July 10, 2015
Great leaders make the time to talk with their staff. (Flickr photo by John Santerre)

Great leaders make the time to talk with their staff. (Flickr photo by John Santerre)

When I look back at the columns I’ve written over the past 10 years, a consistent theme emerges:

Bosses need to talk with people.

That would seem pretty obvious, especially for newsroom managers. After all, journalists know their success depends on how well they talk with people.

And when I ask journalists–managers and their staffs alike–about the bosses they most admire, they use descriptors like “great listener,” “accessible” and “collaborator.”

But clearly, many managers have not carried that skill set into their supervisory jobs.

Listen to their staffs:

“She never leaves her office.”

“I wish someone would give me some feedback.”

“No one ever sees him; he’s always in meetings.”

I was on a track to be just that kind of leader—maybe without knowing it. Until a boss set me straight.

It was at the end of my first day as managing editor of the Baltimore News American. I was staring at my unblemished “to-do” list when my boss walked into my office and asked how the day went.

“I didn’t get anything done,” I said, disappointment in my voice. “All I did was talk with people.”

He laughed loudly and called me something unflattering. He did that a lot.

“That’s why I gave you this job!” he shouted. “I can get lots of people to do that other stuff. I need you to talk with people!”

Silly me. Prior to that moment, I had thought of the best newsroom leaders as the bosses with the best ideas, the sharpest editing skills, the most grace under fire. Now I was being told another skill trumped all of those talents.

Talk with people.

It makes so much sense.

When we talk with people, we learn things—things that can help us manage. When we talk with people, we get the chance to build relationships on solid foundations like trust, empathy, a shared sense of optimism.

When we talk with people, we take the most important step toward leading them.

So I ask managers: Why don’t you spend more time talking with your staff?

Most answer: “Who has time?”

Point taken. I get how busy newsroom managers are. In many cases, your workloads are unreasonable. But somewhere along the way, those workloads were prioritized by someone who believed that all of those tasks you do—assigning, editing, posting to the web—were more important than engaging the staff.

I don’t buy it. In fact, I’d argue that the engagement enhances the tasks. It positions you to coach instead of fix, to collaborate instead of direct, to create more engaging, memorable journalism.

Yes, you can hunker down at your desk and get the product out: publish the paper, update the Web site, air the broadcast. You can master the art of email and Slack communication and complete your administrative duties, create digital strategies and fill out the staff’s annual reviews.

But that’s only half your job, the “get-out-the-product” half.

What about the half that calls for you to develop the people who do the work, whether it’s a staff of 4 or 400? How will they improve without feedback on their performance? How will they become the collaborators you need without conversations about their ideas? How will they buy into your digital strategy without real give-and-take about your vision?

They won’t. They can’t.

Without a boss who talks to them, staffers are left to evaluate their own performances, based on metrics like the play their work gets, the assignments they receive, the promotions they are offered. You can hear them say things like, “If no one says anything to me, I just assume I’m doing fine.”

Only that’s not always true. It’s just that no one wants to talk with them about it.

Leaders, you have to work the room. Give people feedback. Listen to their ideas. Ask what worries them.

Ask them, “How are you doing?” It’s the most dangerous question you can ask, because they might tell you. I hope they do. It will help you to help them.

Over the next week, try these three ideas for “squeezing in” time to talk with people:

  • On the way from your desk to the coffee machine, stop at someone’s desk and talk. “How’s the story going?” “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard today on your beat?” “How can I help you?” See where the talk leads.
  • Put on your schedule one 15-minute conversation with a staffer to offer meaningful feedback about something they’ve done. Tell the staffer specifically what you liked about the work. Ask how they thought of doing it that way. Talk about how they might replicate that approach in another story. The important idea here is schedule the conversation. If you schedule it, you’re more likely to have it.
  • Invite one staffer to take a walk and share an idea you’ve been thinking about, preferably one that is not directly related to the staffer’s job. Maybe it’s about a new way to use social media, or a coverage idea that might attract new viewers, or your concern that the paper doesn’t reflect the community’s diversity. Maybe the staffer will benefit from thinking about the idea overnight and getting back to you. In any event, you’ll be sending important messages about trust, collaboration and the staffer’s value.

Here’s the bottom line: Thirty-five years ago, when that kid ME at the News American got schooled on how the job should be done, talking with staff was important. But today it’s so much more important.

Think of the uncertainty your staff lives with: Huge news organizations splitting in two. Digital strategies that no one can guarantee will work. A job market that increasingly values skills that many journalists know they do not have.

At the same time, think of the opportunities you have to create great work together:  Unprecedented access to data and ways to interpret it. New tools to reach millions of people, virtually anywhere, with news as it occurs. New ways to help communities address the issues they so badly need to address.

What a gift you’ve been given. I didn’t fully realize that when I was sitting in my office back in Baltimore, but today I know how few people have been entrusted—as you and your staff have—to have so much influence on the way your community decides to live.

And you get to lead that work. What a gift.

I’m betting your staff is waiting to join you in making the most of that gift.

Talk with them. They’ll tell 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…
Butch Ward

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