Imagine a role responsible for strategy, hiring, reporting to leadership and people management. Sounds like a CMO? Maybe a VP?
Well, yes. But it’s also the job description for most Heads of Content. These folks are asked to be jacks of all trades. They are responsible for creating and executing a content strategy, hiring and retaining a team of writers and strategists, proving content’s value to the organization and—perhaps the most difficult job of all—managing the people who make it all happen.
As I researched for this article, Zendesk editorial director Dan Levy told me that, “People management should never be done on the side.” He’s right, but so often that’s how it goes.
This is one of the most-discussed topics in our Slack community: CMOs and VPs have unrealistic expectations for their content team leads. This article is the first in a series on how to manage a content team. We’ll start with people management, then cover strategy, hiring and reporting. I’ve supplemented my own experience by interviewing some veteran marketers to put this guide together. I can’t promise it will cover every aspect of running a content team, but it’ll come darn close.
First and foremost, a good people manager embraces the opportunity to empower others to succeed. Good managers are generous—they aren’t entirely selfless but they default to supporting the people they are tasked with managing.
I’ve known plenty of people—myself included—that are (or were) reluctant people managers. In my case, it was another big responsibility baked into an already busy job. For others, people management came along with other careers aspirations, like taking the lead on content strategy. And still for others, it seemed like the only path to a promotion. They didn’t really want to lead people and it didn’t take long to hate their job.
This happens all the time and there’s even a name for it: The Peter Principle. Imagine a content manager who loves to write and hones her craft over time. The better she gets at writing, the more respect she earns from her team and company leadership. Eventually, she gets promoted to Head of Content, a role where she rarely writes and has to spend most of her time wrangling a crew of content managers. It’s a role she’s ill-prepared for and will almost certainly hate doing.
This may very well be you. It is my observation that good content creators are often introverts who prefer to spend their time deep in research, writing and editing. Contrary to what you may think thought, I believe these folks can still be great people managers since they have a deep understanding of what it takes to create the best content. Empathy for your team is key to giving them the space they need to do good work.
Whether you’ve dreamed of landing a leadership role—something we talked to Ty Magnin and Mark Kilens about on the podcast—or have reluctantly stepped into a management role, I think you can be good at it and enjoy the work by embracing the role wholeheartedly. It doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life reading books on leadership and filling every minute of your day with Zoom meetings. But it does mean that you need to shift the focus away from your own creative output and pour that energy into your team’s output. Their work is your work and the end result can be just as gratifying. It may not be a permanent solution, but it absolutely will help you grow your skillset and excel at the job.
Along these same lines, it’s important to remember that all good managers have faced a few difficult situations in their careers. Maybe they were thrown into a people manager role before they were ready and without any guidance. Maybe they’ve had to fire people or have difficult conversations with members of their team. Those situations were scary for those people too, no matter how easy they made it look.
People management is hard, but it’s also a well-understood science. There are tons of great resources out there to help you. As a starting point, I recommend immersing yourself in Lattice’s library of free ebooks. Learn how to run a great 1:1 meeting, set an OKR and offer feedback to your team. As you dive in, you’ll find that none of this rocket science and that you are capable of doing it really well.
It’s easy to manage a team of people who share the same values and feel drawn to a common mission. It’s very hard to manage a group of individuals who are more interested in their own personal wins than the team’s success.
Which situation you end up with has more to do with culture, camaraderie and communication than it does with the personalities of the individuals on the team. There’s plenty of theory and science on building a strong culture, but I’ll leave you with a few of things the most basic things I’ve seen work over and over again.
A good manager should have enough expertise to offer good feedback to her team, know how to deliver that feedback and be very open to receiving it. In fact, being open to feedback isn’t enough—you need to actively seek out feedback, otherwise, you’ll never really know what people think.
Feedback comes in many forms: comments in a doc, conversations in 1:1 calls, discussions on OKRs and sometimes even in casual conversation. When I first landed at Animalz, I was amazed by how much feedback the team shared with me, with each other, even with the founder. No work was sacred—everything could always be improved. We learned to detach ourselves from the work and to focus on a great end result rather than our personal investment in it. Delivering work that we were really proud of and hearing clients sing its praises reinforced this behavior.
We also learned how to give good feedback. For example, if a writer handed in a piece of content that was way off base, it was better to schedule a time to talk in person rather than rip the article to shreds one Google Doc comment at a time. The former made it easy to talk about the big picture, the latter focused too much on the little details. This rough process later became the highly refined Animalz Method for Writing High-Quality Content.
One important pitfall to watch for: don’t assume your own expertise means that your word is gospel just because you’re the boss. Like Animalz CEO Devin Bramhall says in this piece on creating a healthy feedback culture, “many subject matter experts struggle to provide good feedback because they don’t remember what it was like to be a beginner.” (I highly recommend reading that article.)
Last year, we ran an informal survey on team structure in the Slack community. We asked, “What's your biggest frustration with content marketing at your company?” (The results were … enlightening.) Here are a few of the responses:
All of these comments tie back to one thing: poor management. It’s clear that these folks are part of teams where managers aren’t actively looking for feedback and aren’t advocating for the team.
Here’s something I’ve noticed sometimes happens at companies with a few levels of management. Team leads can empathize with one another’s challenges and lean on each other for support. This is good until it’s not. Sometimes, team leads get cliquey. They bond with each other and lose touch with the members of their teams. They feel like their teams don’t really understand the glut of challenges that managers deal with and eventually get frustrated that their employees don’t get it. Meanwhile, the team is wondering why the hell their manager isn’t present. They grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources, the unrealistic expectations and the loss of what used to be a friendly relationship.
You end up with both parties feeling like the other “doesn’t get it.” As the manager, it’s your job to prevent that from happening. Read the comments above again. It’s easy to set realistic expectations for your team if you understand what goes into creating great content and understand all the other work on their plates. It comes down to good communication, regular check-ins and a culture of giving and receiving feedback.
If your team says, “my manager doesn’t get it,” then they’re right. No two ways about it. If you’re feeling frustrated, here are few things you can do to get out of this rut:
Here’s one other thing to watch out for: incentives. I’m assuming that you’re leading a content team after coming up as a content creator or strategist. But if you’re leading a content team without much hands-on content experience, you need to really understand what motivates us content folks. Here’s Zendesk’s Dan Levy on this issue:
I find content marketers tend to be motivated by different things than growth marketers, campaign marketers or even product marketers. Not that content people don't care about numbers and data and KPIs because we certainly do—it's just that we're not driven by them. We drive towards them. I think a lot of content people tend to be more motivated by the inputs by the craft itself. So we're going towards the same goals, but we're starting in a different place.
You can either learn the nuances of content or get your team a resource that already has that expertise. You wouldn’t want your own team fudging their subject matter expertise, and they expect the same from you.
Creative folks hate meetings. As Paul Graham wrote, “A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon.”
But you need some meetings. In fact, as more companies embrace remote work, meetings are becoming increasingly important. It’s our only face-to-face time, the only time when we can speak freely and brainstorm together. Asynchronous work is perfect for writing, coding and designing, but synchronous meetings are the best way to sort out issues that affect that writing, coding and design time. I like to think about it this way: asynchronous communication helps us get more work done and synchronous communication helps us build relationships.
As the team lead, you’ll take on more meetings because you need to build great relationships with your team. If you’re transitioning from a creative role, this may be a challenging adjustment. My best advice is to create systems that reduce the total number of meetings and make meetings you do have more efficient.
Alex Kracov, former VP of Marketing at Lattice, created a simple cadence to manage his 15-person team:
This cadence may or may not work for you, but I’d encourage you to map out a similar cadence. You may, for example, want a team meeting every week until things are running very smoothly. You may also prefer to meet with direct reports twice per month. You may also like to run occasional brainstorming meetings to help solve bigger problems (like a bad content calendar tool, an inefficient editing workflow, lackluster progress towards an important goal, etc.). Find what works for you and your team, then stick to it. Cluster meetings on one or two days per week to preserve your own deep work time. (This is especially important if you’re a player/coach.)
I highly recommend reading Kevin Kwok’s The Arc of Collaboration (it’s an article, not a book). In it, he explains that Slack is where all “exceptions” are handled. Tasks that have workflows exist in a doc, project management tool or calendar. The rest—the exceptions—end up in Slack. I love this line from the article: “Slack is not air traffic control that coordinates everything. It’s 911 for when everything falls apart.”
It’s your job to create as many “functional workflows” as possible. A functional workflow is achieved when:
Like Kwok says, all exceptions end up in Slack (or Zoom calls). If you’re new to leading a team, you’re going to find a lot of exceptions. That’s okay. You have a blank canvas to paint on. Decide where work will happen and where collaboration will happen. Sometimes one tool can handle both (GatherContent comes to mind for content teams), but often you’ll need to separate work (Google Docs) from collaboration (Asana).
I recommend creating these workflows, then testing them thoroughly before you officially implement them. Ask your team what tools they want to use. Creative folks are usually pretty opinionated about their “stack” and for good reason. The rights tools make creative work easier.
You’ll also need a tool for team management. Apps like Lattice and 15Five make it really easy to set goals, run 1:1 calls, keep notes, give feedback and track OKRs. Do this in a specialized tool, not a catch-all like Notion or Google Sheets. Those are great tools for writing and other workflows, but you really want a people ops tool to manage people. I’ve used Lattice and 15Five and really liked both, plus each comes with content and resources specific to people management.
Managing people is hard enough as it is. Make sure you source tools that make your life easier.
Lastly and most importantly, ask for help. No one should be thrown into a people management role without a coach or at least some mentoring from a more experienced people manager. If you’re not getting help, ask for it directly. Or just demand it. It’s unfair for any company to put you in a position with so much responsibility and no guidance.
Hope you found the first post in this series to be helpful.