April 13, 2016

It is Friday afternoon and you’re a reporter at the top of your game.

Your story is featured on the newsroom’s homepage. Your inbox is filled with tips from sources, requests from viewers, complaints from city council members. A young reporter asks for your advice. A local journalism professor wants you to teach her class.

But all of this is about to change.

For come Monday morning, you will become an editor. In an awkward ritual that plays out routinely in newsrooms everywhere, successful reporters, photographers and other journalists take a scary leap.

They become bosses.

For many, it is a difficult transition.

And why wouldn’t it be? One day you’re responsible for managing one person’s work — your own. The next day you are managing the work of a group — people who not only are different from you, they are different from each other.

They have different skill sets.

Different goals.

Different motivators.

And different work habits.

Within hours of sitting in your new chair — maybe within sight of the chair from which you confidently attacked your old job — you make some startling discoveries:

Reporters whose work you previously had only seen in published form are turning in stories that need attention.

Colleagues who loved the ideas you used to share at lunch are balking at your suggestions for assignments they might pursue.

Staffers with whom you regularly socialized are clearly changing the subjects of their conversations when they see you approach.

You feel lost, much like I do in my dreams when I’m racing around campus, looking for my final exam, realizing that in the months since I last attended class, the professor moved it to a new classroom.

Except this is not a dream.

Does it have to be this way? Does the move from reporter to editor need to be so hard? After all, the idea of broadening your impact from just your work to a group’s work should be fulfilling.

And it can be — if, from day one, you have a strategy for achieving your most important objective:

To help your staff succeed.

And how do you do that? By building with each individual a relationship designed to help them do their best work.

Embracing that objective will influence the way you lead your staff. You’ll choose behaviors that bring you and your staff closer instead of behaviors that keep them at a distance. Which brings me to my first piece of advice, something you should not do:

Don’t change yourself.

New managers often are advised they need to develop a new, more distant persona. Avoid friendships with staff, they’re told, so you can more easily do the “tough stuff” managers sometimes have to do. I think that’s bunk. Defining my relationships with staffers on the assumption that they will someday fail strikes me as the stuff of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Do you have to make some changes? Sure. You can’t engage in the same level of management-bashing. You shouldn’t be the last person standing at the staff’s happy hour. You will undoubtedly possess information that you cannot freely share with all of your cronies.

But don’t change the essence of the person your newsroom has known and, hopefully, respected. Because that, more than anything else, is the change that your colleagues — now direct reports — are watching for. Will this person we trusted become “one of them?” Will the new boss put the needs of the company ahead of ours?

None of that needs to happen.

Earlier this year I wrote a column about the importance of trust and pointed to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article in which researchers Amy J.C. CuddyMatthew Kohut and John Neffinger urged managers — especially new managers — to first demonstrate they can be trusted before trying to prove they are competent.

This is hard, because on that first day in the manager’s chair, you’re desperate to show the staff how good you are. Problem is, they know better. They know the truth: Yes, you were a really good journalist, and you might be a very good manager — someday. But on day one?

So why pretend? What’s more important is for you to demonstrate that the journalist they know, and trusted, isn’t planning to change in the ways that matter most: your values, your integrity, your concern for them.

You still can be trusted.

That’s the agenda for day one, and here are some ideas for helping you get off to a good start. In the doing, you’ll develop some habits that will serve you well on day 1,000, too.

Meet each staffer anew.

You may know a lot about the people you now supervise. But enough to be a good boss for them? Almost certainly not. Do you know, for instance, how they do their job? Sure, you know what their job is, but do you know how they do it? How they write a story? How they decide to frame a photograph? How they organize their notes? How they edit video? Think about it: You can’t help people do their jobs more effectively if you don’t know how they do them. This is especially important if the staffer has a job that you used to have, because unless you ask, you’ll be tempted to assume they do their job like you did. That’s probably wrong.

But there are other things you need to know. What’s their dream job? What do they like doing best? What do they feel most confident doing, and what is most challenging?

Remember, whether it’s your first day as a boss or the day of your retirement party, what your staff has to say is almost always more important than what you have to say. Plus, asking questions and really listening to the answers demonstrates that you’re focusing on them. That helps build trust.

Don’t stop being a reporter.

One of the most common misconceptions rookie managers have about their new role is that it requires them to have all of the answers. If only you did. Indeed, your role does require you to lead the search for answers — but your success usually depends on bringing the knowledge and ideas of others to bear on that search.

So on day one, when someone comes to ask what they should do to address a problem, resist the urge to tell them what to do. Ask what they think. And if at the end of the conversation you don’t think you’ve heard a good solution, say that. Ask the staffer to come back tomorrow or next week or whenever you’ve both had a chance to do some more reporting. Then resume the effort to collaborate on an answer.

What’s the best possible outcome? The staffer solves the problem. That gets both a solution and allows you to demonstrate that on your staff, everyone’s input matters.

Be clear about expectations.

You almost certainly have different expectations for your staff than the boss you are replacing. Some of these expectations have to do with content: the kinds of stories reporters and photographers pursue, the relationship between speed and accuracy, how much voice your writers can employ. But you also have expectations about a hundred other matters:

How much work do you expect staffers to produce each day?

What do you expect them to achieve on social media?

How do you want staffers to communicate with you?

Do you send emails after hours? And how quickly do you expect them to be answered?

If one of your goals as a manager is to provide your staffers with regular feedback on their performance — and that should be one of your most important goals — then begin by establishing the expectations by which their performance will be measured.

And let’s be practical. You can’t address all of your expectations in one conversation. But that’s OK, because this is a conversation you want to have on a regular basis. After all, your expectations will change over time, and it’s important that your staffer always has the latest version of them.

And while you’re at it, let your staffers know what they can expect from you.

Establish your schedule.

Part of helping someone trust you involves letting them know they can count on you to be there for them. In very practical terms, that means following a routine that the staff can rely on. Sadly, some managers accomplish this by being the first ones to work and the last ones to leave. In other words, they are always there.

That’s a bad idea, both for you and for the staffers who interpret your constant presence as a message that they should always be there, too. If you arrive at work early each day, schedule the workflow so that you will leave after an appropriate number of hours. If you do that every day, the staff will know when they can reach you — and they might do the same.

To the degree you can, also try to establish a rhythm within your day so that staff knows when you’re most likely to be available for them. And don’t be afraid to explicitly tell staff what times are most convenient for you to talk about non-urgent matters. Your goal is to be accessible and fulfill your other responsibilities within a reasonable work day.

Honor expertise — and experience.

Perhaps the reason I most loved working with the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer was that so many people could do things I couldn’t do. Their expertise as reporters, writers, photographers, editors, designers and web producers humbled me. And so it made sense to do my job in a way that acknowledged that expertise and worked to create a newsroom in which it could flourish.

A lot of managers get that. But many find it harder to honor the experience of newsroom veterans, especially if they are resistant to the managers’ agendas. This is a crucial issue in resource-starved newsrooms, especially when new managers are younger and less experienced than members of their staff.

My advice (especially now that I am one of those veterans) is don’t shy away from me. Find out what I think I’m good at. Find out what I love to do. Ask me to tell you stories I’m most proud of. Share with me your vision and invite me to suggest ways my skills might fit in. Tell me if I need to learn some new skills — and assure me you’ll help me succeed.

But don’t call me — or treat me as — a dinosaur. That’s not a tactic likely to help me, or you, succeed.

Don’t expect everyone to be you.

This might be the toughest challenge of all. Whether it’s editing a staffer’s work or selecting their assignments, your temptation is to define excellence by the way you did things. I used to rewrite stories to read the way I would have written them. And I framed assignments to appeal to my taste in stories.

Managers who try to clone themselves over and over get defeated in several ways. First, they snuff out other approaches and ways of thinking — ways that might connect with your public (most of whom, I feel safe in saying, are not just like you, either). Second, they suffocate the staffer’s initiative. Why try if, in the end, you’re going to change it to your way?

But wait, you say: The work that’s being turned in is just not good enough in its current form. That may be true, and I am not arguing for publishing or airing bad work. What I am advocating is an approach that involves the staffer in editing the work, so there is an ongoing conversation about how to improve the work over time. I am also advocating for an admission that in some cases, the work is not so flawed as to require your total redo. If it’s close, why not let the other approach win?

After all, you want the relationship you are building to be long and fulfilling. Few relationships thrive when one of the parties always wins. This is another case where the staff is watching: For all of your claims to the contrary, in the end, is it all about you?

Finally, remember the challenge you’re taking on is going to take some time to master. So try to be patient. Try to relax. Try to have fun. And most of all, try to be the person your boss believes can be a good leader.

Try to be you.

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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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