Manager as Editor

Management is a topic that draws no shortage of opinions, studies or differing experiences.

I’ve heard a variety of terms and concepts used to describe managers. Managers as leaders, managers as cheerleaders, managers as experts and so on. Lately, I’ve been thinking about a manager as an editor, similar to the editor in chief of a publication.

Let’s start with a bit of background. When I was younger, early in my career, I was enamored with the idea of flat organizational structure. As a green, hungry professional, I relished the momentum of the pendulum swing away from ‘traditional’ management hierarchy and towards more individual autonomy. I loved hearing ‘progressive’ leaders say things like, “we just hire talented people and free them up to do amazing work.” Now that I have more time and experience under my belt, my perspective is tempered. I still believe in flat company structure as much as it is possible, but I’ve also learned that unfettered skill isn’t the primary ingredient of great teams.

I started to learn that lesson when I began to hire really talented people and observed that they often go through phases on a path towards their skill and productivity being equally yolked. When someone is new, there is a period of learning about both the organization and their role—they are getting their arms around the values and mission and how their work fits into that picture. During this time, managers reinforce values, ensure clear understanding of the role, teach systems and processes. The manager is helping lay the groundwork for work to be done.

Gradually, the team member establishes a solid footing and beings to really produce work. The transition out of this first phase is where I’ve seen many managers ‘free up’ the team member to ‘do amazing work,’ which can be a serious mistake. In my experience, new, talented team members are applying a high level of skill, acquired elsewhere, to a new business and a new set of challenges. Whatever the quality, previous solutions are rarely the best answer to new problems. Instead, at this point, the manager should have a high level of interaction with the work being produced, actively putting their hands on it and helping demonstrate the particulars of the new context someone is working in. This is the process of the employee molding their skill set to the needs of the organization—the focusing of talent and process of understanding of what ‘final product’ means at a new company.

There are, of course, more phases, but managing the process of talent molding itself to a new context is easy enough to imagine when singular. Multiply that situation by five (or more), though, and the analogy of manager as editor begins to crystalize. While editors manage their organization’s individual writers and contributors, their ultimate responsibility is consistently releasing editions of their publication that are high quality, cohesive, reflective of the organization’s values and that resonate with their audience.

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of an editor-in-chief (bold emphasis mine)1:

The editor-in-chief heads all the departments of the organization and is held accountable for delegating tasks to staff members and managing them. The term is often used at newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, and television news programs. The term is also applied to academic journals, where the editor-in-chief ultimately decides whether a submitted manuscript will be published. This decision is made by the editor-in-chief after seeking input from reviewers selected on a basis of relevant expertise. Typical responsibilities of editors-in-chief include:

  • Fact checking, spelling, grammar, writing style, page design and photos
  • Rejecting writing that appears to be plagiarized, ghost-written, published elsewhere, or of little interest to readers
  • Editing content
  • Contributing editorial pieces
  • Motivating and developing editorial staff
  • Ensuring the final draft is complete and there are no omissions
  • Handling reader complaints and taking responsibility for issues after publication
  • For books or journals, cross-checking citations and examining references

In other words, the editor is accountable for understanding how all of the pieces fit together and guiding the individuals on their team to produce a single piece of work—the sum of individual parts. The freedom to produce great work individually results in exactly that—great work. In the context of a team, though, great work in and of itself doesn’t always fit into a body of work with a specific purpose and intended for a specific audience.

As I’ve written before2, leadership and increased responsibility often find those who can look beyond the bounds of their individual responsibilities and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. Good managers have the ability to see the big picture behind many people’s work and coach them towards focusing their talent on a final product that is dependent on the other members of the team.

1. You can read more about the role of editor-in-chief on Wikipedia.2. You can read my post about “managing up” here.

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