“News is what I say it is.”
That was my editor friend Brad, demonstrating the plain-talk part of his straight-up style of management.
It was a while ago, when the news industry was in one of its periodic fits of self-examination, ignited by public outcry over some now-forgotten issue of what’s news and what isn’t.
Uncertainty about that definition troubled Brad not at all. He devoted no time to such matters.
The point of this reminiscence is to introduce Brad as a model of leadership clarity. You didn’t always agree with Brad or like his way of doing business, but you always knew where he stood.
“This is going to be the worst three months of your life,” he’d tell a newly hired staff member. “But if you make it, you’ll know the job.” That was intended to tell you to take 90-day probation period seriously – as Brad himself surely did.
The daily newspapers of New England eventually became thick with Brad’s graduates. Beginners who survived Brad-style probation didn’t stay long at his paper. They cashed in elsewhere on the tough-love training – other editors with fatter wallets knew what they’d get by hiring these newswise professionals.
Brad’s assurance in his concept of news grew from his knowledge of his readers’ tastes. He had done his homework. Brad’s paper was stuffed with small-town minutia in an era when most dailies were dropping such material in favor of longer magazine-style studies of metropolitan issues.
And Brad posted circulation increases as everybody else lost ground.
His way might not have worked anywhere else . . . but he wasn’t anywhere else. He was in his territory, supremely unaffected by trends and fads that periodically sloshed through the industry. He was local, editing a very local newspaper.
Brad made it his business to know his business, and he was relentless in his management of it.
And that’s what set him apart from every other editor I met in my 30+ years in that business. Others could meet deadlines, and many knew writing, reporting and/or the other specific skills of newsgathering, as did Brad.
His margin was in his unparalleled ability to organize and lead groups of people in a situation that demanded accuracy, energy and the efficient deployment of curiosity and imagination. He got results.
He never deviated. His people, once learning his expectations, never had surprise problems with their assertive boss.
There was nothing specific to the news business in all that. Brad’s management essentials were universal, and we all could learn them – whatever our specialty or profession – by doing what Brad did.
His highest-level skills were not core practices of news. Any manager is only as good as her/his ability to achieve high productivity through the work of other people.
Brad’s gruff manner actually was the initial act in sorting out those who could handle news reporting from those who couldn’t.
Any kid intimidated or put off by a blunt introduction to his/her new boss would have struggled in workaday conversations with small-town cops and politicians. Likewise if your self-confidence couldn’t sustain the prospect to being on trial for three months.
But Brad’s set of management skills was much broader than just that.
He was a good teacher and a thoughtful counselor. Once the ground rules were unmistakably established, the way was clear for introducing the how-to stuff, and that’s what Brad did.
I’ve known other managers who would grump, “I didn’t take this job to be a handholder.”
Of course you didn’t. But if you can’t educate your people in ways that really help, you don’t have the capacity to contribute to their professional growth.
They depend upon your leadership. You must know what they need, and you must give it to them. Withholding what you know guarantees you’ll always have a ready supply of inadequate staff people to complain about.
You won’t develop the quality group output you’re being paid to produce.
Brad didn’t lean on his senior management or his peers and associates. If they all had known what Brad knew, management would be significantly better, and not just in newspapers.
Of course, Brad made sure his owner knew and approved of what he was doing. Brad was confident, but not crazy. In his case, the boss was very happy and the relationship was excellent.
Brad’s thorough homework included knowing the chosen strategies and direction of his senior management, and he stuck with them. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone to work there.
Brad’s attitude toward the editors of other papers was friendly and positive, but his philosophy and opinions were his own.
Brad was liked and respected. And relentless.
Question: How do you balance empathy and certainty in your relationships?
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