Speak up more, brainstorm with everyone and don’t take that difficult boss personally

This is part of a series of Q and As with leaders at news organizations. I asked leaders to think about the challenges they face in their news organizations and to share guidance and advice. Whether your news organization is small or large, a start-up or more than 100 years old, the issues are often the same. This series on managing change in a newsroom was funded by Democracy Fund. Subscribe to Democracy Fund’s Local Fix newsletter for more of the best writing, ideas, and tips for those working in local news in your inbox every Friday.

Karen Lincoln Michel is editor of Madison Magazine, a monthly magazine that covers the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin.

Most of Michel’s career has been in newspapers, where she has held positions from reporter to executive editor. Previously, Michel was the executive editor of The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, and prior to that, was the assistant managing editor at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. From 2005 to 2008, she covered state government and politics as the Madison bureau chief for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Michel began her daily newspaper career in Wisconsin as a reporter at the La Crosse Tribune and went on to The Dallas Morning News.

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She has written extensively about Native American issues as a freelancer and was a columnist for The New York Times Syndicate. Michel is a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin and is a past president of the Native American Journalists Association and UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, a coalition of journalism organizations. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University and a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She is also president of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism board of directors.

When you have to make a decision that you know will not be popular among your team, how would you handle it?

I once worked for a boss who told me about a difficult decision he had to make and shared what he was struggling with to make that decision. He asked: If I made this certain decision, what would you think? He never asked me what I would do, but I could see that he was obviously concerned about how the decision might be received by the staff and the department. He probably went to other key influencers among the staff and asked the same question. Still, I was one of his top managers, and I know he trusted me. I felt valued that he routinely turned to me in confidence as a sounding board. But I also know it was because we had the kind of relationship where we were completely honest with each other, and had the good of the organization at heart.

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I bring up that example because I strive to develop that kind of relationship with my top team members. I hold weekly team meetings plus weekly one-on-one meetings with my top leaders. Depending on the nature of a hypothetical unpopular decision, I might clue in my team during one of our weekly meetings and reveal what details I could, as per my boss. If it were a very tough decision, I would probably speak individually to my top leaders and give them a chance to offer any insights or feedback. I have confidence in them and trust them to give me their honest assessments. Their feedback might help me either rethink or reinforce my position, or it could help shed more light on the kind of fallout that might come from an unpopular decision.

How do you get support or advance your ideas with people who don’t report to you?

I believe in brainstorming ideas with people from different departments and at various levels of the company. When my magazine’s marketing person took on a different role within the company, we formed a marketing committee to address how we could fill that void. I suggested forming a company-wide cross-departmental team to help the magazine come up with innovative ideas through a brainstorming session. I had ideas of my own, which were considered and refined through this group. This exercise allowed me to get buy-in from people who don’t report to me, and I have followed up with them on the ideas we have pursued as a result of their participation. These types of groups help build an informal network that can be tapped when working on future projects.

It’s important to note that if I wanted to formally seek support from someone who doesn’t report to me, I would ask that person’s supervisor for clearance to talk to his or her direct report and give the reason why.

Put yourself in the shoes of a start-up news organization. What advice would you give to build the needed culture?

I have served on the board of a non-profit investigative journalism organization for most of the group’s nine-year history and recently became its president. I am fortunate that two of the founders are also the organization’s top staff members, and they possess exceptional attributes that have helped them build a solid culture: passion, drive, expertise, intelligence, doggedness, integrity and heart. Before they became entrepreneurs, they worked for daily newspapers and racked up numerous watchdog reporting awards — many of them resulting in governmental policy changes — and have continued that tradition in their start-up endeavor. Imagine a business built around holding government officials accountable and run by investigative journalists with impeccable credentials and decades of experience. It’s a watchdog reporter’s dream job.

Then there’s the business side and the constant focus on generating revenue. The nonprofit center that I oversee began by learning from others in this emerging space and eventually earned a reputation as a national model. But with the economic uncertainty of the new industry and shifting priorities of the foundations that gave generously to these startups, in the beginning, it’s extremely challenging. My advice is to be as fearless about gaining new revenue streams and developing strong relationships with individual donors as you are about pursuing impactful investigative stories.

Everyone has to deal with a difficult boss in his or her career — most of us many times. What’s one tactic you have used with a difficult boss that resulted in a positive change for you?

The most effective way I have dealt with a difficult boss is to focus on a shared vision for success while remaining true to my values as a Native American. My leadership values are rooted in my Ho-Chunk culture. Among those values are respect, integrity, humility, gratitude, wisdom and consideration of what’s best for the whole. Working with difficult bosses has tested me and, in some cases, strengthened my resolve to carry on these values that were instilled in me by my parents and grandparents.

I once worked for a boss who came from a different industry who was sharp, confident and a skilled businessperson but had very little knowledge about newspapers and how they operate. I not only had to help this person understand editorial integrity, but I also felt compelled to share information about the culture of the company and how it worked in an effort to help my new boss be successful. Because this top leader didn’t understand my job, it was difficult for this person to lead me.

In applying my cultural leadership values, I respected this person as my boss even though I wasn’t always shown respect in return. I was honest and truthful in my dealings with my boss even when I knew I might be perceived as stepping out of line. Because I value humility, I know my strengths and weaknesses and don’t take it personally when my actions are misunderstood or called into question.

I have an ability to look past the outward flaws of people and recognize and appreciate their talent. In doing so, I was eventually able to gain my boss’s trust in certain areas. And although our relationship was sometimes rocky, that former boss took me to lunch after leaving the company and offered to give me a good recommendation if I ever needed it.

Is there one thing you wished you did more of as a leader?

I wish had spoken up more when I was a middle manager, which would have made it easier to express myself when I led my own newsroom. Part of my reserved demeanor comes from my cultural teachings. I was taught that Ho-Chunk women are neither loud nor boastful, and they should never draw attention themselves. When we speak, it should be at appropriate times. We have specific roles, and none of them involves speaking in a room full of men. Yet that’s what most newsroom management teams are comprised of.

When I was president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, I had to give an opening address at the UNITY ’08 convention in front of an estimated 5,000 people. I enjoy speaking publicly, but sometimes I have gotten a nagging sensation that I’m going against my Ho-Chunk teachings. In preparation for this important address, I asked one of my uncles, a highly respected elder of the Ho-Chunk Nation, if I had his permission to speak publicly. He told me that sometimes we are called upon to be leaders, and along with that responsibility comes sharing wisdom with others and enlightening people through our words. He gave me permission to speak, which is something I cherish as a Ho-Chunk woman and a professional. I only wish I had asked him sooner.

Readings that helped Karen as a leader: "Reuben Snake, Your Humble Serpent: Indian Visionary and Activist" as told to Jay C. Fikes and "Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Woman" edited by Nancy Oestreich Lurie (a book about the life and times of a Ho-Chunk woman who lived from 1884 to 1960)

Are there other leaders we should highlight in this and future series? Tweet your suggestions to @TheLocalNewsLab and @Poynter.

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