May 22, 2014

There are no perfect managers. Not Jill Abramson. Not Dean Baquet. Certainly not Jill Geisler when she ran a newsroom, and she’s now a leadership teacher, for heaven’s sake.

Every manager has strengths and challenges. And on any given day, you, as a boss, will disappoint someone.

You hire and promote people while rejecting others. You accept and advance one person’s idea but pass on someone else’s. You hold people accountable for quality and performance. You force them out of their comfort zones to learn new things (Hello, digital age.)  In tough economic times, you cancel projects they love, freeze or cut their salaries and lay off their talented friends.

And if you’re like most people, you do all that with little or no training in how to lead a team. Your training was in journalism, or in whatever craft in which you performed well enough for your bosses to say, “We like what you do, so how ’bout we put you in charge of that work?”

But you don’t just manage work. There’s this matter of leading the people who perform it — human beings who bring their hopes, talents, deficiencies and personality quirks to the job with them.

They are people, not just producers. They aren’t all like you and even the best of them don’t — and don’t want to — do things exactly the way you did when you were a top performer.

That’s where management really gets tricky, and the temptations are great:

It would be so easy if you could only:

  • Captain a team of journalists who question authority and resist spin, except when it comes to you.
  • Hire employees who are just like you, because they make you so comfortable.
  • Focus strictly on results, not the folks who get you there.
  • Tell them, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job,” so you skip chit-chat and focus on tasks you really like.
  • Deliver criticism whenever and however you damn well please.
  • Expect people to conform to you, whatever your strengths or shortcomings, because you’re in charge.

I’ve just described the bad old days, didn’t I? — a time when bosses could be behave like tyrants and discriminate indiscriminately (who wants women and minorities to crash the club, right?), and have all that be perfectly acceptable so long as their team (happy or miserable) cranked out some good work. Sometimes even that wasn’t necessary, as long the boss made budget.

Times have changed. Businesses and business schools began to focus on leadership, not just management. The goal was to improve the product and the process by looking at how people at work are hired, trained, engaged, motivated, and, yes, even inspired.

The goal was to figure out how to have more employees say things like this about their managers:

He has a fantastic ability to listen to criticism and act positively on that criticism. He is good at selecting the right person for the job, and is genuinely liked by his colleagues. He inspires confidence and brings out the best in people.  He is good at working as part of a large team with many conflicting ideas and agendas. It’s fun to be at work when he is the boss.

That quote is from a 360-degree feedback report for a manager in one of our Poynter leadership seminars. When I wrote my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I illustrated great and not-so-great behaviors with these real responses about managers, to show what an impact they have.

With good grim humor, she has helped lead us through a severe downsizing. She has done this by reminding us what our core mission is, and if we focus on that we’ll be all right. And she has led by example, by getting down to work and not whining, and proving we can do it.

Or this:

What can you say about an editor you trust completely, who you know would do anything for you and your story, who inspires you, who makes work not seem like work at all?  If I could get her to be the editor of my life, I’d be a better person.

So what do these managers do better than others?  They look at their relationships with employees as a series of transactions. Produce enough good outcomes from each of those transactions and you build social capital.  Social capital is a bank of trust and good will that gets you through the rough times, when your role as a manager requires you to disappoint someone, or when you simply make a mistake.

When supervisors are committed to having high-quality transactions, people who are criticized aren’t crushed, people whose ideas don’t get accepted aren’t made to feel stupid, people who do well get deserved credit, and folks aren’t left wondering where they stand in the organization or if they even matter at all.

There’s something else the best managers do: they understand that their moods and behaviors are contagious. Their energy, enthusiasm and optimism set a tone in the workplace. They have — or learn to develop — a good degree of social and emotional intelligence. They can read people, read situations, read a whole darn room and respond accordingly. (I always said that my job as a manager was to get calm when the team got nervous and get nervous when the newsroom’s too calm.)

They know what management style fits best for which situation:

  • A commanding, top-down leadership style is the right fit for crisis or when risky decisions must be made, when employees expect calm and in-control boss. But that style is self-defeating if used for all occasions because people feel micromanaged.
  • A pacesetting style, raising the bar and constantly challenging people, can jump-start a sluggish team. But a group of high performers (especially those who are smarter than their bosses — and many are) will rebel in the face of relentless “not good enoughs” from their leader.
  • A democratic style that demonstrates empathy gets people through tough times. Democratic leaders tend to bring people together for a voice in decisions (if not necessarily a vote) when buy-in is important during change. But used too much or in the wrong situations, it can create a conflict-averse culture with slow decision-making.
  • A visionary style can help people see and feel the importance of a mission and a goal when they are up against uncertainty and challenge. But if it’s big talk and little execution, employees feel manipulated, not motivated.

Authors like Daniel Goleman, who delves deeper into those styles in his book Primal Leadership will tell you most managers have a “default” style of managing — behaviors they fall into instinctively. But the best ones know how to shift out of that style and into another that’s better for the moment. They do it comfortably and carefully, so it’s not an act. It’s simply knowing how to match the right dance to the right music.

It’s hard work. It’s why, if you don’t mind the shameless plug, leadership training is important. I know it could have saved me (and spared my team) from some of my managerial mistakes. It’s why I take special delight in working with new managers and applaud organizations that identify emerging leaders and provide them with some schooling even before they’re promoted.

Because at the end of the day — or make that the work day — the secret to a smart supervisor’s success is this:

Manage yourself, so you can lead others.

I share more insights in this companion podcast:

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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