By Andrew Lawless
“I’d rather be writing” is a common complaint for those who have taken the path of structured authoring, UX design, information architecture, content strategy, or publication management. The closer they get to the top, the deeper grows their frustration.
Jobs with titles that include the terms management, strategy, architecture, or design turn out to be exceptionally hard. The technical aspects of the job descriptions often sound very exciting until job holders are shut down by their own teams, supervisors, or budget cuts.
The world of technical documentation is full of dedicated professionals who want to drive change with the best of intentions—only to get the glare from their own teams. When that happens, it is easy to throw both hands in the air thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” and “How do I get out?”
How do you avoid reaching the point of your career where you find it unfulfilling?
The “Lawless Rule of Career Diffusion” states that “the closer you get to executive leadership, the further you move away from doing what you love.” Ask any CEO. Most find themselves intensely lonely in their jobs. Forty-seven percent state that developing their executive team is difficult. Sixty-one percent are first-timers, and a whopping 79 percent lack the capacity to transform their organization. Only 32 percent feel adequately prepared for the job, while 54 percent say that transitioning to CEO required intense personal reflection (Zehnder 2018).
If you have similar sentiments, you now know that you are not different from the people higher in your organization. We all have the same basic fears:
- I might not be good enough.
- If I fail, I will not be loved, liked, or respected—rejection that might be expressed by getting fired.
Apart from the fact that your CEO may leave with a golden parachute, the difference between you and your CEO can be summarized in one word: coaching.
No CEOs got to where they are without coaching. Bill Gates needed Warren Buffet. Richard Branson couldn’t have gotten Virgin Atlantic off the ground without British airline entrepreneur Freddie Laker. Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs to coach him to build a performing team. Oprah Winfrey attributes part of her success to her life coach, Martha Beck.
They all make it clear that coaching is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for success. That’s why life and business coaching have gone from obscure and complicated a few years ago to something that professionals in technical communication want today. You may think that it’s easy to afford coaching on a CEO’s pay but not on a technical communicator’s salary. Stories of star coaches charging $1 million a year for coaching help to create this myth.
The good news: you can get some of the most effective forms of coaching for free.
Find a mentor. A mentor is someone who has succeeded in your chosen area. It may be an STC Fellow, your boss’ boss, or a role model. A mentor is a person who believes in you and genuinely wants you to thrive. They make proactive introductions to connections or present opportunities to you. Their only reward is your success.
Most mentors don’t have a certification for coaching, but believing in such an official document is a grave mistake. Being certified merely means a coach has mastered some techniques and tools of coaching. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that he or she is skilled at using those tools.
Moreover, competency in coaching doesn’t reflect a coach’s experience in life or business. Real-life experience and compassion for people in your situation are a must, not a should. For example, an STC Fellow—schooled in coaching techniques—is a more valuable mentor to a writer than a certified coach lacking technical communication experience.
Build a peer group. We become the people we surround ourselves with. If your peer group is full of over-worked and burned-out technical writers, guess what you become? Over-worked and burned out. So chose your peer group wisely, and be strategic about who you spend your time with.
The peer group environment and habits you build are more potent than your knowledge. The old saying that knowledge is power is a lie. Knowledge is just potential power. Only knowledge in action has impact. We all know that one author who knows more about a particular subject than others, but does not get anything written—or at least not on time. Surround yourself with such people, and soon you too will be overwhelmed by your backlog of work. Likewise, become part of a group of highly successful technical documentation professionals, and you get energized by your success.
Most of us do not have the level of clarity we need to get to the next level. That is especially true when we are in a rut or in crisis. All we know is that we have had enough and need a lasting change, not just a break. A group of empowering peers elevates us above the fog.
Model yourself. Observe how your role models work, and do the exact same things. You will get the same results. Often we do not even need a personal hero. If you want to know how to do something, find people who are among the best, and ask them what they do.
Building these coaching capabilities in your life will enable you to work at a higher level than most people. There is a catch: your mentor’s best advice will fail, your peer group’s well-meant feedback will work against you, and your best modeling will falter if they require you to work against your grain.
Some technical authors are good at studying a vast amount of information and then developing a document strategy. They are naturally born strategizers. Others are overwhelmed by too much detail and are better at seeing the big picture or filling in the gaps. The third group of writers is better at authoring summaries. You cannot be naturally good at everything. The writer who needs a lot of details is typically not so great at leaving out the redundant bits or writing an executive summary.
Some technical writers have a need to stabilize documentation processes that are working well for them, while others are continually looking for improvements and changes that they can make. Neither is good nor bad. For example, if your gut determines your writing process, you may get results faster, but you may miss essential details that will hurt you later. If your head rules, you may lose great opportunities, because it takes you too long to finish your documentation process.
That’s where professional coaches come in. They use instruments, such as Kolbe A Index, which measure what you will or won’t do on the job. They give feedback in a way that enables you to naturally act and have clarity on the tasks you absolutely should take on and those you should dump or delegate.
Coaches help you build a plan for reaching your destiny. Without a defined process and a set of tools that facilitate your journey, your career merely becomes a job and a moderately useful means of making a living. You can quickly fall into the trap of believing that being busy means success. Until you realize that “that is all there is: being busy.”
There are plenty of growth opportunities in technical communication. Maybe you start out as a documentation specialist and information developer and continue your career path as an information architect, usability and user experience consultant, or team lead. A prosperous career is non-linear. You may speak a second language, and your company may deem this sufficient qualification to head localization. Who knows?
Whatever you decide, technical communication offers many career advancement possibilities. You can climb any ladder that presents itself. Having a mentor, a peer group, or a life or business coach will support you in picking the one to fulfillment and job satisfaction.
ANDREW LAWLESS (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Strategic Interventionist who coaches leaders in content industries through implementing critical decisions and managing change. He has transformed content teams in Fortune 1,000 companies, from product development to technical documentation and marketing campaign execution.