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mbManage: Position Yourself As Management Material

Simple strategies to help carve your path to the corner office

- April 3, 2007
Welcome to mbManage, a new AvantGuildAvantGuild feature exploring workplace issues for media professionals who want to grow their responsibilities, manage their staffers, and advance their careers. This, our second installment, explores how to move up the ladder and increase your managerial responsibilities. (We're making this installment free for the first 10 days, then it will be available to AvantGuild members only.)

When Maureen Switalski assumed her current role as media supervisor at boutique advertising agency Ocean Bridge Media in Los Angeles, she knew she had the advertising skills to excel at the job. But, effectively managing an assistant posed a different challenge for which she had less experience.

So, Switalski hit the books in her spare time, picking up several tomes with advice for new managers. She also took a new interest in the management style of her superiors, emulating the practices she saw succeeding around her at the office, and tweaking others so that they'd work for her. A primary focus became training her assistant to become proficient with the less demanding parts of Switalski's existing tasks, so she could take on higher-level work.

"It was the dedication and willingness to get the job done, even with an overfilled plate, that brought the attention of my supervisors," Switalski says. "They recognized that I could use my skills for far more with the agency [since] I was able to teach my skills and methods to another."

In the two years since taking her position, Switalski has proven herself so proficient at managing her assistant and handling her role that supervisors have continually rewarded her with additional responsibility and pay, putting her on the fast track for a future management position. Here are some tips from some other media professionals on how you can do the same.

Problem-solve proactively
When you consistently meet the demands required of your position as a mid-level staffer or new manager, start looking for ways to go beyond those demands. Volunteer for any projects for which your supervisors are looking for help.

"You want to do things beyond your job, but not so much that you are biting on the heels of the person above you," says Chandra Czape Turner, executive editor at CosmoGIRL! "Instead, you want to be doing just enough to make that person's job easier. Make them feel like they can't live without you."

Strike that crucial balance between being dependable and adaptable -- you want to be someone superiors and subordinates can count on, but you also need to make sure you can adjust to sudden changes or shifts within your work. When problems arise, work toward a solution, and then alert your supervisor to that, rather than presenting him or her with just the dilemma. At group meetings, offer your intelligent input on upcoming campaigns, stories or projects -- even ones with which you're not directly involved. "Speak up," says Margaret Singsen, an art director with ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. "Have an opinion. Even if [colleagues] don't like your opinion, they'll remember you for speaking up."

The ability to lead represents another key management trait, but many professionals don't discover it until they're already charged with someone to manage -- then, both parties are often overly green. Most media professionals have an often-overlooked resource to show they can inspire and motivate their colleagues: the steady stream of interns coming through most media industry offices. Jessica Ben-Ari, an account executive with Goldstein Communications, a public relations agency in New York, proved her capacity to manage by working closely with her office's interns.

"It was is a good way to learn management skills because of the transient nature of interns," she says. "They come, you work with them, and they leave." A good way to maximize the return on this effort is to ask interns you guide to write a letter, detailing what made you a helpful manager, and the various things you were able to teach them during their time in the office.

"Become that person to whom everyone goes when they need answers, advice or direction," says Best Life editor-in-chief Steve Perrine. "The more people who feel secure in coming to you for help, the more well-positioned you are for advancement."

For editors, even more opportunities like this can be had through volunteering to work with freelancers, or asking to do additional reporting and rewriting to help out a supervising editor. In addition, keep track of trade events and any social/ professional gatherings where it'd behoove your outlet to have a presence, and nominate yourself to cover or attend.

"If your publication needs to be represented at a press conference, a civic meeting or an awards luncheon, volunteer to be the representative," says Susan Percy, editor-in-chief of Georgia Trend magazine.

Play office politics like a pro
As any PR pro can vouch: Perception is everything. Your colleagues' assessments can be as significant as those of your superiors. In addition to doing your job well, do it in a way that creates a strong, positive impression among your peers. Developing opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in other departments is a great way to showcase one's strengths and build goodwill around the office.

"Become that person to whom everyone goes when they need answers, advice or direction," says Steve Perrine, editor-in-chief of Best Life. "The more people who feel secure in coming to you for help, the more well-positioned you are for advancement." While it may seem like a no-brainer, it's key to remain approachable and responsive at all times to everyone in the office -- even if your coffee's cold and the train was late. A colleagues's influence doesn't always correlate directly to his or her title: If the CEO's executive assistant has his or her ear, that opinion may be on par with your own boss', come review-time.

"Mid-level staffers need to be open to pitching in wherever they can," Ben-Ari says. "Whether it's volunteering to help the CEO or an intern, it's professional karma, and it never goes unnoticed. A leader never shies away from a new challenge, and taking on new responsibilities shows that you possess the confidence inherent in any good leader or manager."

While it makes good sense to steer clear of petty gossip, most high-level media pros agree that taking an interest in the office climate and talking with colleagues in a friendly way about non-work topics sometimes can help you manage what your coworkers and superiors think of you. Try to tailor your demeanor to office culture -- if the group gathers at the communal table for lunch, it'll serve you well to put in an appearance now and again.

"You don't have to like office politics," says Marjorie Brody, a career coach and author of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? "You have to understand politics. You have to know who the right people are, and make sure they think highly of you."

In addition to building a strong network of your colleagues, it helps to find a mentor within the office. This person doesn't have to be in your department or group, so long as he or she has an explicit understanding of your professional role and the goals you seek to achieve. Target this person for direct advice about specific situations, and observe how he or she handles office politics. In addition, cast yourself as someone who's crucial to the team, and be sure your supervisors are perfectly clear on how you aim to move forward in your career.

"I want someone to come to me and say 'Here's what I want and here's what I intend to accomplish in order to get it," Perrine says. "It's always easier to set out goals and a time frame than to argue over what position or salary one should be at."

Be decisive, even if it jeopardizes your 'buddy' status
Once you've established your reputation as the go-to person, and demonstrated your key management skills, brace for an exponentially increased need for both as you scale the heights of upper management.

"I was the No. 2 at several successful magazines, and No. 2's do most of the hardcore managing in editorial operations," Perrine says. "The leap to editor-in-chief is like going from governor to president. You have to exercise the same skills as you did in your old job, except now you have to get along with other heads of state who speak different languages than you do. They're called publishers."

As a new or aspiring manager, keep up the communication. Even if you think you already know what everyone in the office does, make it a point to speak directly with your colleagues about how they view their roles. Knowing your coworkers' strengths and interests will help you in giving positive and constructive feedback often. Solicit others' thoughts on projects and ideas, but above all, maintain confidence in your own ability to lead.

"As a manager, you need to be able to make decisions," says Tina Johnson, vice president and editor-in-chief of Women's Health. "Most people in a job want to do well, so as a manager you have to help them do that. You need to be clear and direct, even if it means hard conversations."

To keep climbing the professional ladder to new, more challenging roles, demonstrate the self-assurance and leadership that got you a management position in the first place.

"You can be friendly with the people you work with, but there inevitably come times when you have to make an unpopular decision or criticize the work of someone in the office, or do a performance evaluation on a problem employee or even let someone go," Percy says. "These are not easy tasks, but do them decisively and with civility. Treat people with respect, but do what you have to do. When you have something to do that's tough, do it. Don't try to ignore the problem."

Beth Braverman is a senior associate editor at National Jeweler.

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