COMMENTARY: We need to be more like Dave.

by Jun 25, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


Tutiyi (Snowbird) and Clyde, N.C.


Dave Russell is my counterpart at The Sylva Herald and Ruralite. We have a dandy working relationship with the Herald and it sounds like he and I share some commonalities when it comes to managing and reporting.

I was reading through the Herald (Volume 99 No. 16, June 20, 2024) and read a “job ad” that Dave wrote due to the retirement of a long-time writer for the paper, Carey Phillips. Phillips’ byline and articles that followed have been a mainstay of the Herald for four decades and then some. It is difficult to move on to the next writer when one has been in the family that long and contributed so much.

I would like to share an excerpt from Dave’s recruitment piece. It is great writing and extraordinary philosophy that we all can learn from and appreciate.

“Working at the Herald is different from most jobs. There are no time clocks or a whiteboard. We haven’t had a meeting since owner Jim Gray called us together for Thanksgiving in 2017.

“I think I am supposed to be some kind of manager here, but I don’t manage anyone, and I don’t want to. The staff here do their jobs well without prompting. I don’t care when or where work gets done. As I tell my interns, ‘I don’t care if you fly to Cleveland and write in the airport restroom. I just want my text on time, and I want it to sing.’

“We won’t ask you to replace Phillips. It can’t be done. And we’re not asking anyone to write like him. We can look at new ways of doing things. Your way.

“We’re family at the Herald, a somewhat dysfunctional family, but we have a good work environment here.

“The atmosphere is laid back for the most part, punctuated by the crackling scanner and the passels of chickens right outside our windows. You can feed them Doritos. They like Cool Ranch best, I think.

“We have a 1960s water fountain with wonderful cold water and an indoor outhouse. It doesn’t pay much and there’s no penthouse or revolving door. Your name might live for a long time on an article about someone’s best day ever.”

Paying attention to employee morale is one of the ingredients in making a mediocre organization great. A work team or family needs to have confidence, respect, and empathy with each other and with the organizational goal. I have seen a single link in the chain of command destroy productivity and team motivation. I have witnessed employees who were not in the chain of command bring down the morale of an entire workforce.

Most of us, maybe all of us, are working to support our home life, i.e. to bring home a paycheck. That is a foundational building block of a workforce, the common need to survive and hopefully thrive through our labor. Supporting our lifestyles is certainly a big reason that we work.

But if that is all we offer, we are likely to end up with a group of disgruntled zombies who wait until the last possible moment to “clock in” and are standing in line at the end of a workday long before quitting time to “clock out”; doing their best not to give one extra minute to the job.

I have been in a lot of work groups throughout my career. Most of my positions have had something to do with people management. Pay will motivate people to come to work, but it will only motivate them so far. Unless a worker is an exceptionally self-motivated person, they will only provide the necessary effort to complete tasks associated with holding on to the paycheck. And you might say “That is great!!” but it is not. Organizations stifle potential and minimize their workforce by ignoring what employees themselves say would drive them to better, not only themselves but the entire organization.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), we “worker bees” look at compensation as much more than just coins in our pockets. Of the top five important aspects of employee job satisfaction, only one directly involves money. Number one is opportunities to use skills and abilities. We take pride in what we are able to do and contribute, and we want jobs where we are able to use what we know. The second is job security. We want to be assured that our work environment has some level of stability and that we may anticipate a norm in our workplace. We are creatures of habit. Then comes, number three, compensation and pay. The fourth most valuable to employees overall is communication between employees and senior management. The last of the top five is an employee’s relationship with their immediate supervisor. Apparently, it is important to us that we have a good relationship with our day-to-day leader. Go figure.

“Relationships between employees and their immediate supervisors are highly valued. Over 70 percent of employees said that this relationship has a direct impact on their engagement at work. A poor relationship between employees and managers means that employees are unlikely to share feedback, problems, and concerns face-to-face. But even when these relationships are solid, employees need to be encouraged to share, otherwise creativity and innovation may be stifled (”

My reasoning that we should mimic Dave’s philosophy is he hits on those key points of good leadership in a very honest, easy-to-understand way. You may ask any of the One Feather team what the top priority of the paper is and I have no question they will respond “Getting the job done for the community”.  What you won’t hear from them is that the manager micro-manages their work or prescribes a particular way that they get the job done. Doing things Robert’s way just doesn’t factor in. My management philosophy meshes with Dave’s quite nicely. “We can look at new ways of doing things. Your way.”

Managers work best when they dictate the least. Great leadership sets a simple, straightforward agenda and then spends the rest of its time in service and support roles, giving the team the tools to do their work should be job one. An organization is setting itself up for dysfunction when it focuses on time clocks, routines, and inflexible job descriptions. Anyone in leadership needs to adapt to the changing norms that are prevalent in the society from which they get their employees. Sure, there must be structure and framework, then allow your employees to express their talent and creativity to build in the substance. This is partially how we get team buy-in and there is a certain level of pride in the product when you are allowed to be part of the creative process of designing it. Immediate supervisors have the best opportunity to impact an organization’s success, or failure.

Many platitudes identify the team philosophy, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, “It takes a village”, “More heads are better than one” and so on. It doesn’t matter how much an individual claims credit for an achievement, it is a rare thing indeed for someone to accomplish much alone. Without support, even star athletes falter. We need to remember that in all we do, especially in our jobs and careers, the best place for individuals to feel their worth is in a team.

So, if you are looking for a job to make into a career, take a good look at the opening at The Sylva Herald. I don’t know you, so I can’t recommend you for hire. But I can certainly recommend Dave to you because of the amazing sketch he drew with words about the wonderful world of small-town journalism. If I were not so close to retirement, I might ask if he would hire me to feed those chickens a Cool Ranch Dorito or two.