Navigating Professional Ambiguity: Leading with Content in the Face of Change
A little over a year ago, I took a job at Capital One as their bank content strategy lead. I spent the previous seven years of my career leading digital projects where my job was to channel the vision of the client into content and designs that my team would create. It was a small enough agency that I was able to have a clear lay of the land. I knew the switch to a much larger company (like, 250 times larger) would be a big one, but I had no idea how profoundly it would require me to change the way I approach my relationships, practice of content strategy, and how I measure my impact as a leader. I went from feeling like I knew what was best for the team and the client to realizing that at Capital One I had a lot to learn about leading with content. And, I would have to rely on people in different ways to design the best solution for our customers.
I jumped in with no hesitation; I met the teams I’d be working with and immediately started to offer suggestions and ideas. That’s why they hired me, right? When I was a consultant I often felt pressure to be the smartest person in the room. Even when I didn’t know the answer, I dug deep and tried to come up with something creative and helpful, constantly in a reactive mode because billing hours push you to spit out solutions quickly so that clients find your work valuable. I took that strategy to Capital One, and it totally imploded on me.
Sure, some of the stuff I said was relevant and helpful, and the content teams and others were grateful. But a lot of the time I felt more like a bull in a china shop. I went in full force with whatever ideas I could pull together in that split second, not really sensing what the team needed in that moment — which many times was something completely different. Things felt awkward and icky. I started to question everything from my expertise to my experience. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore without the approach that had gotten me through the past several years of my career.
Any time you leave your comfort zone — whether it’s switching jobs or exploring new ways to practice content strategy — you might encounter an identity crisis like this. Your way, which once felt like the “best way,” may be awkward and clumsy when you apply it in a new situation. After a lot of soul-searching and conversations with mentors and my manager, I learned that navigating the unknown is not about skill mastery, it’s about having the tools to be your best self in different environments. It’s leadership.
And, of course, deep inside I knew that this would work. I learned about it when I was 13 years old at overnight camp.
Growing up, I spent all year waiting for the summer. Camp was my favorite place in the world. Scaling rock walls along the shores of Lake Michigan filled my tiny gut with butterflies, and the high-ropes course sits solidly as the third-best experience of my childhood. But what really resonates in my memories was the summer before I started high school. There was a really pivotal moment when four of us were at the top of the high-ropes course, 50 feet off the ground. The facilitator gave some basic instructions for each of us to walk across a balance beam with our eyes closed. We all started freaking out. Every one of us. Yeah, the shyest girl was crying, but so was the most popular guy.
Afraid to make the next move, we were suddenly in it together. Really in it.
But then something magical happened, we all began cheering one another on and encouraging each other to “take that next step,” or “give it a shot, it will be OK!” And we did. I realize now that the facilitator knew we could figure it out and, after equipping us with the tools she knew we needed to be successful, she stepped back.
From that morning on, the dynamic completely changed. No one was trying to tell anyone what to do; instead, we were sensing what each other needed in that moment for us all to be successful, and the rest came so naturally. Even at 13 I remember thinking that there was something powerful about equipping a team to find success together, especially when roles and experience were flattened so that no one had the edge. It was way more fun that way, less scary, and it gave everyone an opportunity to grow as a person so that they could be their authentic selves.
“Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” — John Maxwell
Over a decade later, with the help of people around me who recognized what I needed in that moment, I threw myself into learning everything I could about being a good leader. I started by shutting up and listening. Really listening. It’s like being at the top of the ropes course and not thinking about what you need, but understanding what you can do together to be successful.
What follows are three things that helped me change my approach to content strategy and redefine what success looks like for me. Some things I learned from my peers and mentors, while others I picked up from a Cooper Design Leadership course, and this year’s Adaptive Path Managing Experience conference (MX). In a nutshell, leadership is about empowering others, not solving problems. The road wasn’t easy, but it was so worth it. And, I’m still finding my way down that path.
Listen and be helpful
This means you first need to show up (and keep showing up) and be of service over everything else, when and where your content teams need you. Showing up doesn’t always mean doing; listening and perspective are often much more important. Try to see the world from 10,000 feet; leaders have perspective and gather enough information. If you don’t understand the problem first, it’s hard to realistically offer something useful. This happens through empathy for your partners first and foremost, and then for those who you design content for. Through empathy, you build relationships, which are truly everything. Then tell the story of what could be, and invite everyone to be a star in your book. At MX, Anel Muller described this as “Be the light.”
For me this translated into being what the team needed first, and sprinkling in my content chops as we went, making stuff together. Over time, we created a collective vision and began to lift one another up to ultimately drive toward a better product for our customers. Once everyone felt like we were in this together, the dynamic completely shifted. My credibility increased, and I was given permission to push the teams to think about things differently. My manager, Steph Hay, often quotes our colleague Michael Mossoba: “You can get there fast, or you can get there together.”
Be bold but kind
Once you’re working collaboratively, you’ll get invited to push your teams and yourself, but it won’t feel awkward and icky if you do it together. Ask good questions, and invite others to be brave with you. Help people see things from a different perspective. This means leading from the front, the side, and often from the back; coaching the team as you go and being flexible. Most of us feel like frauds some of the time, and the truth is that nobody really knows what they’re doing. So, support others while they take risks and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
When I embraced this approach, I spent more time on coaching and doing work together, especially when my ideas pushed folks outside of their comfort zone. Instead of working solo on a UI flow, I sat with my project partners and worked through the experience line by line. At first this process went a lot slower than working on my own, but over time we all got used to doing things differently, and our momentum grew. Working together real-time left the space for conversation about the work (and for fears to be addressed). People could actively talk about why they made certain decisions, and I could explain why I suggested another approach. Over time, I picked up even more empathy and understanding, and my partners picked up some content expertise, including endorsing content-first design. A few weeks ago I cheered on a visual designer as he presented his content work to a broader design audience. Talk about being bold.
Choose your own adventure
If I’m truly leading, I let go of my perfect and focus on the team’s what could be. Working toward others’ successes and shifting to an us-not-me approach redefined what success looks like for me. I started to aim at serving our collective vision (and, in many cases, their vision), thinking about how I could empower those around me to do their best work. I focus on building on the things my partners have already done and finding opportunities for content strategy to make those experiences even more customer-centric. Then I look for signals that I’ve made an impact. Seeing a team really connect and become energized, and watching different people step up to share their ideas makes me a whole lot happier, and the product a whole lot better. It’s the experience that’s at stake, and it benefits most from #alltheminds, not just mine.
And those signals — they’re everywhere. When we all feel listened to and appreciated we’re more open to accept other ideas around us. Content strategy is exploding all over our bank content teams, and it’s because I’m doing the work upfront to get out of the way. It’s no longer my thing, it’s our thing, and I’m being invited to join even more projects and talk to teams about why content matters. It feels so much better than any way I’ve ever worked. That doesn’t mean it’s not without challenges, but I think the friction now is because the way we work is changing — a good thing — and not because I’m forcing things to move.
After that amazing summer many years ago, I remember telling stories about every moment I spent with those other kids. Every inside joke, and every night under the stars. So much that I think my other friends got pretty tired of hearing about it. I wanted it all to last a little longer because it felt so good to soak in that happiness and belong to something greater than myself. I carried the photos from that summer around with me as little treasures, and now, I hold on to those little signals of influence. I’m finally feeling like I’m doing the best work of my life.
This article was originally published in Content Science Review on May 17, 2016. Photo by Michaela Hackner.
Thanks for reading.