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Effective leadership happens beyond the corner office


In the not-too-distant past lived a popular management practice referred to in the United States as “Management by Walking Around” and in Britain as “Management by Walking About.” In essence, it encouraged owner/general manager/chief executive officer-level leaders to emerge from their comfortable, cave-like offices and mingle with line staff.

What seemed like common sense, this practice was often eye-opening, even revolutionary to both the leaders and staff, as those at the highest levels connected with the day-to-day realities of public-facing employees. The best companies also encouraged their executives to (shudder) meet with customers themselves — and to be fair, the best owners knew what an important exercise this was without being told.

Which brings us to newspapers and media companies.

The very best leaders — not just owners and publishers, but editors, department heads, ad directors, digital development champions — are quite in touch with the needs of customers and the communities they serve. And they are well aware of and responsive to the needs of their employees and company peers.

Let me suggest that before newsmedia companies can serve (and satisfy) external audiences they must serve (and satisfy) internal audiences.

Break it down this way: A media company is the same as other companies in that it sells (news and information) products to the public. It is different (and yes, higher in importance in my view) from many other companies in that its mission is tied to helping people live better lives. It matters not whether we help people live better lives through accurate, thorough, insightful, and provocative news stories, through profiles of their high school salutatorians, or through our high-value, money-saving grocery coupons. We improve customers’ lives. And we can improve our collective work lives through a spirit of service.

A popular American television series on the Travel Channel illustrates this for me. Called “Hotel Impossible,” it features hospitality guru Anthony Melchiorri, who visits failing hotels large and small, and offers up his spot-on tough love.

“YOU are the problem,” he often barks at owners and general managers, with no compunction about holding back. “I need you to get pissed off. I need you to care!” These types of things are often shouted at general managers with huge and disgusting problems: cockroaches in rooms that ostensibly have been cleaned by housekeeping; a decaying pigeon sticking out from under a barbecue on a pool deck; a marketing director who responds to online customer complaints with sarcasm and/or indifference; hotel bellmen who let customers root around in the backseat of their rental cars to dig out their own luggage, while they, the bellmen, drink coffee and shoot the breeze.

The common factor in all of these failing properties is leadership that either doesn’t care or that has given up. It’s true that some line staff at the properties don’t care either, but by far and beyond the problem is that no one has ever showed them or modeled top-notch behaviours for them. Doing that level of coaching requires one to leave her or his office.

As I’ve watched this show, I’ve chuckled at the idea of a similar reality series along the lines of “Newspaper Impossible,” with a butt-kicking host like Melchiorri observing how we serve our internal customers right and where we drop the ball. It’s not hard to imagine him saying things like, “Hey, when you make a decision in production it affects people in editorial. Try asking them about it first, or at least telling them when it’s going to happen,” or “What do you mean, exactly, ‘We need to innovate?’ What’s your specific idea?” or “Don’t inflict a two-hour meeting on your team unless you have something specific to tackle and, for God’s sake, don’t leave that room without clear action steps assigned!”

As to his observations on how we serve external customers, he might observe: “That poor woman wants you to help her find something that ran in your newspaper. Don’t you dare transfer her hither and yon because you’re too disinterested to assist her.” “Can you make this rate card any more complex? Sheesh, do you even understand it?” “My father’s been taking your newspaper his whole adult life and he just turned 100. You’re telling me you don’t have room for a tiny photo in your community section?” “Why is your Web site so boring? There’s nothing on there that makes me feel the stories are fresh or vital”. Or, “When I visit your Web site on my mobile device, why isn’t it auto-detecting and optimised for mobile?”

One step removed, with an eye toward caring and improving what we do, and how we interact with each other and customers.

A recent story in The Spokesman-Review featured Gary Norton, who founded Silverwood Theme Park 25 years ago near tiny Athol, Idaho. In it was reflected the love he has for the long-shot-for-success park, located far from major cities and at the mercy of inclement winter weather. (Side note: The park, the Northwest’s largest, will see its 10 millionth guest sometime this summer. About half of its guests come from more than 300 miles away.) Here is a bit of the question-and-answer interview from the article:

Q. What do you learn by watching and listening to your guests?

A. You stand in line with other guests, and they don’t know who you are, and you listen to them all talking; it’s real interesting what you’ll pick up. That’s usually where I decide to go next, to find out what they like, what they don’t like, things they’re having problems with.

Q. How do you decide when to replace an attraction?

A. You have to keep adding something new to keep it interesting. You take the worst place in the park and spruce it up, make it the best, and then something else becomes the worst spot in the park.

Q. What’s your approach to expansion?

A. We do it by bootstrapping. We take the profits we make and put it back into the business. We’d love to grow this a lot faster but for my aversion to being in debt, which helps us in times of recession.

We don’t need to be the Newspaper Impossible of our cities and towns. In many a community, our work matters more than we might realise. And sometimes — many times — our customers, and yes, those who work in newspaper departments other than our own, would be glad to give us an earful about how we can improve.

“Bring it,” as Anthony Melchiorri would say.

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