The Leader is the Glue

Eeshita Grover, Cisco Systems, Inc.

Content professionals have always played a unique role in the product or service lifecycle. The role is not analogous to any other function. As a result, managing and leading content teams comes with unique situations and differentiators.

Often when you start managing a team of writers, either you were promoted from within or you were hired from outside. A handful of us get the opportunity to ‘create’ a team from scratch. In such a scenario, you default to picking employees with whom you have had a successful history of working well together, who are team players, and of course, the cream of the crop. They are top performers, self-managed, and seasoned professionals.

A top performing team completes their assignments, they are focused on deadlines, and they follow process to the tee. With such a team, the question arises – do they need a manager? The answer is yes. Let me elaborate on some reasons why even a seasoned team of content practitioners requires a manager.

Empower with thought leadership – While the team works on day-to-day and monthly or even quarterly deliverables, the manager provides direction towards the larger goal.

The manager is responsible for learning the landscape the team is working in: the products, the competitors, the market, and the market share. With this knowledge and information, the manager has a better handle on industry trends and hence the changes and/or innovation in the industry and market strategies. Information and knowledge sharing about the overall product and service ecosystem is priceless for content teams.

Building your brand – Big company or small, a product company or a services company, irrespective of the industry, your peer groups benefit from learning about your function. What is it that you do? What do you produce? You are required to build your brand and its mindshare with your consumers. Educating them about your product and your content builds awareness among your internal peer groups and your external content consumers.

Content trends – The amount of content is growing multifold every day: “The Indexed Web contains at least 4.74 billion page” – Content professionals understand content management, which creates the platform for all content activity.

Yes, my Technical Communications team has structured content. But, what’s next? What is the goal and benefit of structured content? Is it to create mashables? Or are we thinking of single sourcing content to multiple channels like video or mobile? What are search engines looking for? Should all our content be on YouTube? Or should it be in ePub? And, how about metadata and localization? There are several dimensions of content to think about. The Technical Communications manager enables answers to these questions based on the content strategy. You are expected to have a holistic perspective to enable decisions and realize goals to address content trends.

Very quickly you realize that your content strategy must evolve to respond to product needs and content requirements. Very soon you will be involved in initiatives that will form the content professionals’ environment of tomorrow.

‘Voice’ of the team – Managing ‘up’ and ‘sideways’ is an integral responsibility of the Technical Communications manager. In addition to building your brand, you are sharing your successes and challenges in relation to your product ecosystem. You are building resources that will scale and drive productivity.

Corporations consistently and passionately push for operational rigor and consistent budget adjustments. Team managers are asked to provide productivity numbers and customer satisfaction analytics on an ongoing basis. If a Technical Communications manager asks a team to gather such information repeatedly, a sense of discontent and discouragement starts to set in. Hence, in my opinion, the manager shoulders the responsibility to gather that information and have it readily available in the event that a need arises or to share it regularly.

Managing the tactical everyday deliverables – In addition to all of these responsibilities, a manager must have a high level view of the day-to-day activities of the team. One day the VP of Customer Support will run into you in the hallway and ask for the edit status on that blog post that one of his engineers created at 2 AM.

The ability to look outside, with a well-defined vision and strategy, all based on an effective execution plan, is a tall order, which begs the question: what skills make a successful Technical Communications Manager?

Program/project/product management – For those who want to make communications management a career, ensure that you have a thorough understanding of the Technical Communications function, the content lifecycle, and the product lifecycle. If you work for a services establishment, understanding internal and external engagements and touch points is critical.

Above all, you must have a clear understanding of the role of content produced by your team in the success of the company. Some key points to consider are

  • Content strategy – content is growing and so is content strategy. Just like company roadmaps and plans change, so does content strategy.
  • Content operations and processes are always developing.
  • Authoring, reviewing, and publishing processes have to be faster and smarter to cater to faster product lifecycles. Content on demand, content as a service define the needs of the audience.

Leading and managing Diversity – Building a successful team implies that you add individuals with diverse skill sets and experiences. Depending on macro-level needs, you organically grow certain specializations. Don’t shy away from hiring employees who know more than you. They often prove to be an asset to your team and to the organization at large. A subtler skill is when a manager is able to carve out a niche role for each individual on the team. It helps to clearly define roles and responsibilities.

Building work ethic – You are the role model, whether you like it or not. So, it is important for you to accept the fact that your team will reflect your personality. My advice: “leave your ego at home.” It is much easier to collaborate, cooperate, and comply. When you collaborate with your team and your peers, so will your employees; when you cooperate with your management and within your span of influence, so will your employees; when you comply with corporate standards and guidelines, so will your employees.

In the 10 plus years of leading and managing Technical Communications teams, I have learned, that

  • As a manager, you are the ‘glue’ for the team. You are the enabler. You explore opportunities and situations so that your team will thrive. You bring them together in times of crisis. You motivate them and show them the light at the end of the tunnel.
  • You are the ‘Jack of all trades,’ master of one. You are expected to know almost everything your writers know but you will be the master of one specific area whether it’s a technology, a process, or something else. And, that will be your specific contribution to the success of your team.
  • Your biggest challenge will be identifying the most critical skill for your function: Is the content expert more important or the subject matter expert? And the answer will be situational. There will be instances when the content expert is the hero, and there will be situations when the product expert will shine.

As a Technical Communications manager, you may find it difficult to pinpoint moments of success or failure. It is a difficult task to associate dollar values with the content we produce. But what motivates and excites me about my work is the ability to impact cutting edge products and direct a stellar team of content professionals.