By Saul Carliner | Fellow
In February 2023, STC Fellow Lola Fredrickson passed away after a brief illness.
Lola was a career technical communication manager and executive. After earning a bachelor’s degree in arts (specializing in costume design) and a master’s degree in horticulture, both from the University of Minnesota, Lola eventually landed in Idaho and eastern Washington State, where she managed documentation control, technical publications, and industrial security for the large defense contractor, EG&G. She then returned to Minnesota, where she met Joyce and Dave Lasecke, with whom she co-founded Fredrickson Communications in 1985 (now Fredrickson Learning), a Twin-Cities based firm that provides technical training and communication services to large companies. Lola retired in 2015.
Throughout her career, Lola played an active role in her community, supporting women entrepreneurs and scientists, promoting awareness of elder abuse and, of course, technical communication. In addition to election to the rank of Fellow, Lola also received an award of Distinguished Technical Communication for her third quarter 1992 article, “Quality in Technical Communication: A Definition for the 1990s” and served on the jury selecting the best articles in the first 50 volumes of Technical Communication.
Lessons from Lola
Through all of her life experiences, Lola gained great wisdom and generously shared it with others. And in that spirit, here are some Lessons from Lola.
Customer service is not how you handle the ordinary, but how you handle the problems. Although technical communicators focus on processes and earn a living from documenting them, even the strongest processes occasionally go off-track. How one handles those situations really cements relationships. Do you acknowledge the situation? Do you apologize for your part in it? Do you provide updates on efforts to resolve the situation? The more one does to inform and reassure the other party during a mess-up, the more trust that usually builds. That openness helps transform the seemingly worst mess-up to a life-long relationship of trust.
A sting now hurts a lot less than an “owie” later. Managers often avoid providing feedback on important, but smaller, issues in an effort to minimize friction. By contrast, Lola advocated for providing feedback as early as possible. Doing so provides workers with both awareness of the issue and an opportunity to address it before it becomes serious. By contrast, should the issue persist without feedback, when that feedback comes later, delivering and receiving it becomes significantly more challenging as does correcting the issue.
Approach projects in two phases: design and implementation. That leads to much more accurate estimates. In contrast to the prevailing project management approaches, Lola advocated against estimating entire technical communication and training projects up-front. Rather, she suggested only starting with the needs assessment, an effort that culminated in a complete blueprint for a design (such as training programs or help systems) along with an estimate for developing and producing that content.
This offers two benefits: (1) If the relationship did not work out, all parties had an easy “out” and the client had a detailed plan another provider could complete. (2) The estimate for developing and producing the content would be more accurate because it factored in all key details. Up-front estimates could be off by as much as 10 to 20 percent while the two-phase approach led to estimates within 2 to 3% of their actual costs.
Take risks; they might not be as risky as you fear. When I was working for Fredrickson, I had been invited to give a speech to a business organization. I shared my nervousness about the upcoming presentation with Lola. In reassuring me, she noted something important: even if the presentation goes haywire (noting it was an unlikely outcome), these audience won’t know me and probably won’t remember me. If that’s the worst that can happen why not go for it?
Support the people who matter to you. More than anything, relationships were Lola’s life force. As an employer, she actively supported her staff’s professional development and growth, even if it involved their moving on to new employers. As a colleague and friend, Lola always took the initiative to keep in touch.
Fortunately for me, she kept in touch until her very last days. I feel fortunate to have remained in contact with her until the last weekend of her life and to continue to benefit from her wisdom and the memories of our friendship.
Acknowledgements Thanks to and former STC president Donna Sakson and to Joyce Lasecke and Jill Stanton from Fredrickson Learning for background material and support for this piece.
Saul Carliner is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at Concordia University. He served as an Executive Vice-President of Fredrickson Communications in the 1990s. He is a Fellow and past president of STC.