For an issue like this one—with a theme about which I am so passionate that I built my entire business around it—it’s difficult to select a single focus for an editorial. So instead of choosing, I’m going to:
- Explore in a bit of detail the two behaviors that I think are most important for any leader (I also think they are the hardest, so if you can achieve these, everything else is a cake walk).
- Gift to you my desert-island, annotated, leadership resource list; it’s long, so it’s online at www.stc.org/intercom.
- Introduce you to the awesomesauce (it’s in the Urban Dictionary!) that is the content in this issue.
Ready? Let’s go!
(Yes, that’s an Austin Powers reference. You’re welcome!)
Plato is rumored to have said, “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” I concur. And much of leadership is about modulating your own behavior—often to the point of creating habits and rituals—and controlling your own mindset, or the desire and emotion part. I’m not going to get into the woo-woo (also in the Urban Dictionary) of mindset here (for that you can see my 2013 LavaCon keynote).Instead, I will focus on the knowledge (which will, in turn, likely affect your mindset; tricky, no?), as I’ve seen time and again that people find it much easier to feel they can control behavior from an objective, informed place. Don’t misunderstand me: it is hard to change behaviors—especially those unconsciously nurtured over decades and fueled by desire and emotion—but we feel like we can control our behavior by studying it, so it’s an easier place to start discussing and working on leadership.
“The road to yes is paved with a thousand nos.”
(Demir Bentley, Head Coach, and Carey Bentley, CEO, Lifehack Bootcamp—and my beloved productivity coaches)
The first and most important leadership behavior to adopt is prioritizing. Here is the hard pill for technical communicators to swallow: prioritizing means there’s stuff you’re not going to do. I know, right? Tough stuff.
Every team I’ve ever worked with has prided itself on its ability to suck it up, take on whatever was thrown at them, and work until they dropped to meet every deadline, no matter how insane. “Doc will never be a stop-ship issue,” is a common refrain—even when the scope for technical content has blown out of control, and dates have not correspondingly changed.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: this is ridiculous, people! Yeah, we’re awesome and all, but this approach is not awesome, and it does not prove that we’re awesome. As an industry, our superpower is currently killing ourselves (and feeling resentful afterward), but we need to make prioritizing our superpower. That is the only way to return us to a healthy balance and relationship with the rest of our organization.
By never pushing back, never setting priorities and holding to them, and not understanding how to appropriately negotiate priorities when changes should happen, all we do is set a completely unrealistic expectation that we will always turn ourselves inside out to deliver something—anything—in the time allotted. Often, frankly, it is “anything”—and a very low-quality “anything” at that—because we haven’t been given sufficient time to complete the job with the appropriate deliverable or level of quality.
Why is this a leadership behavior? Because it’s hard. Really hard. Having priorities and a rock-hard barrier around them is easy—and will immediately get you labeled “not a team player.” Having no priorities and being a pushover is easy—we’re there; everyone loves you, and you are frazzled, sleep-deprived, and bitter.
There is significant finesse, however, in developing great, well-justified, and well-communicated priorities and strong, but appropriately flexible and negotiable, boundaries. And it takes strong, diplomatic leadership to maintain those priorities in the face of scope creep, requests from engineering to do “just one more thing,” and pressure from executives to do more.
“The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
The second leadership behavior to adopt is relationship management—often called “stakeholder management.” The most fundamental idea is this: we don’t do anything truly alone, and there are likely a lot of people in your larger content ecosystem who will be affected and have a stake in the outcome of the things that you are doing.
Those others who have a stake or will be affected by your actions and initiatives might not even realize that you exist or that your initiatives are happening. They might know about you and feel threatened by what you’re doing. Either of these has the potential to derail your objectives.
There is a lot that contributes to successful stakeholder relationship management, but at its core, success is most influenced by:
- Your credibility, established through your own personal leadership, demonstrated to others by your values, actions, and words.
- Your ability to understand, empathize with, and communicate value to your stakeholders—demonstrated by your ability to interact well with others.
This is no different than establishing thought and market leadership and relating to an audience (customers) as your content is doing; it’s just a different—now internal—audience. My recommendation is to approach stakeholders like an audience. You’ve got to understand them.
- Who are they?
- What are their biggest concerns?
- How do they best learn? What are their communication preferences and style?
- What are their goals? How are they incented and rewarded?
Then, you need to love on them (I know, it sounds creepy, but it works). First, understand how to serve them well. How can you best serve them, give them what they need or what they want? Can you pleasantly surprise them—for example, maybe one of your initiatives got some great results? Finally, do it—serve them well. Deliver something they care about, and communicate about it so that they clearly understand the value and impact of it. Rinse. Repeat. A lot. Over-communication doesn’t exist in stakeholder management.
Underlying all of this is your own credibility and reputation, which is being built, day by day, whether or not you are consciously working on building it. You are your own first and most important stakeholder—be sure to manage and lead yourself first.
“Everyone needs a coach.”
There’s more to implementing these behaviors than just deciding you want to make it so. And creating habits around them takes that implementation to yet another level. So what next? The list of resources in the next section will provide you with some great lessons, models to adopt, and voices to follow. Leverage those voices—in their books, as well as in their online resources, newsletters, etc.—to gain some virtual mentoring.
To speed the process, you can also consider hiring a coach. This is especially beneficial when you’ve been thrust into a leadership position quickly (and perhaps unexpectedly) with little support. Having a sane, objective voice in the mix—and some experienced advice—might save your sanity or your skin. However you decide to go about your learning journey, the key is to take that journey and don’t ever stop.
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
(Balancing the frivolity of Mike Meyers with the weight of John F. Kennedy.)
To help move you forward in your goal of learning more about leadership, as well as gathering some strategies and tactics you can begin to weave into your own behavior, I’ve included my list of must-have or favorite (or both) books that have contributed to my and others’ journeys toward becoming leaders. I’ve read (and in most cases re-read ad nauseum) all of these and provided annotations to help you see how they might fit into your leadership journey.
You will find the list of books and resources on www.stc.org/intercom.
“And now, the rest of the story.”
(I hope I’m not the only one old enough to remember Paul Harvey!)
Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, said, “Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling from others.” And that’s exactly what we’re doing in this issue. As you read, you’ll be taking a peek behind the curtain at how several different leaders—technical communicators just like you and me—lead. You’ll be reading about, and observing through their stories, the behaviors that have helped make them successful leaders in our field—leaders of big things, like large departments of people and company-wide initiatives—as well as leaders of small but equally important things, like peer collaboration and themselves, their behaviors, and their careers.
Wendy Richardson, Senior Vice President of Customer Technical Communication at Mastercard, kicks off this issue with an executive perspective on the responsibilities of leaders in technical communication.
Next, Alyssa Fox, Director of Marketing at Graylog, Inc., describes a huge leadership challenge to drive a global content strategy initiative across an enterprise. She proves that planning and communication are key to bringing your stakeholders along on the right journey with you.
Reducing the aperture from enterprise to personal, Vici Koster-Lenhardt shares her own path of personal career leadership from publishing to technical communication to her current role as a career coach for the spouses of U.S. diplomats working in Central and Eastern Europe.
Through research of introverted leaders like himself, Ben Woelk adds to the growing body of work that is helping the world to better understand introverted leaders and leadership.
Moving the leadership lens to focus on an academic career, Pam Brewer, educator and Director of the Online MS in Technical Communication Management program at Mercer University, shares some important lessons from her career journey and her philosophy of living and careering.
Diving into an ever more detailed view, Erin Friday provides an important perspective on flexibility in your approach to your job—in particular, taking on tasks outside of your job description.
Kim Ivey-Bourne delves into the growing concern of collaboration in the workplace—specifically how technical communicators can take a leadership role in efforts to collaborate online and in virtual teams.
We also have four columns for you in this issue:
- Mark Lewis discusses metrics resources and responsibility.
- Kirk St.Amant explores context, culture, and usability.
- Our new ethics columnist Russell Willerton introduces an ethics case study by graduate student Vanessa Generaux.
- Cindy Currie and Kit Brown-Hoekstra provide responses to questions from readers about management issues.
Noel Atzmiller provides a thought-provoking book review of Sarah Sladek’s The End of Membership As We Know It, raising questions about the social and organizational changes faced by associations.
And Tony Bove demonstrates how stretching and seeking out new opportunities validates Erin Friday’s premise of flexibility. Thanks, Tony, for showing another great perspective on personal leadership!
“Why is this editorial filled with quotes?”
(That’s you asking that question.)
Hopefully, the answer is becoming clearer … observing, listening to, and learning from others is critical to the success of any leader. You can’t lead in a vacuum.
In the end, though, you need to do and experience leading as well. Mahatma Gandhi captures this brilliantly: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” You can find your inner leader by leading, and the best way to do that is by serving others, setting an example, sharing your knowledge and wisdom, and using your unique and amazing talents to get stuff done.
It doesn’t really matter where you do it, but here is one final tip: If you want to build and demonstrate your leadership muscle in the context of work, there is no better place than a professional organization (STC, anyone?) to do that. It’s a safe environment to try new things, take risks, and even to fail. It serves your industry and provides a society where our entire community can grow.
As attributed to John F. Kennedy (but really a slogan of the New England Council, a regional chamber of commerce), “A rising tide lifts all boats.” While it’s typically associated with economics and politics, I’ve recently co-opted it for a #contentmovement espousing the idea that we must all become leaders and evangelists of content and its high value to businesses. And how do you become a leader?
Make relationship (stakeholder) management and prioritization a habitual routine.
Be teachable and a lifelong learner, modeling great leaders.
Find your leadership ability by losing yourself in service to others—like STC.
This is such an important conversation for us to have, so have a conversation. Whether that is at a conference, like the STC Summit; on the STC website in response to this article; or on social media—anywhere and everywhere. Let’s lift all of the boats … together. #contentmovement
Ames, Andrea L. “Embrace Your Power, Influence Will Follow.” Presented at LavaCon, Portland, OR, October 2013. https://vimeo.com/80429431
— Andrea L. Ames