Writing Assistance, Inc.

When you think of marketing, do press releases, brochures, presentations, direct mail, and web sites come to mind? Those pieces are certainly parts of the puzzle.

But a lot must go on behind the curtain to make those on-stage pieces worthwhile. These often hidden goings-on are the leadership techniques of a successful documentation manager. The result is a documentation department that warrants the effort expended on marketing. After all, marketing succeeds only if services are reliable, communication channels are open, and products meet expectations.

People in my organization thought that as a doc manager, I’d spend my time proofreading. That’s not true. When I do my job well, I spend all day, every day, leading.

Here are the techniques a documentation manager relies on to lead a group:

Communicate. The paramount skill here is listening. Second is giving credit and admitting fault—hand-in-hand with honesty and tact. And I believe that laughter is the lubrication that keeps communication rolling along.

Guide. My management approach used to be to tell. My sentences started with “Do this,” “You better,” and “You must.” Today, I rarely tell. Instead, I coach through open questions. Most sentences now start with “What” and “Why” and “How.” I pity the people in the 1970s who suffered through my early management outbursts. Somehow, over the years, I learned the value of open hand instead of closed fist. Today it’s clear: The best managers guide people to solutions through coaching and mentoring. A very quick primer about those topics:

Coaching is guiding through questioning, and it focuses on solving a defined problem. A coach helps someone shape a solution by harvesting ideas from that person. The questions are the stimulant that stirs the person’s thought process. As everyone knows, the best solution to someone’s problem is the one he or she designs and believes in.

Mentoring is longer term guidance that sets direction for a protégé, such as future career focus. It works through a process of discussion, negotiation, definition of actions, action by the protégé, and feedback that leads to new discussion.

Negotiate. This is the best route to win-win. Only through negotiation can the manager discover the real agenda behind project assignments, deadlines, budgets, and so on. The key here is openness and willingness to delve for clear definition of requirements. Negotiation is essential to managing expectations. It’s also essential for handling conflict and delegating effectively.

Respond. My email inbox is both my bane and my bounty. On many days, it collects more than a hundred emails. My phone also demands attention, and people often stop by to ask for five or ten minutes. So prioritization is the key. A person in my office always takes precedence, then a phone call, and then an email—unless I have a scheduled commitment elsewhere. So when I talk to people, the phone should go on “make busy.” When I’m on one line, I rarely click over to the other line to see who’s calling. And I’ve turned off the email beep because it was just a distraction. But it’s also important to clean out my email inbox and clear my phone messages every day. Even a brief response is better than nothing. Every exchange is an opportunity.

Monitor. Compliance with production stats, quality benchmarks, budgets, and schedules is always necessary. These factors shape internal and external clients’ opinions about services or products. As Ernest Bramah said, “A reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment.”

Nurture. People like face time with their managers. They also appreciate a bit of personal exchange about kids, hobbies, and more. If every communication is task-focused, little relationship is built. People often report that a good relationship with their manager is a huge incentive. This interaction also allows the manager to watch for creativity and ripeness for promotion; to identify the person’s motivations and hot buttons; and to check for stress, confusion, or frustration.

Encourage. Everyone has down days, weeks, and even more. Everyone has projects that drag and goals that seem to fall by the wayside. By knowing an employee’s motivations, the manager can provide person-focused encouragement or incentive.

Educate. A strong leader teaches and learns something at least once a day.

Brainstorm. Brainstorming with employees is one of the best ways to identify their development opportunities. It’s ideal for seeing how someone’s mind works. Brainstorming is an open environment in which anything goes. It is a nurturing and safe activity that gives people instant validation for their ideas through the momentum of enthusiasm. Good brainstorming continuously builds on ideas and is agile enough to turn sharp corners. Good brainstorming is learned by example. My, what a segue to the next point!

Model. I don’t believe it’s necessary for a manager to be able to do everything that the employees do (you might disagree, but that’s another topic). However, it is essential for the manager to model every behavior that he or she expects from the group. Leadership isn’t just words or actions—it’s also facial expressions, appropriate use of humor, support for top-down decisions, and consistent and suitable optimism. In other words, a leader must manage the subtext beneath his or her words. The best way to do that is to believe in what you’re doing. If you don’t, then it’s time for reflection and possibly time to find another venue.

These techniques may not come as a shock to you, but I hope you agree that they are the skills that enable a leader to lead. To me, the most important technique is the last one. I believe it’s the skill that draws a distinction between leading—as a job—and being a leader—as a vocation. Perhaps Albert Schweitzer put it best: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”