Lessons from a year in management

“You’re management now. If everybody loved you you’d be doing something wrong.” — The Paper

For the past year or so, I’ve been writing a newsletter called The Middles (please feel free to subscribe!). The premise for The Middles is that myself, along with many others I know, have found ourselves in news management. I say found ourselves because most of my generation has had goals change — by the economy, by technology, by our audiences — multiple times.

I did not think I would be in my position at my age. And to complicate matters, as the news industry has shrank, we’ve seen the loss of mentors and leadership training. Those people who would have walked us through what it means to be a leader, many of them have been lost to layoffs or buyouts. I’ve learned to be my own mentor, in addition to seeking moments of mentoring where I can get it.

These are the lessons I’ve learned by being a news manager. They’re lessons I would hope would apply to managers who have been doing this for decades as well.

Take people out of their comfort zone, even if they don’t like it

The people who work for you and with you are not there to be yes-people.

You want to build a team with complementary skills, so that by pushing back and forth an idea, it grows and gets better, instead of getting inflated and grotesque. Constructive criticism is only possible when you have people who will make you and others just uncomfortable enough to see new perspectives.

The share of women in newsrooms has increased barely 1 percentage point since 2001, ASNE data shows, by Nieman Lab

Don’t be afraid to do the dirty work

I try to practice this as much as I can.

The best leaders, the ones people will follow, are the ones who have gained the staff’s respect. Not by being brilliant (though that does help) but the most memorable bosses were the ones who sat down with me, rolled up their sleeves and did the work. They showed they had a keen understanding of the philosophy behind the work, but also the mechanics of it.

There’s a phrase in data journalism: Show your work. For managers, it’s not just show your work, but show you can do the work.

Find constructive ways out of failure

Post-mortems are one of those things that many newsrooms practice, but rarely do much with.

When we launched a new protocol for breaking news, we took a postmortem with all levels of people in the newsroom after each breaking event and listened. We didn’t lead the conversation by talking, we employed our journalism skills by listening and taking notes.

Those meetings where we asked people what was productive, what could be changed and what opportunities we missed became extremely helpful as we re-worked a large strategy and got it to work daily. We failed at times, sure. People got frustrated, but we took each failure, each point of frustration as a growth point.

Also on failure, it’s very much worth talking about the fact that layoffs need to be handled carefully and thoughtfully. It’s hard to be on both sides of the table, and if you’ve ever been laid off, you know the best thing someone can do is offer to do something specific.

Set goals that make sense

Remember to set goals that people can actually achieve and know how to achieve them.

You should set SMART goals (Specific, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) for yourself and for your employees, but also work with them to set them. Go over what your goals are and ask them what they think they can do to help the company/newsroom achieve those.

People are motivated by goals that serve them as well as the greater good, so make sure your goals do good for everyone.

Read. A lot.

Not only do I try to read and watch the best journalism out there, to find inspiration, but I try to read about how to be a better human, a better leader.

Oddly, many of my cues sometimes come from novels, but here’s a few books I found extremely useful:

Decisive. For the chronically indecisive, this is about how to make better decisions (the answer isn’t a pro-con list)

Linchpin. How I figured out that not everyone wants to change the world through work like I do.

The First 90 Days. Most recommended management book ever. Past 90 days and still using every bit of it.

Radical Candor. A book about being harsh and honest, but with care. A balance that is hard to reach for many.

Feminist Fight Club. Every woman and supportive man in an office should read this.

What to Do When It’s Your Turn. More Seth Godin. A collection of inspiring mini-essays, I love the parts about embracing tension.

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