Balancing act: Good managers focus on doing the right thing
Two years ago, at a Kratz family reunion, I told my parents, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins about a new job I was about to start.
Two days ago, at another Kratz family reunion, they asked me how that new job was treating me.
I was happy to report that it's been going well, that I work with an amazing team of writers and editors who are dedicated, talented and self-motivated and that my company makes a real commitment to helping its employees build better work-life balance.
Among the interesting changes from my previous job as a full-time newspaper reporter and editor, I said, is that I've entered a field in which I have no specialized expertise or training. Because of that, I am not able to help with a lot of the actual work of my team, but instead spend most of my time on managerial duties.
Since 10 people report to me, that managerial work can be quite demanding — some days more than others. But it's definitely been a change to focus my effort and energy on being a manager.
As I reflected on that change, I recalled an email I received recently from a friend named Mike. I've known Mike since middle school, and we also went to high school and college together.
Since we both went into journalism, we took many classes together, and our experiences after college have involved working for several news organizations before leaving the media business for other opportunities.
Mike has worked as both an entry-level reporter and as a middle manager, like me, and he shared an interesting story.
"At age 27, I was promoted from within at a company," Mike wrote. "The words of the top boss (my best boss ever) really hit home. He agreed with your view that effective managers care about their employees.
"On the day I was promoted, he said, 'Congratulations. You are now responsible for the lives and happiness of 45 people.'
"Before I could say 'What?' he said, 'These people will spend more time with you and more time at work every day than they will with their families. You can have an impact on their lives, positive or negative. I trust you will do the right thing.'
"It's nearly 20 years later, and that really stuck with me. That's what it's all about.
"It seems so simple, really. Am I doing the right thing? When it comes to work — and family — we should ask ourselves that more often."
I'm glad Mike shared this story for several reasons. He's correct that managers can have a real impact on the happiness of the workers who report to them. And managers have a responsibility to do the right thing.
It really is that simple.
I'm happy to report that most of the middle managers I have known seem to understand that principle.
I'm not saying there aren't bad managers out there. If every manager was doing his or her best to have a positive impact on employees' lives, we wouldn't need all of those how-to tomes that fill the "business" section of your local bookstore.
However, I do believe that there are many good managers in the cubicle jungles of the world, and excellent ones, too.
Sometimes, that's hard for us to believe.
We often hear and tell stories about horrible managers. Entire sitcoms are based on such people.
But for every Michael Scott in "The Office," there are dozens of bosses who try every day to do exactly what my friend's supervisor said he should do.
For example, my best boss was the first city editor my wife and I worked for when we moved to Utah about 18 years ago.
As I look back on the things that made her so exceptional — and that continue to make her a trusted friend and mentor to this day — I realize that she really tried to have a positive impact on our lives.
We were young reporters then, fresh out of college, and she knew we needed help if we were to reach our potential. So, instead of throwing us to the wolves, she spent time with us.
Both my wife and I can remember her calling us over to her cubicle while she was editing our stories and giving us one-on-one instruction on what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong. She was assertive but kind, and we always learned from those sessions.
I realize now that the reason we enjoyed her constructive criticism is that we knew she genuinely cared about our growth as journalists and as people. She wasn't working with us just to keep us from making mistakes, thus making her job easier — although I hope that was a side benefit of her efforts. Rather, she wanted us to improve so we could have brighter futures in our chosen profession, whether we were working for her or someone else.
She was doing the right thing, and she definitely had a positive impact on our lives.
I'll always be grateful for the example she set, in that way and in so many others. I can see now that my management style and philosophy are borrowed, in large part, from things she taught me, including:
• Take time to help your team members individually and as a group.
• Be open and honest with them about larger issues in the company.
• Clearly state your expectations and make sure your team members know where they stand in relation to those expectations.
• Try to make sure your team isn't blindsided by unpleasant surprises.
• Remember that you all spend a lot of time at work, so it makes sense to have fun while you're there.
I still have much to learn, but I'm glad my job gives me the opportunity to work on these management skills and that I can draw upon the good examples of managers who have helped me along the way.
Have you worked for managers who proved by their actions that they wanted to have a positive impact on your life? In what ways did they show a commitment to doing the right thing? How did that help you when you moved into a management role of your own?
Please send me your stories and ideas, and I'll share some of them in a future column.