Monday, August 14, 2006

Sympathy for the coach

I've got an hour scheduled with my boss this week, just to talk about what I've been up to.

No, I'm not telling tales out of school. This could be an appointment with any of my bosses. My work supervisor, my wife, my God. It doesn't matter. Received wisdom now comes in 90-second bursts between appointments, or commercials, or errands.

This is how the work world works these days. Few managers have time to give orders. Employees must be think for themselves. At least that's how it seemed when I analyzed why my corporate jobs were being billed as "entrepreneurial."

It still helps to sit down with a manager to assess where those short bursts of direction lead. The schedule doesn't always allow it. But whatever the interval of such debriefings, I'll coach the boss as much as she coaches me. (Again, in my world "she" is the image and likeness of any boss.)

Early in my career as an editor, I considered myself a good coach. A reporter would call me Chief, and like Perry White to cub reporter Jimmy Olsen I'd say "Don't call me Chief!" But I wouldn't mind being called Coach. Coaching was interactive. You gave as good as you got. You started with a meeting of the minds on what the assignment was and what it would take to get it. You ended with time to review edits line by line, show that there was a reason behind every change, and make sure the result made sense.

In practice, it wasn't that simple. The postmortem was the first to go. Long chalk talks with junior reporters might have made sense at the suburban bureau, but daily deadlines are tighter and senior reporters have their own ways of doing things. At first I tried cutting to the chase, pointing to a buried phrase and saying, "Here's where it all starts to make sense for me." But soon enough, waiting for copy left too little time to revise it.

Collaboration always makes sense at the start when an idea is taking shape. But deadline editing is more of a head game, trying to influence or at least keep up with the reporter's thoughts between interviews.

Now that editing is a minor part of my project work, coaching is even more about time management. The clock is running on every interaction, and I'm still trying to figure out how much mileage I can get out of how few words. A successful starting point: Here's the payoff, and here's the roadblock to getting it.

Then it's time to collaborate on a solution, as the schedule permits.

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