” In the later years of my time as a newsroom manager, I tried to schedule an important conversation first thing each day — before events seized control of me. Sometimes I met with a staffer about their work; sometimes with a colleague in another division about a new initiative, and sometimes with a direct report seeking advice. Scheduling such a talk guaranteed an opportunity to give someone feedback, or deepen communication or otherwise do something that moved us ahead, beyond just getting the news out that day.

Schedule lunch with at least one staffer each week. It can be coffee in the morning or a mid-afternoon walk around the block. The important thing is to get off the production-go-round long enough to talk about something important. Does it have to be an hour? No. Is 10 minutes long enough? Almost certainly no. But 30 minutes talking about how someone is doing, one of her ideas or one of his challenges can deepen your relationship with that staffer in a meaningful way. Maybe you help him clear up some confusion surrounding your expectations. Maybe you receive a better understanding of a problem you need to help address. Maybe you just listen to someone who needs to be listened to. It’s time very well-spent. If it starts to work, schedule one of these sessions every day.

Change your role in meetings. Almost all of us fall into patterns of behavior in the meetings we attend. If we run the meeting, maybe we typically kick it off with some announcements or by offering our ideas; maybe we wait until the end to say anything. Whatever your current approach, try adjusting it to more effectively support the change in management style you’re seeking. If you want to encourage more staff ideas and you currently speak first, try holding your ideas until later in the meeting (you’re the boss, so you can always share your ideas). If you tend to wait until the end, try engaging in the middle — not in order to refocus everyone on your idea, but just to establish your intention to collaborate. Make the new approach something folks will notice; you might even want to tell them what you’re up to. Most importantly, do it consistently.

Show up in unexpected places. Nothing complements a change in your behavior more than doing it in an unfamiliar surrounding. So do it intentionally. If you go to a canteen for coffee, don’t go right back to your desk. Grab a seat. See who sits down and what conversation ensues. Or just get up from your desk and walk to another part of the newsroom and strike up a conversation; ask someone how they thought of taking that creative approach to the package they produced today. Or go to another department and talk with someone you know — hoping they’ll introduce you to someone else who happens by. You’re building a network — a personal one, and one that will someday benefit your staff.

I hope you get the idea. What habits can you adopt that support your resolutions and increase the chances you’ll stick to them?

Now here’s a point to remember:

Seek habits that encourage creativity. Avoid routines that, over time, produce the same results day in and day out. Those scheduled talks and lunches are designed to provide unexpected opportunities for openly communicating, for reinforcing a shared vision, for seizing a good idea and exploring it. If they devolve into another review of today’s story budget, you’ve created another routine — one that almost certainly will not nourish your resolve to change.

Finally, here’s another habit worth considering: Embrace regular reviews of how you’re doing — both personally and as a staff. Nothing will reinforce your resolve to continue adjusting your management style more than seeing it succeed.

If some staffers are responding well to increased feedback on their work, you’ll be energized to give more.

If the work of some staffers is improving because you are dealing with difficult conversations instead of putting them off, you’ll be motivated to deal with those tough issues as they arise.

If your meetings are more efficient and also more collaborative, your resolve to act upon good ideas wherever they originate will be strengthened.

Sticking to resolutions is never easy, no matter how obvious their value. Allies can help. Your schedule can help. Taking time to acknowledge your wins can help.

And remember, no matter how many times you fall back into old habits, you can always resume the journey.

So let’s go.

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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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