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A Pundit Learns to Manage

WS talks to top editor Michael Kinsley

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in Leaders & Managers,Office Technology,Workplace Communication

Michael Kinsley, the editor of Slate (www.slate.com), an online magazine published by Microsoft Corp., has a formidable résumé. He joined Microsoft in January 1996 after serving as editor of The New Republic and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. He’s also a contributing writer at Time and has written for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest. Based in Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., Kinsley manages people nationwide.

WS: How do you manage home-based workers all over the country?

Kinsley:
The biggest challenge is to maintain a strong relationship when you don’t see people every day. We run a virtual editorial office here, with editorial operations in New York, Washington, D.C., and now Los Angeles. Creating a certain family feeling over a long distance is hard.

WS: So how do you do that?

Kinsley:
There are three levels to keeping in touch with everyone. The first level is e-mail, which is great for detailed communication. It’s also useful when you need to contact people in different time zones and get an immediate response. The people I work with rely on e-mail. The second level is phone conversations. Sometimes it’s best to talk to someone rather than write. And once a year we all get together in one place and party a bit.

WS: How do you decide when it’s best to call an employee as opposed to sending an e-mail?

Kinsley:
E-mail makes it so easy to stay in touch—almost too easy. If I go four or five days communicating only by e-mail with one of my writers, I’ll start to think, “I better pick up the phone instead this time.” It’s possible to get addicted to e-mail, especially at a place like Microsoft where everyone’s comfortable using it. It’s still a great tool, but you can overdo it.

WS: When you’re criticizing someone from a distance, do you prefer e-mail or the phone?

Kinsley:
Putting my comments in writing often works better. That forces me to think them out ahead of time. I may call first to discuss a general problem, and then send a more specific critique in writing.

WS: Are there certain types of phone calls that you dread, like having to discipline someone from afar?

Kinsley:
The calls I hate to make are when I have to tell writers that we’re not going to use their piece. No one likes to hear rejection. And the temptation is naturally to avoid calling and just send an e-mail. But I try not to do that. It’s better to communicate that kind of message personally. You can speak in a certain tone and it can be less hard to take [for the other person] than an e-mail.

Still, making these kinds of calls is always tough. I’ll prepare by saying to myself, “If I make this call, I’ll reward myself afterward with a cappuccino.”

WS: What’s the No. 1 lesson you’ve learned over the years about managing people?

Kinsley:
It’s easier to be blunt when you’re the boss. People have to do what you say, whether they want to or not. I’m not saying that you should manage that way and order people around, but it does mean you have to pay more attention to what you say. And you have to work with them every day, too. So it’s a tricky balancing act.

WS: What’s your greatest strength as a manager?

Kinsley:
I don’t know that I’m that great of a manager.

WS: Oh, you’re being modest.

Kinsley:
Modesty. That’s my greatest strength.

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