Helping your staff: Some management principles

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Jun 27, 2008 en Media Entrepreneurship

Newspaper and broadcast station managers frequently complain that they haven’t had any training in how to be a manager. Like other professionals, Pacific Island journalists are usually promoted into management based on their skills in their other jobs. But being a good reporter doesn’t make you a good manager. This supplement offers help.

The manual “Pacific Journalism: A Self-Help Guide” is aimed at reporters. However, it’s also meant to be a tool for managers. Here are some ways you can use it to help your staff.

1. As an outline for in-house workshops or personal coaching. You can set up a schedule to go over the various areas of this manual. Expand from there on topics your staff needs to work on. 2. As a basis for staff evaluations. You can use the guidelines and tips as a way to evaluate how staff members are doing. There’s also a sample evaluation and tips on doing evaluations in this supplement. 3. As a guide to track and boost the progress of staff members. You can get ideas on what to watch for in reporting and writing habits.

As you use the manual and supplement, don’t forget to write down your additions and suggestions. You can make changes in your own copy of the manual, but please send them along to PINA also, so that other managers can benefit from your ideas and experience (see Introduction).

How can I be a trainer for my staff?

Most reporters are glad to have some guidance. Reporting is a difficult job, and even experienced reporters get stuck sometimes. Part of your job as a manager is to help them. Yet many managers don’t do this.

Some management methods depend on the size of your staff. But the principles of guiding your staff are the same everywhere.

1. Commitment. If you want your staff to improve, you have to promise yourself that you’ll help them. You must believe that they CAN improve. And you have to decide that you will do whatever it takes to make that improvement happen. Once you’ve decided this, you have to stick to it, even when progress seems slow. Rewards happen over time. That’s why you have to be patient and committed.

2. Time management. Many managers say they just don’t have the time to coach individuals. But you can always make time for things that are really important to you. See the section on “time management” in the manual, and the section below aimed at managers.

3. Personal awareness. There are two parts to this. One is knowing yourself -- how you think of your job, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, and what is important to you. The other is being aware of those same traits in your staff members. You should know them as people, not just workers. And take your personal differences into account when you manage.

4. Listen. Once you’re a manager, you might assume you know more than the people you supervise. But things change. People change. And no one knows everything. So listen to what your staff members tell you -- their problems and concerns and criticism. If you keep your mind open to what you hear, you might learn something valuable that will make you a better manager. This means actively asking them what they think, not just saying, “You can always talk to me” and then hiding in your office.

5. Followup and repetition. It’s worse to make a promise and not keep it than to never make the promise at all, because broken promises hurt staff morale and trust. If you start holding meetings with your staff, keep having them, even if the first ones don’t go well. Get answers to staff questions, and explain what they don’t understand. If you can’t solve a problem they raise, tell them you can’t -- and tell them why. You also have to repeat lessons to make them stick. Telling a reporter one time, “Write shorter sentences” is not likely to be enough. Most students of any subject need to hear something more than once to remember it.

How can I manage my time better?

The reporting manual has a section on time management that may apply to some of your job. Here are some other ways, suggested by management experts, to help managers use their time well.

-Delegate authority. Managers often think they must watch over every detail. If you do this, you’ll never have time to think of the “big picture” -- and that’s really what you are there for. Give other members of the staff some of the responsibility for certain tasks. You may grumble that “it’s easier to do it myself.” But in the long run, you will only make your staff dependent on you -- like a child who doesn’t learn to read because his parents read everything out loud to him.

-Keep detailed lists. Set down in writing your goals for the day, week, month, and year. You should work from a long-term plan, say, for the next five years. Then break it down into timely steps. If you know where you’re going, it’s easier to get there.

-Set aside time for projects. When you’ve decided that something is important, you have to plan time for it. Schedule it in your appointment book just as you would a lunch date or business meeting. It’s hard to ignore the many small, daily demands of putting together a newspaper or a news broadcast. But to be effective, you must have times when your staff knows they must not bother you -- when your door is closed to everything but a real emergency.

-Give your best time to your top priorities. Most people have a certain time of day when they are naturally most productive. That might be first thing in the morning, or late in the afternoon, or after dinner. Use that best time of your day for the things that are most important to you and needs your best thinking skills.

How can I improve staff morale?

These tips, based on a list from the American Press Institute, are aimed at making your staff feel better about their work -- and a happy staff is a productive staff. While some of these ideas may be hard for you, give them a try. They are common methods used by successful managers.

1. Define responsibilities. People have to know exactly what their job is in order to do it well. You should have written job descriptions for each staff member that tells them what they are responsible for. It should be clear to everyone what role they have in the organization and how that role relates to other staff members. Put it in writing so that there’s no misunderstanding.

2. Personal expectations and assessments. In addition to knowing generally what the job is, staff members should know what you expect of them personally -- what you think their strengths and weaknesses are, how they should improve. And then let them know how they’re doing.

3. Praise good work. Everyone likes to hear that they’ve done their job well. Be sure to tell staff members about good work. One manager says, “Praise at least as much as you criticize.” This reinforces good work and helps build confidence.

4. Criticize in private. Don’t yell at a staff member in the newsroom. If they’ve done something wrong, take them aside or call them to your office. The person will feel bad enough about their mistake without adding public humiliation.

5. Communicate often. If you lock yourself in your office all the time, or aren’t there at all, your staff will resent it and wonder what you are doing that is more important than they are. Tell them about your ideas and problems, and include them in your planning. This is a way of sharing responsibility and making them feel important as professionals.

6. Set rewards for achieving goals. A reward does not always have to be a pay raise, although that is an important way to motivate some people. It can also be time off, a special assignment, an in-house award, a letter of praise, or taking them to lunch.

7. Study strengths of individuals. If someone has a special interest or talent, use it. You might have a person with artistic skill do political cartoons. A reporter who is interested in personalities can do feature profiles. And someone who likes to talk might be a good announcer.

8. Act promptly. Do not delay decisions too long, especially if you know the answer is “no.” It won’t be any easier to say no just by putting it off, and a delay may cause resentment.

9. Smile more often. It may seem silly, but a smile makes people feel better. Wouldn’t you rather work for someone who gives you a smile rather than a stony face all the time?

How can I reduce staff turnover?

Many newsrooms in the Pacific have a problem with staff turnover. Sometimes it can’t be helped. But there are things you can do to keep staff members longer.

-Training. Journalists say they want training. It helps them to do a better job, and that makes them feel better about their work. Do whatever you can to give them that training. It doesn’t have to be expensive -- an in-house program may be just what you need.

-Orientation. When new reporters join your newsroom, pay special attention to them. Tell them clearly what’s expected of them. Give them a manual or textbook to use. Watch their work closely. Evaluate them frequently -- every week if possible, with daily comments and coaching.

-Regular check-ups. Written evaluations are one way to do this. But take the time to speak to staff members regularly -- especially the best ones that you don’t want to lose! Find out how they feel about their job. Encourage them to tell you what they need.

-Rewards. Everyone on the staff should have goals that they are working toward, and should be rewarded for their improvements. There should be some system for pay increases based on both experience and quality of work. (See the above under “staff morale.”) Even veterans (sometimes especially veterans) need to know they’re doing a good job. They can become bored or feel that they aren’t learning anything new. Don’t forget about them.

-Exit interviews. When a staff person leaves, make a point of having a final interview with them. They may be more honest then about what the problems are that made them decide to leave. And they may be able to give you advice about how to keep other staff members.

Coaching

Coaching is a term borrowed from sports, but it means basically the same thing in a newsroom: working with your players to build a better team. There are two kinds of coaching: general and personal. You can do coaching that helps all or several members of the staff, and coaching of individuals to build specific skills. As with a sports team, it’s best to do some of both.

What follows are 12 practical ideas -- six ideas for each kind of coaching. Don’t try to do too many at once. Start with one or two, see how they work, and build from there.

General coaching

-Routine critique. Journalists have to get used to being critiqued. This is different than just telling someone what they did wrong. It means going over a story and pointing out the good and bad points. You might have the staff do this together if they are confident enough. Have them critique each other. Or you can do it yourself and post it for everyone to see -- or pass out written critiques to individuals once a week. Just remember to praise as much as you criticize!

-In-house workshops. Once a week or once a month, spend an hour or two with your staff going over the basics and special areas. Let the staff suggest topics they think they need to work on. Sometimes you can have a guest speaker -- a lawyer to talk about court reporting, or a local researcher to talk about environmental science. One Fiji manager makes his staff members run two of the weekly workshops whenever they go to a training course outside the newsroom, so that they can share what they learned.

-Staff meetings or lunches. Have a regular gathering with your staff to talk about how the newspaper or station is doing, discuss problem areas, and to answer any questions they have. You might want to do this over lunch, in a less formal atmosphere, or outside the office.

-Handbooks. You should have a library of books on journalism to help staff members. Just make sure you know who has which book, and ask them what they’re learning from it. In addition, you can compile your own handbook for staff. This doesn’t have to be a huge project. Jot down notes in your computer system about tips for reporting or editing, things to watch out for, or special, local information and preferences. Ask everyone to contribute.

-Memos. If you see a problem coming up repeatedly in stories, write a note about it and post it in the newsroom. This is sometimes more effective than just telling individuals. Everyone can see it and refer to it.

-Examples from other media. There’s no reason you can’t use stories from other media for inspiration. Cut them out and put them on the wall in the newsroom, or play tapes of good radio or television stories at staff meetings.

Personal coaching

-Notes and comments. Managers often overlook this simple, fast way of coaching. Just keep a small notepad at your desk, and as you read the newspaper or listen to the news broadcast, write a few quick notes to individuals about their work. It might be a single sentence: “Good quotes from the police officer on the murder case!” or “Don’t forget to follow up on this construction project next month.” You can also do this as you walk through the newsroom. Let each person know that you are paying attention to their work.

-News meeting tips. If you have a morning meeting to give out assignments, be sure to include a few words of advice about how to handle the story. Give suggestions on people to contact, questions to ask. Ask other staff members to offer suggestions too.

-Over-the-shoulder. When you’re going over a story for publication, have the reporter sit next to you and watch. Explain your reasons as you make changes, and encourage them to ask questions. Many reporters learn best this way.

-Honors and awards. Formal praise is a way to recognize especially good work. You may want to have your own in-house awards. You can also do informal honors, and inject a bit of humour -- like presenting a small woven basket for “catch of the day,” passed around to staff members for that day’s best headline, story idea or mistake caught in editing.

-“Buddy system.” This American expression means grouping your staff in pairs to help each other. Often it will mean assigning a veteran reporter to work with a new reporter. But sometimes it can be two veterans, who can critique and support each other’s work. Even two cadets can be paired, to share what they learn as they go and talk over problems with an equal. You can do “cross-training” also: Pair up a photographer with a reporter, or a layout editor with a sports reporter. The idea is to make them responsible for improving each other’s work.

-Evaluations. A written assessment of each staff member should be done on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be a long, complicated form. Even one page can serve the purpose (see below).

Evaluations

You might think, “My staff knows what I expect of them and what they should work on.” But if you asked them, you might be surprised. Staff members are often unsure of what their supervisors want.

Written evaluations are a tool to measure progress. They are meant to help you AND the staff. They are also a reminder that even veterans need to keep learning, and that everyone can improve if they work on it.

Here are five guidelines to follow, and a sample evaluation form.

1. Use clear definitions of what they will be evaluated on. Your categories for evaluation should be specific, not general. Don’t just list, “Reporting skills. Writing skills. General work habits.” Break it down: “Accuracy. Grammar. Develops sources.” (See sample below.)

2. Measure performance against a standard. This means setting specific goals. If a reporter misses deadline every day, set a goal for them to meet the deadline one out of three days. Or, if they’re usually an hour late, set the goal as being no more than half an hour late. Set a period of time for this to be accomplished, such as a month. At the end of the month, check progress. When they achieve the goal, make note of it, praise them -- and set the goal higher for the following month.

3. Use checklists as well as open comments and examples. You can use a simple checklist of specific skills. But leave room for general comments, as well as specific examples and suggested ways to improve. If the skill is, “Develops sources,” you might check this as “fair” and then add, “You have improved in this area. Your effort to get to know police officers better paid off when you got the details on the Morris Hedstrom robbery before the competition did. You should concentrate on working better with the clerk of courts. I’ll loan you a manual on reporting that has a good section on this. And talk to the clerk’s friend John at the Ministry of Justice.”

4. Let them evaluate you, too. If you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, you should be willing to hear what the staff says about you. If you have a very good relationship with your staff, you could simply include a section on their evaluation form for them to suggest ways you can improve as a manager. But for many newsrooms, it’s a better idea to make it anonymous. Set up a computer file or a suggestion box where people can offer their comments confidentially about you as a manager and how the newsroom is run in general. And never take revenge on a staff member for their criticism of you!

5. Follow up regularly. It’s easy to lose track of where you’re going with each staff member. That’s why evaluations are in writing. Keep a file on each person. Use it to keep examples of their work and notes about things they did or didn’t do. And have a regular schedule to meet with individuals and go over their file.