On being a boss
A friend emailed me this question last night:
I just got my first full-time direct report and realized I’m totally terrified of being a boss! Any advice?
I didn’t realize how much I had to say about this until I started writing. Here’s what I replied:
give clear objectives— “your job is to make sure x happens.” make it known that you are here to help and will happily advise on all matters great and small, but it’s your report’s responsibility to figure out the best process for meeting those objectives. that way she has ownership over her day-to-day. agency is so important! it also gives you, as the boss, clear ways of providing feedback and assessing performance on two levels: outcomes and process.
work harder than your report does. i know this is a duh thing to tell you, because you work hard and are amazing, but people get resentful pretty quickly if they think they’re pulling more weight than the people who manage them. earn your higher salary. also model the behavior you want from her. make clear you have tons of respect for her job—it is critical to what you do, and critical to making an awesome magazine—and that you have infinite faith in her ability to do it well. this isn’t a lie because you hired her and you don’t hire idiots. also, this gives you leverage if she fucks up.
if she fucks up, which even competent people do sometimes, she’ll probably notice before you do and feel bad before you even address it. address it anyway because it shows you’re watching and it’s good to acknowledge together. if you need to, you can frame any reprimand-style conversation in terms of your personal disappointment, because you both know she can do better. also she respects you and wants your respect in turn. then you can turn to her process—which she’s taken responsibility for—and together figure out a way to make it better so the problem doesn’t happen again. people crave feedback, both positive and negative. the most valuable thing is being able to pay attention enough to say, “i’ve noticed you’ve done this little thing six times.” or “i notice that every time [x] happens, you do [y]. i don’t think it’s working.” that shit is invaluable!
never say “she works for me.” always remember that nobody works for you. they work for the job and for themselves and for a million reasons, maaaaybe if you are super awesome you are a tiny reason. but it’s always more accurate to say “we work together.” this sounds dumb but i really believe it matters, not just language-wise but as a thing to keep in mind. [i don’t think you’ll have trouble remembering this. it’s only a revelation to dudes with self-important tendencies.]
help her accomplish the sorts of things that will gain her visibility (which can be really hard for editors, who are so behind-the-scenes) and make for great resume bullet-points. this means projects she can highlight, special coverage areas she can take the lead on, new skills she can boast about. people leave jobs when they don’t feel like they’re evolving anymore. a good boss makes you feel like you’re always adding to your skill set, always growing. she’ll stay in the job longer, which is good because she’s probably super competent by this point. you want her around.
introduce her to smart people you know. and even when she’s not in the room, mention her casually in conversation with smart people you know. give her credit for good work to your bosses (and other colleagues), because if they are good bosses they will realize this is your good work, too. shine theory very much applies to management.
the hardest thing for me was always to walk the line between being transparent and treating my reports as the adults they are, but also insulating them a bit from the management drudgery i had to deal with. so keep her in the loop but remember she’s not your therapist, and she doesn’t get paid enough to deal with management bullshit. that’s your job.
don’t try to be her bff but make clear you care about her as a human. develop an inside joke or two. get tipsy together sometimes. ask about her personal life occasionally but don’t pry. don’t make her feel like she has to lie if she’s taking a day off because she broke up with her girlfriend or is super hungover or something. (the way you do this is you confess to her when you’re working from home because you broke up with someone or are hungover or something.)
she (or he!) will love you forever! you’re gonna be the best boss.