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Knowing when to chip and chase

Recently, I’ve been working as a project editor on a book with an Aussie sporting hero. It’d been a fair while since I was in that position so, straight out of the gate, I was contacting his team with a ruthlessly updated schedule, mandatory deadlines, my vision for the thing… and was amiably side-stepped. Which, in this case, turned out to be for the best really, because they had it all under control and only needed me to stand around looking vaguely official during the cover shoot.

So was all my stress and planning for nothing? In material terms, yes. But in a less corporeal sense, it got me in the headspace for this project, demonstrated to the people who’d brought me onboard that I knew what I was doing and, most importantly, prepared me in advance for an engagement that I didn’t have a sitrep on.

(Sorry, I’ve been playing too many war games.)

It’s important to have a set of core beliefs about how you manage a team or organisation – but also tailor that to the actual humans you’re working with. If you go in thinking everyone’s committed to making something amazing, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. If you go in thinking everyone’s a work-to-rule shirker, you’re setting yourself up to be justifiably despised. Either way, your project will suffer.

When I was a baby manager, taking over a weekly magazine, I was terrified of missing my first deadline. This was despite having been promoted internally, working with people who’d been on the title for longer than I had… people who had never missed a deadline before my editorship and weren’t inclined to do so now.

One of the best early lessons in leadership came from my art director, who told me in less polite terms to go and sit in my office instead of hovering behind his chair while he tried to pull the cover together. One of the best later lessons in leadership came from the same guy, when I had to curtail the team’s pub-lunch time, and discovered that chipping someone who sees you as a mate can look a lot like betrayal.

Similarly, there’s nothing worse than a boss who’s always asking for updates on a task they’ve given you. No, wait – there’s one thing worse. A boss who asks where that task is, you know, the one that was due an hour ago but hadn’t been mentioned since an offhand allocation to you in a WIP meeting two months ago.

But on the other side of that story, there’s nothing more hilarious than asking a magazine writer where those 10 saucy quotes from girl-next-door models are for this week’s main feature, and watching through the glass walls on your office as he opens a new Word document, emails back that they’re nearly finished and will be done after lunch, then hits the phone to make 10 quick calls.

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