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Power flows both ways


Employees wield incredible power over their bosses, and woe to the boss who hasn’t figured that out yet.

Take, for instance, my first week as editor of a daily newspaper in Texas. The publisher told me to “watch out” for Paula, the entertainment editor, who had a particular knack for ticking off a contingent of Southern Baptists with her racy approach to entertainment news. He intimated that her termination would be a good thing, though his disdain for her made me suspect he was referring to an end-of-life issue rather than an employment matter.

Just what I needed – a huge employee issue even before I learned where the bathrooms were.

I immediately scheduled a meeting with Paula. I asked about her background, her likes, dislikes and what she envisioned her product to be. I found her to be intelligent, engaging and particularly quick-witted.

Then I backed into the subject, asking what kind of problems she had at the newspaper. She didn’t hesitate. My predecessor, she said, was a spineless, mealy-mouthed backstabber.

I began to sweat.

She went on. One year during the holidays, she featured a photo on the cover of a Santa Claus smoking a cigar. The Southern Baptist contingent raised holy hell, or whatever the Baptist equivalent of that is. And the publisher was mad — fighting mad. He told my predecessor that under no circumstances was a Santa with a cigar to ever, ever appear on a cover again. The predecessor went back and yelled at Paula, apparently parroting the same words.

Paula, no fool, promised it would never happen again. But she was mad. The next year during the holidays, she featured a Santa drinking a beer. The Baptists and publisher had apoplexy. The editor stormed up to Paula. Her excuse? “You told me to never feature a Santa with a cigar again, but you never said anything about beer.”

So the publisher put out the final edict: No more Santa Claus covers. Period.

But not end of story. I found Paula’s account riveting and compelling and, honestly, pretty funny. So did she. And by nearly all accounts (save for the opinions of some Southern Baptists and one publisher), she put out a magnificent and edgy entertainment section.

“Just don’t get me into trouble,” I told her.

From there, I let her work her magic each week, pushing the edge but not exceeding it. Why? She knew I admired her work and I trusted her. In return, she made sure I didn’t get in trouble.

The moral of the story is to get out of the way of your good employees. If they know the mission and what is expected of them, they will follow through. If you don’t let them do their jobs, you may very well wind up with a Santa Claus holding a beer.

Jim Flansburg, director of operations for Business Publications Corp., can be reached by e-mail at jimflansburg@bpcdm.com, or by phone at 288-3336, Ext. 230.  

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