Where do you see yourself in five years?
Young journalists would probably boo me for asking. They’ve been hit with this question over and over, especially at the start of their career. And if they’re like I was, they skirted it with an indirect answer.
Instead, they spoke about their passion for the craft and desire to soak in the experience before taking the next step. They were more interested in getting the job, putting a few bucks in their pocket and getting out of their parents’ house.
No one told them that this dreaded, seemingly unavoidable job interview question is usually a stalling technique. More often than not, the prospective employer ran out of things to ask because he or she didn’t review your material beforehand.
Now, that doesn’t mean you, as a manager, shouldn’t ask the question. In fact, enlightened bosses use information from the answers to help chart a course for a staffer’s future, and they regularly coach them on how to improve the skills they need to reach their goal. Even more enlightened bosses keep asking the question as careers develop. Someone’s goal at the beginning of a year could be entirely different midway through, especially in this rapidly changing industry.
Here’s an example. A few years back I hired a reporter who had covered the same beat for more than five years at another paper. He knew the people, the places and all the issues, and he strengthened our coverage in the area to the best it had ever been. After a while, though, he wanted to try something different.
At the time, he hardly knew how to restart his computer, but when an online editing opportunity opened, he jumped at the chance. I was reluctant at first, given that his tech skills, or lack thereof, were an ongoing joke in the newsroom. But he kept pushing. He ducked his head into my office every time I finished an interview with an outside candidate, urging me to forget them and promote him.
I eventually relented, and he quickly became an expert, helping launch some ambitious projects. When our little weekly went online daily, he helped establish us as a breaking news leader, beating the big daily with stinging regularity. It gave us great joy to hear from sources how editors in the newsroom of the big bad monopoly hit the roof every time we scooped them. I still get a happy chill down my back thinking about it.
Another reporter I worked with joined the paper with only a cursory knowledge of the beat he was about to take on. But we thought his obvious overall genius and vast experience covering a wide array of issues would prepare him for the challenge. Indeed, he did a fine job in one aspect of the job, but he lagged behind in another area that was just as important to our coverage. Despite several attempts to light a fire under him — pointing him toward important sources and feeding him story ideas we noted were in line with our coverage goals, among other things — he and the beat never clicked.
Instead of continuing to force-feed him a diet of unappetizing job duties — a strategy that surely would have led a valuable staffer to seek other employment — we talked it over and shifted him to another open beat that we had postponed filling, but one in which he had developed a big interest.
Offering the same guidance as before, he flourished in the new beat, and he was grateful for the opportunity. Those good vibes had a spillover effect on the rest of the staff, who saw us as their advocates. That, in turn, opened a new line of communication with others on staff who shared concerns and growth goals that they may not have otherwise shared.
We could have failed here if we only cured our immediate needs instead of seeing the big picture.
But coaching is about more than offering new opportunities. Regular constructive criticism is just as important. Luckily, I’ve had good relationships with most of my staff over the years, and I’ve been able to offer helpful critiques generally through informal sessions over lunch. It’s always hard to find time for more in-depth sit-downs, but the few times I’ve done it were rewarding both to the reporter and to me. Why me? Because I was able to identify areas where I could have helped better along the way.
Even coaches need coaching.
Carl Corry, SPJ’s former Region 1 director, is executive producer of News 12 Interactive, a division of Cablevision. He previously served as editor of Long Island Business News.