One simple question that can change a manager's relationship with staff

When I was a little boy, I remember grown-ups had a favorite question:

“And what do you want to be when you grow up?”

With each year, my answers changed: Cowboy, firefighter, priest, Perry Mason. (Not sure I ever wanted to be an astronaut, probably because I didn’t like roller coasters.)

In college, people kept asking me the same question, and with more urgency; after all, I needed to get a job someday. And over four years, my answer still kept changing: lawyer, teacher, writer.

I finally settled on the writer idea, and the search for a paycheck led me to the rewrite desk of the News American in Baltimore, my hometown. There I faced a new challenge: figuring out how my daily output of crime briefs, obituaries, dictated staff stories and occasional news features would get me to the cover of the Rolling Stone.

In a way, almost 40 years later, I still have that same question:

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Answering that question is my responsibility. But someone else has the great opportunity to help me answer it:

My boss.

Even as a child, people whom I trusted -- parents, teachers, coaches -- helped me recognize my strengths and urged me to develop them. They also pointed out my shortcomings, and the best of my mentors helped me discover how to grow in those areas.

Good managers understand that dreams and ambitions don't die once we land in the workplace. In fact, they know that taking an interest in their staff's future can help build  strong working relationships with them. Once I believe that you really care what I want to be someday, I’m much more likely to trust your advice, respond to your suggestions and take an interest in your needs.

It’s really a no-brainer. Then why do so many managers run as fast as they can from asking their staff about their aspirations? They think:

  • “Their ambitions are completely unrealistic.”
  • “The conversation will just encourage expectations I have no control over.”
  • “Chances are, they want jobs they’re not good enough for. Why should I be the one who breaks the news?”

Responses like these are understandable, but they result in two unfortunate and unnecessary situations:

First, managers who never ask staff about their aspirations make assumptions about what they'd like to become. The cop reporter, it is assumed, would like to be promoted to courts or maybe City Hall. Truth is, the cop reporter has a passion for the arts, and wants to be a critic someday. And the day inevitably comes when the manager, having just named a new arts critic, receives a visit from a visibly upset cop reporter, who asks: "Why didn't I have a chance to apply?"

Second, managers who show no interest in the staff's future create relationships that, like so many in today’s newsrooms, revolve around production: Bosses give out assignments. The staff completes them. Other staff fix them up the best they can. And the whole process is repeated tomorrow.

Am I oversimplifying? I don’t think so. And it’s not that way everywhere. Find a journalist who works for a manager who has taken a genuine interest in that person’s development, and you’ll hear statements like:

  • “My writing was clunky. He helped me simplify it.”
  • “I had a terrible habit of missing deadlines, and it was holding me back. She helped me organize my day differently, and everything changed.”
  • “He saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself.”

During my career in newsrooms, I watched good editors offer the people around me jobs that took the staffers by surprise. Since coming to Poynter, I’ve met journalists who can’t wait to tell me about the boss who took a risk on them -- and how it paid off.

Here’s my bottom line: Whether you're a new manager or a seasoned pro, if you want your staff to believe that you are dedicated to helping them do the best work they can do,  start building their trust by asking:

“What do you want to be someday?”

Their answer might be a specific job. It might be more vague (as years went by, my answer became, “I want a job in which I have influence. I want to be at the table.” Any number of jobs gave me chances to do that.)

Once you as a manager know what your staffers aspire to do, you have a choice -- and how you choose will determine how honest your relationship with your staffers can become. You can invest in their ambitions. Or you can say, “That’s great. I hope you get there.”

If you choose to make that investment, I’d suggest these next steps:

  • Candidly assess the staffer's strengths and weaknesses. And don’t minimize the strengths. Look for opportunities for the staffer to do more work that builds on them. Your efforts to help them grow will be enhanced if they learn to do what they do well even better.
  • Give them specific ideas for addressing their weaknesses. If the issue involves  writing, identify a specific habit (too many adverbs, backing into too many sentences) and offer to work on that one specific problem together before moving on to the next one.
  • Help staffers see how improving the problems you’ve identified will help them be  better candidates for the jobs they aspire to. The clearer that connection, the harder they will work to improve in that area.
  • Be clear, especially in these uncertain times, that your journalists might have to go elsewhere to find the jobs they want. But don’t let that change your willingness to help them become better qualified to get that job. Every day they improve in your employ will benefit your newsroom’s audience.
  • Look for opportunities for them to test their ambitions. If a member of the staff aspires to a job in another department, you might be able to send them there as a vacation replacement and let that editor get to know their work. Or maybe you can help them get a freelance assignment with that department.
  • As time goes on, if there is improvement, say so. If not, remind the journalist that progress has to occur if their ambition has any chance to come true. The good news is that once they believe that you’re invested in their future, your staff will hear your feedback through that filter. They might not like everything you tell them, but they will know why it matters. You’re trying to help them him get better.
  • Finally, don’t assume that aspirations stay the same. Ask your staffers from time to time how they're looking at the future. And be willing to suggest other assignments that you think they'd be better qualified to do. Maybe you see potential in them that even they don’t see.

Think about this: On many a day in today’s newsroom, your staff -- and maybe, you -- are struggling mightily to see how your ever-expanding workload can lead you to the future you aspire to. Maybe you’re even finding it hard to identify the future you want.

We all could use some help on this journey. As a leader, you have the opportunity to offer that help, and maybe, just maybe, affect the direction of someone’s career.

Or maybe, someone’s life.

Just ask that question. Don’t miss your chance.


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