July 17, 2015
Flickr photo by thinkpanama

Flickr photo by thinkpanama

On the day you accepted your manager’s job, you and your boss almost certainly had a talk. The subject: What the boss expects from you.

No matter how good that initial talk was, however, it might have failed to provide you with the road map you need to succeed. And that’s true for two reasons:

  • Too many bosses fail to update their expectations on a regular basis.
  • And second, the boss often fails to mention—or adequately stress—some expectations that are very important.

The failure-to-update problem is critical. (Here’s my recent column on just how critical.) The business is changing fast, and your job is changing with it. If you are to succeed, you need a clear understanding from your boss about what your role entails, and that understanding needs to be updated with every change in your responsibility.

But that’s only half the problem. Too many of those initial “expectations talks” are inadequate because of what goes unsaid. Maybe some bosses believe there are expectations so obvious you shouldn’t need to talk about them. But having watched enough relationships between bosses and reports go bad over some of these “obvious” expectations, I’d suggest we start talking.

For starters, here are five:

  1. You need to be credible. Duh, you say. What journalist doesn’t get the importance of credibility? But this isn’t about the journalism you produce; it’s about the stands you take, the staff members you lobby for, the work you champion. You need to be credible in those areas, too.

    Think about it: Haven’t you worked with the editor whose story-of-the-day is always worth top play? Whose resource needs are always the most important in the newsroom? Whose unsuccessful efforts are always some other department’s fault?

    Don’t get me wrong. Managers should advocate for their staff’s work. But they need to be credible advocates. Because if I’m your boss, I need to be able to trust that when you say work is exceptional, you genuinely believe it is exceptional. I need to be able to count on you to accept responsibility for disappointing results. I need to know that you are advocating for something or someone because of their value, and not because your performance plays well with your staff.

    And here’s the kicker: When a credible manager makes a pitch, the boss is more likely to buy it.

  2. Make yourself obsolete. I had a boss who told me that in one of our first conversations. I had no idea what he meant, until I went on vacation and received about 20 calls from work. The last was from the boss, telling me I could go on vacation again after I had taught someone how to do my job. I then understood.

    Your boss wants your operation to work whether or not you’re there. In fact, it makes a boss downright uncomfortable to think an operation depends on the presence of any specific individual.

    Maybe you don’t bear ultimate responsibility for grooming your successor or even for replacing you during your absences. No matter. Don’t let your rank discourage you from contributing to this effort. You’re a manager; help the newsroom better manage itself. Collaborate with as many other managers as necessary to help ensure that no matter who is on duty, assignments will be made, work will be polished, the newscast or the Web site or the paper will be produced. The broader the effort, the more effective the system. (The systems created by colleagues who actually do the work are often far better than those handed down from on high.)

    Yes, the boss wants you to help make sure someone else knows how to do your job. The boss also wants you to help build systems and processes that work in anyone’s absence.

  3. Stretch the staff. From the moment the boss gives you responsibility for managing people, she is expecting you to be her expert on them. What are their talents, their challenges, their potential?

    Unfortunately, too many managers accept the reputations that past managers have applied to staffers. “Can’t write,” “straight news reporter,” “unwilling to change.” When that happens, the new manager quickly becomes a caretaker—making sure the trains run on time, but rarely adding any new destinations.

    Bosses expect more. They expect change. If a staffer truly is limited in ways that hold the staff back, bosses expect you to actively work toward moving that staffer out.

    But I’ve never met a boss who didn’t welcome a good redemption story.
    From Day 1, the best managers look for untapped talent. They look for staffers who fell into coverage ruts because editors turned to them for the same dependable work, day after day. They look for staffers willing to try something new, and help them succeed at it.

    And when they find out something good about a staffer, they share it with the boss immediately, hoping to change that staffer’s reputation. These stories don’t always have happy endings, but when they do, you’ve given your boss a better staff than the one she gave you.

  4. No surprises. Lots of bosses tell their managers, “I don’t like surprises.” What they mean, of course, is they don’t like embarrassing surprises. No calls from someone (the publisher, the mayor, a member of the cleaning crew) who knows something the boss believes he should have known.

    This expectation helps to explain why management—especially managing your boss — is an art, not a science. You can’t possibly tell your boss everything (bosses certainly don’t want that), and you can’t possibly anticipate everything that might turn out to be important — and a possible source of embarrassment.

    So you have to pay attention. What issues matter most to your boss? What does he ask the most questions about? When does she tend to get calls from the publisher or the general manager? How do you learn those things?

    Once you’re talking with your boss regularly, it gets a lot easier. Three reasons:

    • During those conversations, bosses will inevitably reveal issues they care most about, by the time they spend on them and the questions they ask.
    • You get the chance to ask questions that further reveal the boss’s interest in a subject.
    • And you have an easy opportunity to give the boss a heads-up about information you think he should know — without making a special trip to his office.

    No matter how well you anticipate the land mines, you can’t totally protect your boss from surprises. But you can learn how to minimize them. That’s worth the effort.
    Oh, and remember, the boss absolutely reserves the right to surprise you.

  5. Represent me — especially my values. Bosses expect you to represent them all of the time. That’s why many bosses will tell managers, “it’s okay if we disagree behind closed doors, but once we walk outside, we have to speak with one voice.”

But this expectation applies in a special way to the values the boss holds dearest. If your boss, for instance, places a high value on responding to the public, she expects you and your staff to respond promptly and courteously to the public’s emails and calls. If your boss has strong feelings about collaborating with the advertising department, he will expect you to observe those same boundaries when you deal with that group.

Simply put, you are always expected to act as if the boss were in the room.

The challenge here is threefold:

  • First, of course, you need to know the values your boss cares most about. Pay attention to the boss in meetings; take note of the projects he champions (or refuses to get involved in); listen to her critiques (positive and negative) of your staff’s work.
  • Second, you have to credibly represent the boss’s values and positions —even if you don’t share them. If the day arrives when you cannot do that, it’s time to think about moving on.
  • Finally, you need to help your staff embrace the boss’s values as well. Staffers also represent the newsroom (and by extension, your boss) and she will expect you to make sure they represent the organization well.

Meeting expectations like these five goes a long way toward cementing a good relationship with your boss. Yes, you’re already busy, and they appear to require a lot of extra work. The good news is you master them over time. You build credibility with the choices you make every day. You massage your systems and processes, one new wrinkle at a time. You build your awareness of the boss’s hot buttons and values with each interaction.

And you’re always looking for ways to stretch the staff’s individual and collective skills.

Be patient. But be deliberate. Remember, even if the boss doesn’t talk much about these expectations, they’re real.

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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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