A newsroom’s sharpest leaders aren’t always managers

Liz Spayd, CJR editor: I’ll start with a curveball. Sometimes, some of the strongest leaders in the room aren’t the ones with the corner offices but instead work among the regular ranks of reporters and editors in the room. Whether through sheer talent or personality or both, these journalists can become the models that others follow. How can their bosses take advantage of this situation to drive the room in a positive direction?

Jill Geisler: Bingo! Liz, you have identified one of the most important indicators of a strong, positive newsroom culture: the presence of people who lead from wherever they are. These individuals usually have no official managerial duties but share a few things in common: expertise in their craft, an interest in the whole team’s success as well as their own, and a strong work ethic. The best of them, and something I hear praised more and more often these days, is the ability to remain calm in the storm. They may not have formal power, but they have remarkable influence.

But here’s the key question: Are they leading with the appreciation and blessing of their bosses, or in spite of them?

The best managers I know instinctively identify influential employees and work to build trust with them. They invite their feedback, because the boss knows these unofficial leaders have reliable radar about problems and opportunities their managers might be missing. They serve as what I call “the loyal opposition” when the staff needs to challenge a management initiative.

I teach managers about the benefits of having a “meeting before the meeting” with influential staff. Say you’re a news manager who’s calling everyone together to announce a change in the way the newsroom is going to handle live blogs. Before the meeting, give some influential folks a preview. Invite their feedback and questions.

Why? Because after the meeting, influencers become interpreters. Staffers who hesitated to ask questions of the boss or have doubts or fears gravitate to colleagues they respect and who they think have answers.

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If you do this, be absolutely forthright with your influencers or you will lose your credibility as a leader.

Liz: Let’s keep going with leadership from the ground up. What should a boss do in the opposite circumstance, when someone out in the room is having a dampening impact on others, like disgruntled reporter unhappy with her beat and chronically and opening complaining.

Jill: Complaining is a time-honored tradition in newsrooms, one I mastered as an employee. (Oh, the impressions I could do of my bosses!) And it’s one I want managers to respect today. People under pressure need to vent.

Managers need to listen and repair what’s truly broken. But they must also deal with the outlier cases—individuals who are relentlessly negative to the point of toxicity. Those are the tough conversations that sound like this:

“Liz, once again today, you called ideas in the story meeting ‘lame ass’ and told people in the newsroom that your beat sucks. I can’t order you to change your opinions or thoughts, but I can tell you to put an end to that behavior. It’s a distraction and a downer to the rest of the room and it diminishes your value. If you have a genuine problem, bring it to me, but stop unloading on others. I want you to succeed, but right now you are getting in your own way, and only you can solve that.”

If you have any doubt about whether you are overreacting to critical employees, here’s a tip: Ask your informal leaders.

Liz: One more, same category. In some newsrooms, bosses are eager to take great journalists and promote them into the editing ranks—sometimes to senior positions—without much training. Any advice for these bosses about how to get the new editors prepared?

Jill: Please, please, please, don’t set them up to fail by assuming that what made them good at their craft will make them good at helping others succeed. Invest in leadership and management development. If you don’t have the budget, then at least do this: Ask them to deconstruct their own good work. What process, what habits, what decisions, what assumptions go into the good journalism they’ve produced? Can they put all that into words and turn it into clear direction for others? Otherwise, we get editors who simply say, “This doesn’t work for me—and then rewrite the reporter’s copy.

Next, ask them how they will deal with the whole array of journalists who can’t simply follow some template that worked for their boss. How will that new editor be able to adapt her ingrained—and successful—ways of doing things to accommodate different personalities, skills, and styles?

Great bosses don’t create clones of themselves; they help others find their distinct path to success.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.