What Bosses Really Want: How to Become a Trusted Advisor and Help Your Company Succeed

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Thirty years ago, when I first became a television station general manager, I was steeped in the idea that only two things really mattered in business: product and sales. Everything else was a support system. It didn't take long to realize just how wrong I was.

Media companies, like most other businesses, are complex operations with competing internal goals. I believe a general manager's primary responsibility is to align all employees, starting with department heads, toward achievement of a few common objectives. This can be incredibly difficult because departments also compete for scarce resources.

For instance, during political season, the sales department wants to temporarily increase inventory to take advantage of newfound candidate and issue money. This can be at odds with the key news department goal of generating an audience large enough to make inventory valuable. Extended breaks reduce audience retention. The same is true for digital platforms. Over commercialization hurts the user experience, resulting in fewer engagements, yet too little commercialization means revenue goals will not be met.

A severe weather event might cause technical and news overtime to soar to the point where profit is affected. This means the technical department must find ways to reduce expenses in following months while still serving the news department's needs.

This same competition for resources shows up throughout an organization, often in unexpected ways. The cost of a new syndicated program must be balanced by other factors, including existing contracts, the lead-in value of the new program and lost revenue from the program being preempted. The termination of an employee for cause must also be thought of in terms of severance, potential legal exposure, recruitment of a new employee and training.

I could go on, but by now I'm sure you have observed the common financial theme in each of these examples. A wise old general manager once told me "You can always fix news or sales, but if you get the wrong financial person, you can be ruined." He was right.

As I gained experience, and managed ever larger stations, I came to see the financial manager as my trusted confidant, advisor and right arm. The financial manager was the only other person in the station who knew the full inside workings – from salaries to vendor contracts to the cost of electricity. The best financial managers were part of every major decision I made, acting as in independent voice, sometimes with contrarian ideas.

Over time, I developed a little speech that I gave to each new financial manager: "Your job is to keep me out of jail. That means no one breaks the rules or plays with the numbers, including me. Your second job is to work with me to solve problems, so you need to understand how the various departments work as well as I do."

I was deadly serious about that speech and followed it up with as much one-on-one time as the financial person needed. Because I expected so much, I tried to give much, supporting her or him in achieving their career goals.

If you are a controller, business manager or other financial manager and don't have this kind of relationship with your unit head, there are some ways to build it.

First, always tell it straight. Don't sugarcoat bad news or over-celebrate good. You need to be the steady hand who is frank, composed and willing to tell the truth when others don't.

Second, when bringing up problems, always lay out options to move forward. Options are not necessarily solutions. They are the best possible courses given the present circumstances.

Third, learn to listen to employees and other department heads. You have access to the staff in ways your boss does not. You need to be able to help your boss understand internal issues. As you gain a reputation as a listener who does not tattle on individuals, more and more people who might not want to talk to their department head will come to you.

Doing these three things – telling it straight, offering options and keeping your finger on the organization's pulse – will be invaluable to your boss. Over time they will cause you to become a trusted advisor to your general manager or CEO. They will also lead to achievement of your personal career goals.

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb issue of TFM.

Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of the guidebook Leading Local Television. He can be reached at hank@hankprice.com.

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