Jenn Leaver - Docs leadership: How to become a stronger leader for your team

Catherine Heath | October 13, 2021


This is a summary of a talk given at Write the Docs Prague 2021.

Jenn dabbles in many hobbies but she never seems to hang onto anything. She could open a craft store with all the equipment she has at home. 

Jenn has a long career in technical writing behind her, and she knows as a writer you have the opportunity to shape so much about your team. Leadership is not defined by org charts, but the impact that you can have on the people around you. 

Finding your leadership philosophy

Figure out who you are and who you need to be for your team. For a really senior team, her support may look more like advocacy and sponsorship. For a team of less experienced people, her support may look more like mentorship and coaching. 

Your leadership style should be informed by your values and then tailored to the realities of your team. 

The goal is not to manage - it’s to lead. Leading is about making sure your team is on the right path, giving them everything they need to run on the path and clearing all the obstacles out of the way. You’re not supposed to be the person standing at the front. 

Building team capabilities

What does your team need to be successful? A lot of times, a team starts out with a single writer and then more writers are added. Much more than writing goes into creating a good documentation experience for users. 

Some of the capabilities that are needed are:

  • Writing

  • Content design

  • Tooling

  • Leadership

  • Operations

  • Community

  • Information Architecture

On a small team, writers may work on any of these things. The term writer is not inclusive of everything that they do. 

As your team grows, or users needs change, you may need to create roles that focus exclusively on these capabilities. 

Documentation is very unique, and it’s almost like its own product. Writers wear so many hats and you can help them develop those skills, and give them opportunities to showcase them. 

If you have someone on the team really interested in content design, you can look at your current processes and think about how you can fit a more specialized role in these processes. 

Advocate for the work and sponsor the people. 

Developing a working style for your team

How do you build a culture of collaboration? Even if your team is spread out across product groups, you can still collaborate effectively. 

Documentation flow: 

  • Researching

  • Planning

  • Writing

  • Reviewing

  • Publishing

You might have processes around all these things and particular questions that you ask. You’re managing the end-to-end flow of all of your work. But what happens if you’re a writer working in this flow and you need to leave work for a while for health issues or vacation? What if the project is huge and you can’t complete all the work by yourself?

When one writer is working on everything by themselves, you can’t thrive, you can only survive. 

Instead, this is where collaboration comes in. Include multiple writers in your documentation flow. Your entire team then has more bandwidth to work on more proactive docs work. Collaboration gives you flexibility and freedom. 

Balancing priorities for your team

How do you balance short and long-term priorities? As a writer, it’s easy to feel like your job is to document your product as it is released, but you’re missing the forest for the trees. 

You have to understand the larger documentation user experience to make sure it truly meets the user's needs. You can partner with other stakeholders such as people who are talking to customers and get a sense of where the product is going. 

Your documentation should mirror the journey that people are going on with the product. Once you understand where the product is going, and what your users need from your documentation, you can work with your team to develop your five-year plan. 

Maybe you need to completely rethink your Information Architecture. Maybe you need to get better at collecting data. 

As a team you have more to offer than just documenting the product. 

When you have your plan, you need to share it with the rest of your team. You need to get people excited by and involved in your roadmap. Other teams need to see documentation as a core part of the product’s success, rather than just part of a checklist. 

If you don’t get people excited about the possibilities, you run the risk of docs never fulfilling its potential. 

You have to try to be proactive rather than reactive. Build out your own docs work rather than reacting to the work of other teams. You may need to adjust your processes so you’re planning content as early as possible. 

Priorities

Once your product team has their plan finalized, you can create a high-level docs plan without needing all of the details. You don’t need to know about changes in the UI or what buttons are going to look like - you just need to know what they’re building and why they’re building it. The plan will give you the ability to estimate your work. 

You can develop a much more detailed plan as development gets underway. The more detailed plan enables you to write the docs. 

When you plan your work early, you have a much better idea of what your team’s bandwidth looks like. If you think about the docs work as your first priority, you can plan your product work earlier and slot it into your docs roadmap. You need to give the documentation the attention it deserves. 

Hiring and growing your team

What does your hiring vision look like? How do you know who to hire? How do you hire equitably and with purpose? 

You need to figure out what skills you need on your team in order to reach your five-year plan. Your five-year plan is not completed at the end, but happens incrementally throughout the five years. If you have leadership buy-in for your five-year plan, you’ll be able to use it to justify your hiring choices. 

Don’t keep hiring writers. Eventually you’ll have a huge team of writers who need more specialization. Consider hiring for content design, tooling, leadership, ops, community and Information Architecture. 

Broadcast your hiring plan to help leadership understand the roles you need on your team. Make it clear to leadership what it will mean if you delay the hiring. 

How to hire people: 

  • Know your team values

  • Create a process that optimizes for those values

  • Know that bias exists

  • Create a process that reduces bias

  • Hire with intention

Final remarks

Becoming a great leader is a process. Your job is to serve the people on your team and enable them to grow and flourish in their roles. Advocate for documentation’s value throughout the company and hire people who can help you create amazing docs. 

Listen to the full talk here. 


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.


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