New Manager: How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?

I recently received an email which asked:

Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.

Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:

  1. How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
  2. How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster dox?)?
  3. What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
  4. How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I’ll break each question out into a new post so, without further ado, onto question #1.

How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?

Typically if you are joining an established team then it pays dividends to take your time to settle in, understand their working processes and day to day habits. It’s fair to presume that they have a set of processes that work for them and that are tailored for their environment. That’s not to say that those processes couldn’t be improved but avoid being brash and making changes for the sake of it. You got the job, you don’t need to ‘make your mark’ by changing things the minute you get in the door.

I’m not sure if I have a management style per se, but I do try and be as open as possible. If I don’t complete a task I say so, and if I hear something that the team might want to know, I’ll tell them. Beyond that I let them manage their day to day activities and try and make sure that my role only extends as far as pulling everything together into a cohesive view across the entire documentation set. I strongly believe that a good manager is one who removes obstacles and deals with issues, whilst promoting his team at every opportunity. I’ve been lucky that the team I currently have are diligent and motivated, all I really do is guide them when they need it.

As a new manager it’s important to quickly build relationships with everyone with whom you’d like to be involved. I’d suggest that that typically means almost every area of the company. A short introductory meeting with each manager or team lead is usually enough, a quick chat to outline what you are trying to achieve with your team, and how it may benefit them. This is largely the beginnings of managing the expectations of what your team can bring to a company, as well as building some bridges.

Currently I have good ties into Sales, Pre-Sales, Marketing, Training and our project staff. It can be tricky keep everyone up to speed, but the benefits of having a consistent message is an easy one to sell. These introductory meetings also allow you to re-instate the position of your team. Previously it may have been the case that “ohhh we don’t talk to Marketing” but you can use the fact that you are new to break through the socio-political barriers, after all, you don’t know any better, do you?

Gaining buy-in from your team is the main thing that you need to figure out. Taking a soft approach when you first join, making sure that you are learning from the team and not dictating things is important. Ask questions by all means, sometimes a simple question might prompt the team to realise something they had noticed (aka the ‘can’t see the wood for the trees syndrome’) but it makes sure that you are seen as a team player.

Finally you need to understand the business plan. Ultimately part of your job is to make sure that your team is contributing towards the goals of that plan as efficiently as possible. You will have other expectations and agreed deliverables, and understanding the business plan will allow you to make the right decisions both for your team and for the benefit of the company.

Once you understand all of this, your position, and the position of your team in the company, you can start to formulate goals and aims. Setting a high level vision for where you want to take the team can be tricky but if you have spent the time gaining their trust and buy-in, you should be able to collate all of that into a vision that everyone agrees. Once you have that, revisit your colleagues that you introduced yourself to and update them. Set out the expectations for the coming few months and get going!

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Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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In my experience, a manager only has one asset, and that’s the team of people that they are responsible for. Of course the manager also has knowledge and expertise, and must share that with his or her team, and the manager also needs to deal with the nuts and bolts (who is on leave when, for example), but I have found that one of the best ways to lead people in the work place is to demonstrate that you support them.

Couldn’t agree more David. However I can only protect my ‘asset’ (they’ll love that!) if I understand the expectations being placed on them and, if I can, inserting myself ‘in the way’ so I have a level of control and management at that point.

After that I can guide my team but they are all professionals, they are very good at asking when they don’t know, and telling me when I’m wrong (the latter more than the former!)

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