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Gary Winters

Leadership Coach

Boss, you’re not helping!

hands on offThe ideal manager is hands-off whenever possible, and hands-on whenever needed. Too hands-off, and you’ll be seen as aloof, uncaring and disinterested. Too hands-on, and you’ll start to micromanageWhat Your Boss Never Told You, by Gary Winters, 2010.

I’ve had bosses I loved working for.

They treated staff like valuable parts of the organization. They’d invite us to their homes on holidays or other occasions. They’d go out drinking with us after work.

I’ve had others where sharing an elevator down to the lobby with them was an awkward, excruciating fifteen seconds.

At my first full-time newspaper job in 1986, my boss did not fit into any formulaic leadership role. He met with the other editors to plan the story budget. He might have helped in planning a major investigation, but otherwise he left the editors, reporters and photographers alone.

I would say his style was hands-off, but it was also quite hands-on in that he was involved with his employees.

We knew a lot about each others’ lives, we socialized after work, and he was well-liked.

Were we productive as a result? Absolutely.

We were the underdogs in an area dominated by a Gannett publication (with more resources), yet we regularly scooped them. The managing editor never pretended that he did that. He knew his staff was dedicated to what they did. There was passion and camaraderie.

Sure, I’m looking back through a Vaseline haze of nostalgia at a job I started when I was 22, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating. I liked that editor and I think he cared about us as he cared about the paper.

On the other hand…

In another job, the executive editor ran the planning meetings. Once the story list was decided, staff did the work; he was no longer involved.

As editor, my job was to assign stories to freelance writers (or write them myself), commission art from a freelance artist and work with the production staff, who packaged everything.

The executive editor didn’t get involved again until the blue lines (the first proofs) arrived. At that point everyone had to check everything and sign off on it.

We were aware it was very expensive to change something after the blueline stage, so we were scrupulous about finding mistakes at that point. If we redlined later at the color proof stage, we had to have a damn good reason. The boss got involved when he needed to, but for the most part, he didn’t need to. He trusted the teams. 

More recently, I had a boss who didn’t seem to understand what missing deadlines and last-minute fixes cost us.

The editorial staff would have everything in the magazine ready to go except for the letter from the editor. She never finished the letter until after the first set of proofs had been checked and sent back to the printer. Therefore, the piece had to be flawless – we’d have no second chance to catch a mistake. In spite of periodic pleas to change this process, she was adamant that no one else should write this letter – and was unapologetic about it being late.

She was the boss; it could be late.

On one level, she was right. It always made it into the magazine. Someone else would have been in trouble if it didn’t.

Worse, she would go through the proofs at the last minute and insist that we change headlines, captions – sometimes even art. Her editorial background convincedher that she was the only one who understood what looked and sounded good, and she knew best how to make it perfect.

She demonstrated no trust in staff, and no ability to let things go at that stage. Her hands-on style increased everyone’s stress. Not only did it not help – it was quite harmful.

What do I make of all this?

There’s nothing an employee can do about a difficult management style except to determine what’s going on and figure out ways to cope with it. Sometimes an employee can suggest ideas for change, but, for the most part, we just take a poor management style as one of the challenges of the job.

I was blessed with a job where I was surrounded by a team of committed workers with whom I got along. That made the idiosyncrasies of our boss a little easier to swallow.

As to the impact on our productivity? That’s hard for me to estimate. But I’m sure it was significant!

Jan Arzooman, a periodic contributor to the Leadership Almanac, offers leadership insight from the point of the “end user” – a person who has worked for a variety of managers. She is a freelance writer and editor with many years in publishing. She currently focuses on fiction, memoirs, blogging on a wide variety of topics, social media marketing, and health and medical writing. Her website is http://arzoomaneditorial.com/. 


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