June 2018

Secrets of Success

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens, CIDM

Many articles, presentations, blogs, and even memes are dedicated to defining success. Merriam Webster defines success as a “favorable or desired outcome; also, the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” Others are not so crass as to suggest the latter; instead they focus on the more ethereal:

  • Being content
  • Laughing often
  • Always doing your best
  • Positively influencing others
  • Achieving your goals, whatever they may be

I’ve always subscribed to these definitions that have nothing to do with wealth or fame. Indeed, I’ve counseled people in mid-life crises who believe they will never make a significant impact on the world as a whole—they will never find a cure for cancer, invent the next technological trend, unite the world in peace—that they need to reset their definition of success. Do they have a family who loves them? Are their daily needs being met? Do they have time for the things they enjoy? And although comparing yourself to others is not typically a great idea, the reality is that the answers to these questions set most of the people reading this article apart from a significant majority of the world’s population.

Nevertheless, as a small business owner, I am now faced with the reality that my definition of success must include the “dark side” of financial success. I am responsible for the livelihood of other people. I must be able to pay them a salary that meets their daily needs, while giving them a work-life balance that affords them time for the things they enjoy (and I should try to give them a work environment that is also enjoyable).

The good news is that Comtech’s accounts point to a successful first year under my leadership. We finished my first year in the black, an often difficult thing to achieve when a company changes hands. My staff is all still here. Our members, partners, and customers have stuck with us. I will not be giving Bill Gates run for his money, but I also will not be mortgaging my home to pay my staff. As far as I am concerned, the year therefore was a success.

But what was the secret of that success? Although I would have told you as I began my first year that I understood the financial expectations of owning a business, I can certainly now admit that I didn’t anticipate the true impact of that responsibility on my own personal work-life balance. At times during the last year, it seemed an almost physical weight on my shoulders as I worked toward that goal. Indeed, I’ve pulled more all-nighters related to work in this last year than I did in six years of college and grad-school. I was on the road, away from home and my personal support structure, more than 50% of the time. As I evaluate the year, I find myself asking, “Was that the secret? Do you have to be exhausted and stressed to be successful?”

I am certainly not going to say that hard work isn’t an important aspect of success. But I’d be a fool to take sole, or even majority, credit for the success of the company. Yes, I worked hard, and yes, I probably worried about things more than anyone else (and rightfully so, as owner), but the reality is that we are still in business because of the experience and contributions of the Comtech staff. They are responsible for much more of the revenue than I brought in with all my road trips and overnighters. They are responsible for cutting costs while I was on the road spending money. And they are ones responsible for the intangibles as well—making the office a fun and supportive place to work.

You want to know the secret to Comtech’s success? I can tell you in six bullets:

  • Kristi Bullard. Kristi’s primary responsibility is the actual corporate finances. She ensures we get paid by our clients and in turn pays our bills. Although she may not directly influence any source of revenue, she constantly combs the books to find new ways to reduce expenses, which of course leads to greater profitability. I do not think I know anyone more meticulous, and I am grateful for her attention to details that saved us thousands of dollars and certainly made the difference between a profit and loss last year.
  • Susie Christmas. Susie is responsible for all our web sites and newsletters. Every conference has its own web presence and with five conferences a year, that amounts to a lot—every call for papers, every new agenda, every new location, every keynote speaker, every activity and event—Susie is responsible for building those pages. Every month she puts together the enews and every other month she gets double duty as she also must produce Best Practices as well. To help further reduce costs, she has also recently taken on the responsibility of soliciting that content from contributors, a task that is often taxing and time consuming. Often, it is a thankless task, but it is important and critical to our overall mission of supporting technical communicators in their jobs.
  • Lisa Lambert. Most of you know Lisa through our conferences. As conference coordinator, she is responsible for choosing the wonderful sites that we go to each year, selecting the menus, negotiating the rates, and so on. She registers everyone, corresponds with the speakers, and creates the conference apps. I am so impressed by her memory—she knows who is on the program, what company they are with, and she can greet more than 90% of them by name. Lisa’s job has grown significantly since I started buying into the company. She used to coordinate three conferences; last year, I had her coordinate seven! It’s meant she’s had to juggle some things, but she’s tackled the job like a true champ. If all this wasn’t enough, Lisa is also our travel coordinator, which is sometimes a full-time job just for me.
  • Kathy Madison. Kathy is our enthusiastic and energetic member liaison and marketing coordinator. Kathy is everything I am not: outgoing and extroverted, she enjoys being with people. She’ll talk your ear off and the conversation will always get turned to why you should be a CIDM member if you aren’t already. Because of her love of talking to people, Kathy also is involved in most of our member surveys, user studies, and process maturity assessments, interviewing participants to get the most details she can. But Kathy always remains cognizant of the fact that when she is doing projects she is not spending time getting projects, and she works hard to ensure we have things in the queue. Kathy is responsible for our growing membership and revamping the membership benefits to ensure it just makes good business sense to be a CIDM member.
  • Brianna Stevens. Brianna is our expert in the technical side of our business and one of the up and coming new faces in the industry. In the three years she’s been with us, she has gone DITA newbie to technical expert. Unlike the majority of people who start with the basics, she started with the most complex aspects of DITA and is now responsible for all our stylesheet projects, Schematron, constraints and specializations, as well as staying current on all the tools. She has far surpassed her teacher (me) in these areas and as a result, she now teaches our most advanced classes—Publishing, Optimizing, and Advanced Reuse, as well as our DITA basics class. Like Kathy, she is also very sociable and is always surprising me with tidbits about specific customers that I didn’t know even though I may have known the person for three times as long as she has.
  • Lovonya Thomas. If you’ve ever taken a course or a webinar from Comtech, you’ve interfaced with Lovonya. Lovonya finds the locations and hosts for all our workshops and manages all the logistics associated with your registration. She coordinates webinar speakers and sets up all those registrations as well. I challenged her this year to manage courses in a different way, relying less on hosts and doing more on her own to simply arrange sites and she’s really stepped up to the plate, finding a variety of locations that lets us be more in control of where and when we offer public courses. Lovonya also coordinates all the vendor sponsors for the conferences, ensuring that the tools you want to see are exhibiting at the conferences.

So why did I choose these six to highlight? Don’t the others feel slighted? Truthfully, that’s all there is; I didn’t leave anyone out. People are often surprised to find out that Comtech and CIDM achieve all we do with a small staff of seven, and if you are left with your mouth agape, it is just further proof of the great work these people do. We achieve a lot on the strong shoulders of only a few. Each has their areas of primary responsibility, but they also all work together, helping each other as much as possible so everyone succeeds.

No, you cannot steal my secrets for success so please don’t try. But I encourage you to remember that you have your own success secrets. Success lies completely on the shoulders of your team. Remember that, and your burden can feel a lot less heavy. Surround yourself with people who know what they are doing … with people you can trust. And then trust them. Let them do their jobs. Support them. Encourage them. Give them what they need to make your organization successful. You won’t be disappointed. I haven’t been.

Comtech Staff at Our Annual Christmas Party 2017

From Left to Right: Lisa Lambert, Kristi Bullard, Brianna Stevens, Dawn Stevens, Kathy Madison, Lovonya Thomas & Susie Christmas


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