Leadership in Technical Communication Education

By Pam Estes Brewer | STC Fellow

Leadership is a complicated topic and one that’s difficult to explain in general terms. Often, it’s easiest to learn from an example. As someone with a technical communication career in education that I love, and as a leader (directing an online graduate program and a usability lab), I am happy to share some ideas that I use every day—what worked for me and how I got here.

A Little Background

I began my career as a technical communicator in a small software company with my MA degree. From there, I went to a larger software company (now known as LexisNexis®) and a position as a communication analyst. Then, one day, following a big life change, I cashed in all my retirement and stock options and headed to Europe for an “undetermined” length of time. It was life-changing, but it ended up costing me a small fortune in lost stock options! Still, wandering Europe was a dream, and I don’t think we should delay all of our dreams until the perfect time. During that time, I decided that what I wanted to do was teach technical communication, and I made the change from industry to education by teaching at a community college.

I think teaching is a calling, and you either love it or hate it. I loved it. However, I didn’t have my PhD, and I returned to school years later to earn it. While the PhD is costly in time and money, I knew I needed it if I wanted to make a career as a university teacher and researcher. I now do what I love, including teaching, directing the online graduate program and the usability lab, consulting, and volunteering. It’s a busy life. It’s a good life.

A Philosophy of Living and Careering

Everyone should have some concept of what is most important to them so that they can craft a life and career that are satisfying. Wandering Europe is great; wandering through a career is not so great. My philosophy on life and work has remained steady, with a focus on four ideas.

Put Family First

When I started my career, it was considered a sign of career weakness for a woman to acknowledge family demands. I played that game for a while, but once I began advising students, I wanted them to know that they have a choice in how they build their lives. While you can’t have it all, you can set your priorities, be the leader of your own successful career, and put family where they belong: first in line.

Walk Through the Doors that Open for You

I don’t mean that you should walk through every door indiscriminately, but a career can have a much stronger trajectory if you spend time walking through the doors of opportunity that are opened to you rather than trying to knock down the ones that are stuck.

Work Outside Your Comfort Zone—at Least Occasionally

I always learn so much more than I expect when I extend myself. My recent run for election as STC Vice President was certainly one of those experiences for me. I didn’t win, but I ran the race. In doing so, I learned more about myself, STC, and the field of technical communication.

Do Good—Find Your Passions

Every person should contribute something good to this world—call it a little payback for being here. I try to give something back to community and profession.

Three Practical Tips to a Successful Career

In my daily avalanche of work, I practice three strategies that help me keep things moving and effectively prioritized.

Name It to Control It

Robin Williams, the designer, inspired me with her Joshua tree epiphany from her 2004 book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. She essentially said that she used to drive by a lot of Joshua trees every day and had no idea that she had done so until she found out what a Joshua tree looks like and what it is named. Once she knew that, she noticed all the Joshua trees! This example of naming something to gain control of it has become one mainstay of my leadership approach. I share it with my students as they try to master skills in good design and writing, and I use it to shape my own career.

For example, as you likely do, I notice effective leadership (and not-so-effective leadership)! I regularly observe the leadership styles of effective leaders and try to “name” their secret to leadership. In some cases, I ask the person outright about his/her philosophy of leadership. Once I have named these strategies, I have the ability to use them myself. Here are some examples I have learned from.

I once asked Sam Dragga, then chairing the Department of English at Texas Tech University, about his philosophy of leadership. He said, “I try to help people do their best work, and I ask them to give me the words to get them what they need.”

Helen Grady serves as the Chair of the Department of Technical Communication at Mercer University, where I teach now. She is a very effective leader. In a nutshell, she never takes shortcuts. If she has committed to doing something, you can count on it being done very well.

Mike Leonard, when serving as Senior Associate Dean for Mercer’s School of Engineering, tried to listen carefully to people and then find the golden mean for action. Such expert leadership advice surrounds you if you claim it.

Editor’s Note: Take Time to Look Back

Writing an article like this provides an opportunity to look back over your life and career—no matter how long or short it might be—and reflect on where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. This is something that great leaders often do on a regular basis, and for those of us like Pam, who mentor or educate others in the field, we might reflect like this more often than most as we try to provide the best possible advice and information to our protégés. As a leader of your own life and career, provide this type of insight to yourself on a regular basis. You’ll be glad you did! —Andrea Ames

Create Goals—and Let Them Guide You

Keep your goals and objectives in front of you, update them regularly, and budget time so that the urgent doesn’t replace the important.

I revise my goals and objectives every one to two months. I keep them on the walls of my office on a number of white boards. And I plan to give each objective a certain number of hours per week. I then track those hours on the boards. Keeping the goals in front of me visually keeps me focused. Budgeting hours weekly keeps me moving forward steadily. I often can’t budget at the daily level because too many unknowns occur. But over the span of a week, I can usually hit my goals in each area and keep positive motion in each.

Don’t Open Your Email First

Don’t look at your email each morning until you have outlined your goals for the day. A final quick tip: I often delay email until after I have looked at my goals and finished a research commitment each morning. Email can destroy productivity as easily as it can help.

PAM ESTES BREWER (brewer.pe@mercer.edu)is a technical communicator, educator, and management consultant. She teaches in Mercer University’s School of Engineering and directs the online MS in Technical Communication Management program. Pam works with remote teams, and her book entitled International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success was published in 2015 by Wiley. She also directs the Mercer User Experience Lab and its work with such organizations as the Department of Homeland Security. Before becoming a full-time educator, Pam worked as a communication analyst and technical writer for such companies as LexisNexis® and Cincom. Now a Fellow, Pam’s STC membership spans 25 years. Currently, Pam serves as an associate editor for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and as a board member for the Wesley Foundation of Macon.

Pam earned her PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University. You can view her credentials on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamestesbrewer/.