API’s Vice President of Journalism Programs Sam Ragland shares five common leadership challenges and assignments to help you navigate and overcome those challenges.
We want your input! Please share your leadership challenges and any feedback to help inform future Leadership Reset installments here.
Leadership is hard. And it stays that way when you, as a leader, think you’ve arrived at your position as a benefit only to yourself. I have always believed that leaders — that’s you — have been promoted to a position of power in order to benefit others by the way you support and coach them, by the way you advocate for them and help them grow.
But leaders, like all people, are imperfect. We make mistakes and drop the ball; we benefit from redos as much as anyone else. The start of a new year is an opportunity to reset the relationships we have with the people we’re responsible for, and I want to help.
Each week, I’ll share a common leadership challenge and an exercise you can complete to help you navigate and overcome that challenge. You’ll have a full week to consider, plan and execute on each issue.
Let me be clear, however: The start of a new year is not the only time you can reset relationships. You can choose different behaviors that exemplify a more caring and resilient leadership style any time you want. And your team, both direct reports and adjacent staff, will appreciate these mid-stride resets.
User manuals can help establish empathy and shift team dynamics
You’re new to leadership. You’ve inherited a team or received a battle-line promotion. You’re a formal leader with no direct reports. You’re the only fill in the blank (person of color, woman, person without a degree, etc.) in leadership. Your team has experienced high turnover and new hires. You spent a large part of the past year having difficult conversations and acquiescing to ego. You legit don’t know who you’re actually managing.
The struggle is real, y’all. It really is. But it’s often not impossible to overcome. Being intentional about how you create team culture with your small, low-stakes responses to daily tasks, conversations and pressure can shift team dynamics and help you be a more curious, empathetic and deliberate leader.
The assignment: Create a user manual
As a leader who manages people, it is your responsibility to create the sense of belonging necessary to engage, retain and promote the talent on your team. You can do this by the way you ask open- ended questions (coaching, not directing). You can do this by the way you listen and reflect back (not regurgitate) what you’re hearing. You can do this by the way you elevate (instead of deflate) voices in the room.
You can also create and actually model belonging by the way you promote self-discovery, reflection and awareness — of yourself and of your team, for one another. So our exercise this week is to deep dive into how we lead by creating a user manual. This is a sort of guide for your teammates on how they can best work with you. It is explicit and unapologetic, and it helps people understand how you like to work and collaborate.
User manuals are a tech industry favorite, and they often lead to better working relationships. They can be used to reset a relationship as well to onboard new hires (interns and fellows included).
User manuals are also affectionately called a ReadMe or a UX of Me.
Make it happen
The goal: To keep your manual specific and succinct, a couple bullet points per topic is plenty.
- Set up your user manual in two parts: What everyone should know about me and How to work with me.
- Next, choose 3-4 topics below that will complete each section. Be careful not to only choose the “easier” topics, but give yourself a chance to dig into some of the more thought-provoking topics as this personal interrogation won’t just benefit you and how you work, but it will benefit others and how they work with you.
- Now, take 30 minutes to an hour and answer the questions with the first thing that comes to mind. Feel free to get creative and replace any of the topics below with ones you like better. To do this, take into consideration what your team/company values most.
Topics for a user manual:
- My style
- What I value
- What I don’t have patience for
- How to best communicate with me
- How to help me
- What people misunderstand about me
- What energizes me
- What drains me
- I like to receive feedback via
- I like to give feedback via
- I approach conflict by
- I like to celebrate an achievement by
- Biggest current goal
- Biggest hot button
- I particularly value these qualities in people I work with
- I’m good at
- I’m working on
If you get stuck, you can check out my API user manual in deck form for inspo. Also read up on what it actually looks like to put people first from Anika Anand, Deputy Director at LION. Finally, what one leader learned from writing her user manual and this 30-minute exercise can make teams less anxious and more productive.
Take it further
You may want to propose an exercise like this to your teammates. There can be a verbal discussion and team meeting once everyone’s user manuals are complete. (Some folks find this awkward but still helpful. Some start with answering the questions about their teammates and then open up the discussion.)
If you do make this part of your team and culture, just remember to revisit your documents annually for updates.
Want the perfect manager? Here’s how to build one.
I’d not given any real thought to keeping a generationally-diverse group of folks around me until my editor at my first gig reporting for the Syracuse Post-Standard (now syracuse.com) told me to. Years later, I learned the importance of building strategic relationships — especially around my work and career aspirations.
This week’s challenge is for you whether you have a dope direct manager or not. And it’s definitely for you whether you’re leading a team or not. Why?
Because many of us are either working with folks who equate managing to leading, or we’re figuring out the Rubik’s Cube of being a people leader instead of an individual contributor. The former is more communal while the latter can feel isolating. Both are tough places to be.
Unavailable. Inaccessible. Under water. Burned out. Disengaged. Apathetic. Feeling like a fraud. Lacking clarity or direction. Needing more support. Needing more green lights than red; more transformational conversations than transactional ones.
I won’t continue because we’ve all been in a situation where we needed more — whether from ourselves, for ourselves, or from others. And the news industry we care so deeply for makes this harder as we’re doing more work (emotional labor definitely included) with fewer and fewer people by the year. Shoot, by the quarter.
Whether you have a manager who’s growing you or shrinking you, it’s important to know that putting the onus on one person alone for your growth and success is never fair. What you need are co-collaborators and co-conspirators — across generations, genders, racial identities and more.
The assignment: Build a “Manager Voltron”
Here’s the bad news: [Managers] are human. They have multiple objectives and responsibilities. They probably don’t have all the relevant training or experience. They probably haven’t gotten clear feedback. And they’re still growing and learning, just like you.
But here’s the good news: There are a plethora of people out there whom you can lean on to find the variety of support you need.
Make it happen
- The goal: To build your perfect manager by thinking beyond your direct supervisor
- How to: Fill in the “Manager Voltron” BINGO card below (or download the PDF)
- Consider your “other” boxes as an opportunity to add a skill or trait that is unique to your needs and desire to grow. (For example, I would add “is tolerant of risk” and “can always find the punchline” because part of my ability to grow, especially amid adversity, is being supported even when I fail and being able to laugh even if that means pausing the work.)
- It’s okay if you don’t fill in all the boxes. What’s left empty is an opportunity for further interrogation. What do you need? How will you grow this year? How might you be filling, or leaving blank, someone else’s boxes?
If you get stuck, or want to read more before assembling your “Manager Voltron,” check out this article by Hogan. If you find your network to build a resilient and all-knowing Voltron is limited within the news industry, do look outside of it.
Translate your message to increase your chances of being heard and understood
Y’all, I remember a miscommunication spat so bad that I, as a cub producer, told a senior leader — in her own office — “You’re not my boss, right? Right, so I’m not hearing you.” Um… what??? Yes, I really did. *facepalm emoji* So young was that Sam.
Looking back, it was clear that our different priorities were necessary for the same product launch. If only I’d taken a beat, put on some “care” and considered where she was coming from, I would have saved myself from stunting a relationship needed for my growth.
This week’s leadership challenge aims to keep you from a similar experience and encourages you to reset your communication style by centering the needs, the goals or the motivations of the person you need support from. Let’s go.
Have you had to explain what you do in the newsroom — repeatedly? Have you been misunderstood in editorial or business development meetings? Is there someone in your shop who it is impossible to see eye-to-eye with? Are you fully annoyed by a clearly fixable problem? Do you have an idea but work for a “default to no” kind of manager? Do you feel at home on the margins and among wolves in the mainstream? Are you running a new team or occupying a role that never existed before? Do you need to share a new business goal, or restructure a team?
There are some common missteps we make that stand in the way of communicating effectively and strategically, especially when it comes to getting buy-in, such as assuming everyone is thinking what (or how) you’re thinking; feeling time-crunched, or fearing a disagreement. After you have navigated these hurdles, you’re ready to translate your message.
The assignment: Message in translation
Just like journalists need to think about their external audiences, leaders — both those with positional authority and those with influence — need to think about their internal audiences: What do they care about?
Remember: Everyone we work with is motivated by something different (collaboration, revenue, diversity, progress, risk, connection, growth, etc.). When you need to get support or buy-in, or when you want specific, actionable feedback on your priorities or ideas, translate your message into something that is easy for your audience (your stakeholders) to understand and care about. Lara Hogan discusses this more in her book Resilient Management.
To communicate a message that resonates with your stakeholders, include:
- Why people should care — Relevance
- What your single, key point is — Conciseness
- What two to three easons support that key point — Rationale
Get it done:
- The goal: Translate a message that is important to you in a way that echos what motivates someone else or what they are optimizing for
- How to: (the table below may help organize your thoughts)
- Pick your message (select one): Think about 1) something you need buy-in for, 2) something you feel is misunderstood about your work, or 3) something you want someone at work to be equally excited by or frustrated with. In an old-school tweet, write down that message — for you.
DO THIS BEFORE MOVING ON TO STEP 2!
- Now, name your stakeholders: Who is the person (or people) you need to influence? Who do you want to hear things your way? Your boss? A colleague? Someone in marketing, business development or product?
- Name your stakeholders’ motivations: What is each stakeholder optimizing for? Revenue, engagement, creativity, failure, efficiency, collaboration?
- Translate your message: Write your message for each stakeholder, in their language and with their motivations at the heart of the message. Remember to be relevant, concise and reasoned. (You may have 3 or 4 different translations.)
Congrats! You’ve just completed one of the best things you can do for someone at work. You’ve provided clarity around what you need, but instead of the “why” being yours, the why is the person you’re influencing and need the support of. Always remember: Clarity is kindness.
Take it further:
Do you need to edit your language for words that dull your presence, quiet your confidence and disqualify your expertise?
Now that you’ve translated your message, you may want to share it, out loud, with the stakeholders you listed above, which means the final step in translating your message is giving it a dose of self-confidence. Both your words and your body language should take up valuable space in the room because you, and what you have to add, are valuable.
This means getting rid of qualifiers like “actually,” “quickly” and “just.” — You don’t “actually have an idea.” You have an idea. You don’t “just think this or that.” You think this or that. You don’t have a “quick question.” You have a question.
- “Just” demeans what you have to say. It shrinks your power and influence.
- “Actually” communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to contribute.
- “Quickly” assumes by default you’re imposing on others.
I have found that, over time, you become fluent in this sort of professional translation. Eventually, without writing down your translated message, it comes quite naturally to communicate in the language and to the business priorities of those you work with.
Build a delegation roadmap that is inclusive and balanced
One of my biggest mistakes as a newsroom leader happened as I was cultivating the talent of a rising star. I delegated so much glamour work and so little grunt work that it actually hurt the journalist — and the team. The ego and entitlement that repeated glamour work begets isn’t just ugly; it reinforces the systemic biases in our newsrooms.
Still, I have to add a caveat before we dig into this week’s challenge: Research shows women and people of color are more likely to get housework-type assignments than to get assigned to glamour work. So delegating is about being balanced as well as intentional. Consider what type of work you are handing off, to whom and when, because there are lessons to be learned when we’re working from the weeds and from the clouds. We need both perspectives and types of experience to develop our self-awareness and own our contributions as news leaders.
You get the work done faster. You question the competence of others but not of yourself. You enjoy the task and want to own it. Your way is the only — or best — way. You don’t want to come off as bossy, too assertive or insensitive*. You don’t want to pile onto your team’s plate.
*This is an acute problem of women and people of color in all industries, not just media. Y’all, we’ve got to stop acting small.
The challenges of not delegating go hand in hand with the consequences. When you hold on to all the responsibility, you set yourself up to fail because: You’re overwhelmed. You’re unavailable to your team. Your team gets directed instead of coached. Your stars aren’t stretched. Your work feels whack-a-mole and never-ending. You live in a state of urgency, preventing important work from getting done. You see engagement dimming and burnout around the bend.
Managing tasks, projects and assignments off your plate can feel icky — especially in depleted news organizations — so we either don’t do it at all, or we do it and over-regulate, or we do it and become inaccessible. It’s hard finding the juicy middle that is delegation on the spectrum of micromanagement to abdication.
The Assignment: Delegate till it hurts
We delegate effectively when we give appropriate levels of direction and expectation alongside autonomy and trust, and we delegate intentionally when we consider our work, our people, our communication and our goals. Which is why this week’s Leadership Reset assignment isn’t going to help only you — it’s intended to help everyone.
When you effectively transfer authority through delegation, you’re communicating how much you value and trust someone. And this trust and value has been shown to have a deeper impact on employee engagement and retention than salary.
Make it happen
To delegate on purpose, you need to be proactive with — and not reactive to — the things on your plate. How might some of these responsibilities be the level-up someone on your team needs for their future?
The following is a checklist for delegation. Complete each step before moving on to the next.
Take it further
If you like your delegation roadmap, I encourage you to share it with your direct manager for feedback. You’re looking to get support for removing things from your plate, and getting your manager’s perspective on the work will be helpful for you and for those you’re delegating to.
You’ll also be able to collaborate on the “why.” Together, y’all should revisit part 3 of API’s Leadership Reset series: Translate your message. This will help you share what you’re delegating and why in a way that echoes what you’ve heard from your direct reports about how they want to grow and what they want to be doing in the future.
+ Coming up: The psychological tactic you didn’t know you needed to get your inner critic (aka, imposter syndrome) in check.