Thom Fladung (altered from a Plain Dealer photo)
The set of all great managers and the set of all newsroom managers have a fairly small area of intersection, in my experience. One of the great ones is leaving, so that intersection is getting even smaller.
Thom Fladung returned home to Northeast Ohio as managing editor of The Plain Dealer in 2011. I worked for him for about three years. It would be fair to say Thom came in as a firm believer in the power of print, while I was already an ardent advocate for online. That did make for interesting discussions.
What makes Thom a great manager is, in part, that those really were discussions. He listens. That’s one of the qualities other managers could learn from:
Accept debate and disagreement. Almost every boss I ever worked for had, at some time or another, talked about having an open door. While technically true, that could be as welcoming as an invitation to a lion’s den. Not with Thom. He not only listened, he engaged — asking questions, musing out loud.
Be open to change. It’s one thing to listen; it’s another to accept that the other person might be right. Thom knew his own mind and argued his points, and of course he had the final word. But I never felt that our discussions were just for show; he really thought about the issues.
I don’t want to make too much of our disagreements. Thom was already familiar with online issues, and he was no Luddite. He made it a point to attend every training course I put together, and not just to show the flag. Let’s just say I was more enthusiastic about some things than he was.
Be honest. The worst thing a manager can do is lie or mislead. Thom tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t make promises he can’t keep.
The easy route as a manager is to avoid delivering bad news, or to try to make every decision sound like a Good Thing For Everybody. Not Thom. Nor is he one of those who simply says yes to whoever walks in the door, so getting your way requires playing a game to see which employee can manage to be the last one in before the decision has to be made.
Act on principle. We sometimes disagreed, but I always understood that Thom was making decisions based on clear, reasoned ideas about how the newsroom should operate. I’ve worked under other conditions — with managers who disguised personality conflicts as impartial logic, for example.
Treat everyone with dignity. The years Thom spent at The Plain Dealer were probably the paper’s most turbulent since the Civil War (Copperhead paper in a Northern city; you do the math). The atmosphere in the newsroom was often acidic. Thom was calm and respectful throughout. That contributed greatly to making a difficult time bearable.
I don’t know where he’ll go from here, but I very much hope it’s something good. He deserves it.