Scroll through your favorite social media feed, and you may see a post or two telling you how you can “adult,” and while we wait for that unfortunate verb to go out of fashion, the concept behind those articles is useful for many of us. Because who doesn’t need a little help scrubbing those hard-to-reach places when it comes to personal development?
But what happens when it’s not just ourselves that we have to coax into our full potential, but a group of strangers?
When other people’s work is suddenly your responsibility—whether you’re the team lead on a collaborative project, or you’ve collected a federation of steady freelancers, or you’ve finally hired that help you’ve been wishing for since the day you started your business—congrats, you’ve been knighted into the managers’ club.
If only there were a tried and true format for keeping a small team on track, on brand, and on schedule. But there is! Hint: Where does Superman work during the less-interesting, more glasses-wearing half of his life?
I’m talking about the newsroom.
Rosy the parakeet has a liner for her cage (and that crook Nixon got dragged from the Oval Office) because a collection of humans found a way to share ideas, trade tasks, remain focused on a larger picture, and defer to a hierarchy for quality and brand consistency. In other words, individuals work together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Buzzwordy types describe this with the awful word “synergy,” but instead, let’s be reminded of “Voltron.”
So if you’ve come into leadership of your own ragtag band, no matter what you’re trying to achieve, you can apply newsroom ideals and practices to unite your members into your own obstacle-stomping Voltron.
You may have heard this adage before: A boss says “Go!” A leader says “Let’s go.”
A boss demands respect while a leader earns it (and doesn’t always think they need it). And since most of us have seen The Wizard of Oz, we can identify outward bluster and posturing as masked smallness and insecurity—not exactly commanding attributes.
Plus, it’s hard to maintain a giant, floating, holographic green head and pyrotechnics when a first-name basis is now standard for almost all professional relationships. And, if your team is disparate and spread all over the globe, they know you’re probably sitting in a ratty T-shirt and gym shorts while you respond to their emails.
So if you want to lead your small team to complete projects on time and on mission, while maintaining a standard of quality and brand integrity, take a page from the newsroom and play to your team’s strengths while making sure you aren’t wasting man-hours with redundant, overlapping tasks.
Foremost, keep the development of your team high on your list. After all, you’ve found these people, and they’re the ones you’re running this race with. Wouldn’t you want them to be as fit and healthy as possible?
Earlier in my career, I was the editor of a small-town newspaper, and we had a part-time staff writer with a tremendous amount of skill. He wrote two things especially well: sports and entertainment. But someone had to cover city council meetings, and after I spent years watching gray-haired men bicker on the horseshoe, I needed him to take that over.
It wasn’t just the tedium: I was frequently pulling 17-hour days, and if I didn’t delegate, I would die of old age before I turned 30.
But I knew that while he’d do a great job covering that assignment, it didn’t fit his passions, so I followed an unofficial rule: For every city council meeting he endured, I let him write something of his choosing even if it wasn’t always what we absolutely needed the most.
This way, the newspaper won because he consistently wrote great original content that elevated our brand, and he won because he got to build a writing portfolio and have fun doing it.
Leading requires looking ahead, and we should all be honest with ourselves about the relationships we have with our team members. Barely anyone stays anywhere for more than a few years anymore. If you want to shorten that even more, convince your staff they have no mobility with you.
Mobility doesn’t always mean promotions or raises—it can mean training, mentorship, or added responsibilities. But it must exist unless you want your roster to thin out faster than a cabin full of teenagers in a Bruce Campbell movie.
When that same writer moved from freelance to staff, I let him make up his own title—something that he thought would look good on his resume and hopefully help him along in his career. In addition to the writing he was already good at, I was training him on page layout and design, so I knew he could invent a title better than “staff writer,” and he did.
A cynic might wonder why it’s a good idea to prepare your team members to outgrow you, but what you’re creating is a network of peers who like you, are skilled, and will go on to build their own networks. They will leave you either way, or you’ll leave them, and in any case, they’ll remember what kind of person you were.
While I was at that same newspaper, we had another freelance writer who covered local high school sports. For him, it was a hobby. He had a day job in an unrelated field, and for him, writing about Friday night glory was not a stepping stone to something better, but an end in itself.
He did good work, but he worked remotely. For five years, we never met face-to-face, and when the newspaper changed ownership, I successfully lobbied to keep him.
Years later, I was the copy editor for a state agency. Word came that they’d filled a position pretty high in the department, and when I saw the name of my new boss, I was floored.
Not just my boss, but my boss’s boss’s boss. That’s three levels up—high enough that to meet with him, you’d better throw on a tie. Obviously, it was that same freelance sports writer, the one who’d done it as a hobby in addition to his day job in an unrelated field. The one I’d never met face-to-face.
Do you think he remembered how I’d treated him? And do you think the fact that he still liked me after working under me became more important than ever?
Never, ever be a jerk to someone. Even when you can. If not for “being a good person” reasons, then at least because you never know how someone might reappear in your life. And if you helped set them up for success while it was in your power and the roles reverse later, they won’t forget it.
If you’ve divined your team members’ strengths, that should inform the work you give them. As much as possible, assignments should be customized to those strengths. If there’s too much overlap in the top skills of your team, it’s either time to help them develop new muscles, or it’s time to reassess your team.
There’s a lot floating around the internet right now about modern businesses learning from the old newsroom model—a hierarchical structure where everyone knows who gets the final say, where insular “silos” are destroyed while everyone communicates, and obsessive project coordination means your upcoming slate of output is manicured, curated, and scheduled into oblivion.
That may be the way it looked on the fifth season of The Wire, but in my experience, most newsrooms have more in common with Dr. Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.
Back in my newspaper days, in the same week, I might photograph a pile of confiscated drugs at the police station; get stuck on the phone with a crackpot who claimed to be Rick Moranis’s lost muse (true story!); build a wordsearch with an answer key from scratch; fold, label, tie, and bag a mountain of newspapers by hand (everyone in the newsroom shared this task during a season of belt-tightening); sip coffee and shake hands at a chamber of commerce before-hours; sign up walk-ins for subscriptions; field complaints about our screwed-up crossword puzzle; and somewhere in there, actually put a newspaper together.
If you skimmed most of that last paragraph, here’s the gist: In a real newsroom, you don’t do your job—you do the things you were hired to do plus a little bit of everything else. If you’re a writer, you’ll sometimes also proof, take pictures, or even whip up an ad, even if there’s already someone devoted to each of those tasks—but for (usually) financial reasons, personnel are at such a premium that having one person redo the work of another is an absurd luxury.
Handing a man a fish, if you’re following a newsroom format, is terrible leadership. It’s a productivity killer and sets a potentially irreversible precedent.
No, instead of handing a man a fish, teach him to play the accordion, hang glide, speak in flawless ’80s surfer slang, ice sculpt, perform a perfect triple Axel, recite the Magna Carta, and be the best fisherman the town has ever seen.
When I started at the paper, there was a veteran reporter who was unmatched in her toughness, determination, and know-how—with one fatal exception. She was from the days before computers, and for years before I came aboard, the newspaper staff had taken her handwritten stories (which were excellent) and typed them up for her.
That reporter, the one who’d been handed fish for years at the expense of countless lost hours from the rest of the team, was fully capable of typing her own stories—even wanted to! She just needed someone to spend 30 minutes showing her how to use Microsoft Word. Once she had that, she was typing her own stories, doing her own research online, and loving all of it.
In many industries, gone are the days when someone can say, “That’s not in my job description.” If you said that in a newsroom, you’d get laughed at. Literally laughed at. And the same is true in many work environments, whether you ever physically set foot in the same country as your direct supervisor or not.
However, also gone are the days when that supervisor or leader is above question. And that means you, probably, if you’re reading this.
You, or the company, might be giving your team money (or “exposure,” as almost every creative has had to accept as payment at some point), but they are giving you something far more valuable—their time. Especially if some of them are volunteers or otherwise unpaid (or low-paid).
The time they’re giving you is more than those hours they log each week; it’s the months and years they stick around, confident, or at least hoping, that their decision to do so is leading them somewhere. Because if it’s not, there’s no going back.
Especially if they’re early in their careers, they’re gambling on you. They’re investing in you far more than you’re investing in them, because if they spend a chunk of their formative years with you instead of your colleague or competitor, it’s their career and reputation they’re laying down on the table.
So if you can’t pay your team as much as you’d like, make sure they’re earning something else worthwhile on their time investment. In the handful of newsrooms I haunted in my early 20s, this came in several flavors: training on industry skills that my bosses knew I’d never use at their company but that could benefit me later; primo assignments that higher brass could have snatched up but tossed down the ladder to me (I’ll never forget sitting across from famous film and TV stars with my pen and notepad); or gaining the gift that keeps on giving, which is reliable job references.
All of these things can be given to your team members at relatively low cost to you. In fact, the biggest theme of that list is to give them as much resume fodder as you possibly can.
But the best non-monetary perk I ever received in a newsroom was daily walks around the building with the owner. In other words, regular one-on-one time to talk shop, life, and everything else. It was mentorship disguised as a break for fresh air, or maybe it was the other way around. Over the months, it added up to something that I’ve carried with me in my professional life ever since.
Of course, a walk around the office would have to be figurative if your team members are in five different time zones, but some kind of intentional time with each individual, even if it’s every few weeks, will help them learn new corners of the industry and feel a stronger tie to the company or organization.
And the questions they ask you will be telling: Their interests, their goals, their potential, and their intentions will all get some light, which is valuable insight for you and for them.
Depending on the type of work, the amount of engagement you have with your freelancers will vary, but think empathetically if you can and try to get a feel for what’s appropriate. If you can’t engage all of your team members, you may have too many. If you let too much time pass between assignments, your freelancers may deprioritize you for steadier gigs. You may still get an acceptable turnaround, but the quality of that work may start to dip.
If you want your company to be on their mind, they need to feel like they’re on yours. You want them to know that time and energy spent on projects for you is time well-spent, and working for you or the company cannot be an afterthought.
One of your greatest resources as a new leader is your own memory. Remember when you were a freelancer and you toiled to turn in stellar work under the direction of your immediate supervisor? There’s a good chance that was last week, so it shouldn’t be too hard to think back to those days.
What made you work hard? In a newsroom, it could have been a desire to build your portfolio and your resume or an intention to stand out in a competitive industry so you could advance in some way, including finding your next newsroom when your current one ceased to exist (a real possibility in these waning days of print journalism). Or it could have been the satisfaction of knowing you succeeded at something challenging.
Think about what made that hard work easier. It could have been a good communication network, or well-defined expectations, or policies that allowed innovation and creative problem-solving.
What made you respect certain bosses but lose your trust in others?
Your experience was unique to you. Nevertheless, people are similar in more ways than they are different, so the things you value, your small team will probably value. The things you hate, they will probably hate. The things you appreciate and don’t forget, well … there’s a good chance those things will be well-received by everyone you encounter throughout your career.
Nathan Winfrey graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing. After years navigating a colorful succession of reporting and editing jobs, he took the helm of his hometown newspaper before eventually becoming the copy editor for the largest state agency in Oklahoma. Nathan is currently a swing editor for Craft Your Content.