“This is not family.”
Mike said this in between puffs of a cigar as long as his hand. Although he had a few management jobs, he was still a relatively young guy in his 30s managing a news desk at a small city newspaper. The cigar seemed to be something he still needed to grow into.
This was my first job out of college. I had wanted to be a reporter but the recession of 1981-82 still rippled into 1985. And, of course, I had gone into the newspaper business just as they were dimming the lights. I was finally able to get this job as a part-time copy editor.
A bitter edge of disappointment sometimes surrounded Mike, disillusioned by office politics and friendships gone sour. The Times Mirror Co. owned our newspaper, but Mike had worked at a paper within Gannett, a company that wore its journalism badge proudly but disproportionately rewarded skillful corporate navigation.
I guess Mike sensed my own frustration with upper management and was trying to be helpful. He had a different vision of working, one he described as akin to a bomber squadron.
The bomber analogy actually seemed apt. We had a crew of five people sitting at desks grouped in a tight U with the news editor at the head. As most people were leaving the building, these editors would come in at night to take the payload of that day’s news to edit, shape into the next morning’s newspaper and drop it onto the press precisely on time, not a minute later.
We did not have text, email or content management systems, so we had to talk to each other during the run to keep us all on track. That chatter, plus cigarettes and humor black and bitter as the coffee, filled the night.
Finding The Click
I did not expect to take the editing track but I found some things about it clicked with me. I felt aligned with many of its requirements. But to tell you the truth, I was better at the creative part of editing such as writing headlines and reviewing story structure, than I was at detailed line-editing.
I would feel a tad inadequate that I was not as good as some of the word nerds at spotting grammatical and style problems. So I stumbled along, trying to improve. When I realized that I had more to offer as a substantive editor, I focused on that and started asking older reporters substantive questions. I was uncomfortable with the interaction at first, but I plunged ahead, comforted by the sense I was in my element.
Editing is a thankless job, so I did not expect much feedback beyond grumbling. Writers tend not to take criticism happily.
But then after some time, the education reporter said, “You came out of nowhere and became a great editor.” I learned the meaning of the word “dumbfounded” at that moment. Here was an older reporter I highly respected telling me this. I assume George does not know I have been running on that one sentence for the rest of my career.
This is what alignment is all about. In Part 2 of the Peter Sheahan interview with Paul Feldman, Sheahan tells how important it is to discover your own strengths and play to them.
The harder part is to arrange your practice and your staff so you can operate at your best. And the hardest part is keeping your business aligned.
Sheahan talks about standing in your power. He does not mean superpower, which seems to be the thing now with Marvel and DC superheroes on every screen and brain. It is standing where you shine.
We interviewed someone else several years ago who built a whole franchise around this notion. Sally Hogshead developed the Fascination Advantage test and system.
The system identifies the strengths that you present — the ones that other people perceive. It is quite a revealing test that might surprise you. But upon reflection, the results make sense.
An essential part Sheahan’s alignment method is deselecting — not doing the things that fill your time but not your purpose. Other people do those things better and there is no shame in that.
The idea is not to change the things to be what you think might lead to a more acceptable you, but to embody them fully. It might not be a superpower, but you will feel superpowerful. You will feel right.
There Is No Medal For That
I never told George how much that one sentence meant to me over the past 30 years. I probably should. Mike and I did reconnect recently. We caught up on the decades and then there was a bit of a pause. Mike said he realized he was not always a good manager and he felt bad about that.
I winced at the thought of all the times I had been a pretty lousy manager myself. Really, he had nothing to apologize for. Some of Mike’s missteps were when he was trying to be himself, when he wanted to share something meaningful. And he did. I carry many of those moments to this day.
He taught me work might not be family but something maybe as important, where we bring our best to serve the person next to you. He showed it’s not a job — but a mission.
Of course, I did not say all that. Just, “Nah, you did good.”