I consider myself a pretty good people manager but it took me a long time to become one. I’ve always been good at working with photographers but it took quite a bit of work to become good at managing the people under me and I only really figured it out in the last year or so.

The greatest piece of advice I ever read (out of 20 or so business books) goes something like this: Taking someone else’s idea and increasing the quality by 5% occurs at the price of a 50% decrease in their commitment to execution (here’s a recent explaination on the Harvard Business blog).

This is a huge problem in the publishing industry. Everyone tries to “add value” to everything: stories, photos, ideas, line-ups, headlines, cutlines, pull-quotes, captions, typefaces, colors and hairlines. If you’ve ever worked with an editor who makes slight modifications to every single effing thing that comes through the door then you know what I’m talking about. Your desire to execute is deflated because you no longer own anything thanks to the misguided idea that the readers will somehow notice a slight improvement in quality. They don’t. Half the readers were bought by the newsstand director anyways.

Photo editors know all too well of this phenomena that I call “shuffling the deck” where someone will come along and rearrange the photos and change singles into half’s and half’s into spreads all in the name of somehow improving the story. It’s not better, It’s different.

Some of my greatest accomplishments as a photo editor are a direct result of me doing nothing. See if you’ve got the sack to admit that.

If you want to make the magazine better do your job as well as you can and keep your mitts off mine.

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  1. Rob –

    Interesting post. I think part of being a good manager, leader, or coach is knowing when to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. I see folks in decision making positions who always feel the need to put their stamp on things either do it because they – 1) the need to justify their worth and salary or 2) just can’t let go of the ego and control.

    You said it when sometimes great accomplishments are the results of doing nothing. I think this evident in the example of photographers using 18 packs and heads versus the decision to use available light. Sometimes adding more lights really doesn’t add value – just more stress.


  2. […] the manager, have to understand what you’re trying to improve about your organization, but not before you take the time to know who the people are you plan this improvement with. […]

  3. I have to agree a lot with both what you’ve said, and what Van Dittavong said. I work in an advertising company, and I think that everyone trying to make a little contribution is how you end up with ads that look cluttered and busy, and it usually falls on the art director to hold everyone back and keeping it from becoming a mess.

    Generally I’ve also found it helpful (something I’ve both received, and then enacted myself) is when somebody brings something to you, rather than just jumping in and changing things, to ask them if there’s anything they dislike about it, or that they feel isn’t as strong. Many times people know what needs work, they just don’t have something in mind to improve it. If you ask them where they think something could be improved, tweaked, etc., then even if you suggest something to improve, they feel like it was at their direction, which provides I think an even stronger sense of ownership. This then makes people working under you or submitting work to you more comfortable with your advice in the future as well.

    And, I have to admit, the comment about using 18 lights really struck a chord with me. I feel like people often try to use a dozen lights to make a boring idea perfect, rather than using one or no lights to make an imperfect idea interesting.

  4. I had a new supervisor come in on an old job and went all out cleaning and rearranging everything in our department. Nothing really improved and productivity suffered a little bit because we couldn’t find anything!

  5. I like your philosophy Rob. I have worked in the ad industry and that is just as bad as what you describe if not worse. In many cases, each additional person’s input usually makes the ad increasingly shitty and diluted. And we all know diluted shit is diarrhea.

  6. Damn straight. I think this is what happens when people feel insecure and try to make themselves feel better by ‘trying harder’, hoping something magical will happen that will propel the current situation to extraordinary heights. Utterly delusional.

  7. The two biggest culprits for tweaking work at my magazine are our biggest clients: Walmart & Auto Zone. They always feel they know what our readers like best and they aren’t shy about telling us how to do our jobs. I’m not sure how many covers we’ve had to redo in the last year because of them.

  8. You’re unsure of you’re use of you’re.

  9. It’s the committee problem. When I worked at a fortune 100 company I saw it on a daily basis. The problem in this case wasn’t so much that everyone had to put there 2 cents in so much as no one would take a stand. A project was run up the flag pole and what ever was left after all the shooting was the final result. Everyone had a part of it, all the regions had there say, but no one to blame when the results where watered down drivel.

  10. OK so my contribution to your post is to correct you’re to your

    “You’re desire to execute is deflated”

    Bwahahahahaha …. damn someone else got there to do the change I wanted to do!!!

    On a more serious note, I just spent an entire shoot yelling at myself to stop making things more complicated simply to make them confusing, and to stop doing things that don’t make any sense.

    Your advice to leave it alone is probably one of the most valuable tips any editor could ever hear. Do the minimum because the 3 hours you spend on the project are not going to match the (perhaps) several weeks the author/photographer/copywriter has spent on it already.

    Oh, and I also put folks in charge of doing certain things and have a strict policy of backing them up without second guessing them.. at least in front of anyone else.

    It seems blindingly obvious to me but it obviously is not. Great point.

    Kim Taylor

  11. Speaking of feeling deflated.

    I love it when an editor asks: “Did you photograph (insert some weird, irrelevant thing here)?” post shoot – especially when the question suggests that any competent photographer would have thought to photograph (weird, irrelevant thing). For me, this only happens with one specific editor. But it is a regular comment.

    I’m always open to suggestions, but I usually like to hear them before hand.

    My other favorite quote from this one editor “Did you get a medium shot?” I don’t really know what a “medium shot” is, but it sure sounds boring.

    I figured out early that this particular editor likes to throw photogs (and I imagine others) off balance with these kind of odd, post shoot comments. I also learned not to feed into it by giving any hint of a defensive reaction.

    The quality of the people I collaborate with makes a HUGE difference in the final product.

  12. Rob – you obviously a pretty decent manager of people. your blog attests to it. you don’t keep knowledge like a secret. you share your opinions and knowledge w/the world which can only help inform the masses. you’re teaching the masses to fish, not just feeding them dinner.

  13. This happens in TV and film production so much that dealing with it is a requirement for staying in and staying sane.

    Still, about half your career is spent trying to keep yourself motivated while knowing most of what you do will be “tweaked.”

    Most of the question, “Why, if so many brilliant people work in TV and movies, does their product suck so often?” can be answered by this: everything gets flattened out by the process.

    When something great slips under the wire, you can believe it’s because the people behind it were extremely well managed and focused to an unbelievable degree.

  14. […] In praise of the hands-off approach to management [via link] Taking someone else’s idea and increasing the quality by 5% occurs at the price of […]

  15. Thanks for the sanity read, Rob. As freelance designer, my work is for sh*t. Nobody leaves anything alone and consequently, after one or two perfunctory fights by me, the tree that has been peed upon dies. I have NOTHING in my portfolio from the last five years. The creative director who can provide input without specific instruction is not in my client list. Point out the flaws, certainly, but let me solve the problem. Another way to put this? The person holding the wheel should drive the car or we won’t go as quickly, safely, gracefully or directly where we intended to go.

    I LOVE you for writing this.

  16. This is a somekind of a democratic flaw, everyone has to have a say. This sometimes happens in music, bands and its bad, there has to be an author, leader, dictator when creating. If not it gets somehow more mediocre.

    Also everyone thinks they are best at everything, human nature I guess.

    Good post


  17. […] How-to manage people… “If you’ve ever worked with an editor who makes slight modifications to every single effing thing that comes through the door then you know what I’m talking about. Your desire to execute is deflated because you no longer own anything thanks to the misguided idea that the readers will somehow notice a slight improvement in quality.” This is so true. I remember being in a job where my boss would rephrase anything I wrote to end up with the exact same sentence 6 to 7 rephrasings later. I mean, talk about a motivation killer. Here is HBSP blog advices about it […]

  18. Right on Rob.

    • @michael pirrocco, YOUR AN ASS

  19. one thing clients are not staff.

    A manager should let their staff shine. Sometimes I think my function is to protect them from themselves and others but to stay out of their way. A managers should not be threatened if their staff is better at some skills than they are.

  20. Very inciteful piece in PDN.
    I hope their is hope for us all (photographers) out there.

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