By Carol Macbain
The Idea Watch SIG met on Monday, March 24th, to discuss John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do. Kotter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, wrote the series of essays between 1979 and 1997. They reflect his lifelong interest in leadership among American corporations. The essays were originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Kotter viewed the role of leader as one that brought change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing global economy. Examining the qualities of good leadership is especially relevant today as the velocity of change has increased and the stakes for failing to adapt have risen.
Kotter described a good leader as a person quite different from a good manager. A person can fill both roles, but he believes that being a leader requires vision. A manager solves problems and manages complexity while a leader must develop a vision for the future, implement change by creating a sense of urgency, and build the alliances to support that vision.
Technical writers do not often have the opportunity to take leadership roles at top levels, but they certainly feel the brunt of poor leadership when companies lose market share or fail to achieve profitability. Idea Watch members discussed the various styles of leadership that they had observed in their companies and whether recent business failures were due to poor management or simply a lack of leadership.
The difference between the daily activities of leaders and managers is reflected in their goals. A typical day for an effective leader is filled with short informal interactions with a wide range of people. Building a network of alliances is the framework for bringing about change.
A major obstacle to change is that a leader must depend on those who do not report to him/her to succeed. Kotter tells leaders to identify those that can help or whose knowledge they need, and to obtain that person's active cooperation.
Technical writers know the game. Writers need the knowledge of subject matter experts to write documents and the cooperation of an expert's boss to ensure that there is time to meet. IT support is needed to solve network problems, facilities staff to maintain a comfortable physical environment, and the commitment of upper management and HR to ensure there are enough writers to meet deadlines.
At any level, successful leaders must first diagnose the resistance to changewho is likely to resist the plan, why, and how. The next step is to figure out the appropriate strategy for dealing with that resistance. Kotter suggested the following:
Another topic that Kotter discussed that Idea Watch members considered relevant to technical communicators was "How to manage your boss." He said that the manager/subordinate relationship is one of mutual dependence. If you can adjust your style to that of your boss, then you both will benefit.
It is important to have realistic expectations about what your boss knows or wants from you. Some things to determine:
Two more bits of advice for establishing a good relationship:
As adaptation to change continues to be crucial to success in the marketplace, technical communicators need to find ways to support (or become) leaders in the field, and perhaps in their companies. Communication is a vital component of leadership. Technical communicators must support leaders who value their contributions and help to bring about changes that will keep their companies growing and satisfying the customers.
Carol Macbain is a technical writer. You can contact her at .