Cubs players carry their teammate, David Ross, off the field after the World Series (image source: MLB.com)
With the Chicago Cubs in 2016, backup catcher David Ross played in only 75 games (out of 179). Yet, when the Cubs won the World Series, the other players carried him off the field on their shoulders.
Because Ross was a good teammate. The oldest player on the team, he was known in the locker room as “Grandpa.” The younger players knew they could have fun with him, but they also knew they had an honest, dependable mentor.
The team’s manager, Joe Maddon, depended on Ross too. As a player working with fellow players, Ross could provide guidance and leadership the manager and coaches couldn’t. The kind of leadership that says, “I’m in this right along with you.”
Lots of leaders lead from up front, like a general riding into battle.
Some leaders lead from behind — providing guidance and removing obstacles, but preferring to cast the limelight on the team rather than on themselves. Leading from behind has much in common with servant leadership.
Then there are leaders, like Ross, who lead from within. Rather than a job title (VP, Director, Manager), their leadership is based on the trust and respect they’ve earned from the team.
Now retired from baseball, Ross has written a book, Teammate, in which he describes the attributes of a good teammate — in baseball, in business, or anywhere.
A good teammate is dependable
Your fellow team members “know that you will get your job done and they can rely on you.” For me, this is indispensable. You can fake it (I’ve seen people try), but not for long.
Being dependable doesn’t mean you’re the top performer on the team. It means that you understand your role and that the team can trust you to pull your weight.
A good teammate is supportive
When someone is struggling and needs help, you see the need (even if the other person can’t see it, or won’t ask for help) and you provide positive, constructive help, with sensitivity.
A good teammate is self-aware
You know your role, you know where you stand with the other team members, and you’re secure. As a result, you can focus on the team’s situation rather than your own. You can provide perspective.
Above all, you’re authentic. Everyone knows you’re speaking from your heart, that the good of the team — not your own ambition or recognition — comes first for you.
Dependable. Supportable. Self-aware. That’s the kind of teammate I try to be.
In today’s changeable business climate, chances are good that you — like me — will move back and forth between explicit leadership roles, like manager or team lead, and non-leadership roles as a member of a team.
Remember that even when you’re not on top of an organization chart, you have the opportunity to add value by leading from within.
David Ryan, cofounder of a company called Corilla, has garnered responses from 333 technical communicators for a “Life in Docs 2018” survey. The respondents answered questions about how we do our work and what we like and dislike about it.
I’d include a link to Corilla’s website, but at this writing the site is down.
Overall, the results don’t surprise. We technical writers are happy at our work, we use a variety of tools and processes, and we want to collaborate more effectively.
Today I want to zero in on a section in Ryan’s “insights” post, titled Communities of practice are the cultural engine room.
The survey didn’t have questions about associations or affiliations, so I don’t know how Ryan arrived at this “insight.” Perhaps he tripped over his own bias toward looser-knit, informal communities and against established societies.
That said, it’s a point worth discussing.
Here’s what Ryan wrote:
The role of the community organisation has never been more important for content teams. And never more popular. In the last decade we’ve seen mailing lists give way to LinkedIn groups, and societies giving ground to communities….
The decline of the society format is in part due to value and agility. Membership fees and lengthy campaigning for elections provide little resolution to the problems technical writers express (as evidenced in detail in these survey results).
OK, I guess that’s the connection to the survey. Respondents said that their contributions are “undervalued and misunderstood.” A few felt isolated and wanted more affiliation with each other.
For Ryan, traditional associations can’t help with those things. He went on to say:
Communities will continue to emerge and reshape as their needs require. The complex structure of societies exhibit a fragility that leans towards a self preservation bias.
Fragility? Self preservation bias? Mr. Ryan, your bias is showing!
But I hesitate to judge you too harshly because I’m aware of my own bias — which is that associations, like STC and tekom Europe, still play a vital role in:
Networking and information exchange
Advocating for practitioners
Defining and compiling a body of knowledge (a prerequisite for certification)
Connecting academics with practitioners
Bringing new people into the profession
While I’m all for loose-knit alliances like Write the Docs and even LinkedIn lists, they’e not by themselves enough to build and nurture a professional community. We still need traditional associations, and reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
Even David Ryan, in the end, seems to understand that. He finishes the Communities of practice section by observing:
Maintaining a brand may prove difficult as technical writing evolves from a singular function with specific certification and training (all revenue streams societies rely on) and into a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles. Given their importance in political and commercial advocacy, it’s ostensibly a good thing that they encounter these force functions for change — but it would be a shame to lose them entirely.
It would be more than a shame. It would be a big loss for the profession: for the practitioners, the students, and the teachers who depend on it and help define it.
Professional associations, of all stripes, face lots of challenges — one of which, certainly, is the fragmentation of the profession into (quoting Ryan) “a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles.”
To counter these challenges, let’s concentrate on what we share in common, not on our differences. And let’s support associations that help keep the profession strong.
The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.
Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?
The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.
In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”
Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.
I hope you’ll add your comments as well.
Bernoff: Here’s what you can learn from this: if you have something shocking to say, or shocking facts to report, say it plainly. It will speak for itself. Don’t soften it, and don’t inflate it with the language of outrage. If the facts are damning, just write the facts and let the reader react.
The older I get, the less I write. I don’t mean that I write less often — I mean that, when I write, I use fewer words. (Just now, I almost wrote fewer words to make my point — but, see: I shortened it and made it better.)
Many of us learned in school to puff up our writing. How else to complete those dreaded 500- or 1,000-word essays? How else to sound erudite?
I also learned — even if my teachers didn’t intend it — that my readers needed my help. That I had to lead them by the hand, tell them what to think. When I wrote about an awful situation, like the child-abuse story, I had to describe it, preferably with lots of adjectives, and then say that it was awful.
Turns out, all those words just get in my readers’ way. Turns out they’re smart enough to look at the bare information and draw their own conclusions. If I’m writing to persuade, I can include an introduction and a closing paragraph. Otherwise, the facts will stand for themselves.
Bernoff: If you wonder about the importance of language, pay close attention to the way the Church used words to minimize the impact of acts of child rape….Euphemisms implicate all who use them.
Remember when, a couple of years ago, the new Samsung Galaxy Note7 phones started catching fire and exploding? Here’s the first paragraph of Samsung’s recall notice:
Samsung has announced an expanded voluntary recall on all original and replacement Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and in partnership with carriers and retailers. Since the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk, we are asking consumers with a Galaxy Note7 to power it down and contact the carrier or retail outlet where they purchased their device.
How well did Samsung use words? I give them a C-plus.
First, they buried the lede under that convoluted opening sentence. I would’ve moved the second sentence to the top, or at the very least rewritten the opening sentence to say, simply, We are recalling all Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States. At least Samsung put the cogent information into the first paragraph; it could’ve been buried even farther down.
Second, the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk softpedals the real truth. They can catch fire and even explode — which poses a serious safety risk. The chosen wording does make its point, and it’s far from the worst use of euphemisms I’ve seen. But, remembering the media sensation associated with that recall, this phrasing sounds like Come on, give us a break. It’s not like exploding phones are that bad.
Bottom line: You don’t want to cause a panic. But you want to convey the full import of the situation so that people will take the appropriate action.
Bernoff: There’s one final lesson here: use specifics in summaries, rather than generalities. Use “for example” to show what’s happening.
This is invaluable advice. Examples are stories, and readers respond much more readily to stories than to generalities. It’s hard work finding examples that support my point, and the lazy side of me wants to short-cut the process. But lazy writing is always second-rate writing.
When you have something shocking to say, remember Josh Bernoff’s advice. And use this grand jury report as inspiration.
By the way, if you’re not a regular reader of Josh Bernoff’s blog, Without Bullshit, you should be.
As Louie’s tweet kept popping up in my timeline — with answers from journalists, lexicographers, and historians — I pondered how a technical writer might answer.
It was harder than I expected.
First I thought of answering Louie’s question like this: Our top priority is writing directly to the people who use the instructions.
Then, in my imaginary dialog, I heard a resounding yawn from the general public: Of course you write for the people who use the instructions. For us. Who else would you write for?
Writing for the audience. While we technical writers trumpet it as a big deal, to our audience it’s so blindingly obvious that it goes without saying.
So I tried a different approach. Technical writers think in terms of how to use a product, not how the product works.
General public: We know that! It’s common sense, right? I don’t need to know how an internal-combustion engine works. I just want to change the oil.
Might the people understand us better than we think?
My third try: We work hard to tailor our information to our audience — in terms of both content and media.
GP: Hmm. The tailoring part, again, should go without saying. Maybe we don’t understand why you have to work so hard.
After all, when we get it right, it looks effortless. And when we get it wrong, it looks like we haven’t tried at all.
I began to realize that the skills we technical writers prize the most and discuss the most among ourselves, like audience analysis and media expertise, are things that — in the minds of our customers — ought to be second nature.
When we say that people don’t understand us, it’s not because they don’t grasp our skill set. It’s because they don’t realize how much energy we devote to honing those skills and to reminding each other how important they are.
Why do we need to remind each other of things that are so fundamental? Is it because our perspective is skewed from spending too much time with our work colleagues (especially Development) and not enough time with our customers?
Maybe it’s not that people understand us. Maybe we don’t understand ourselves.
I finally did answer Louie’s question about what seems obvious to us but is misunderstood by the general public.
Ageism. It’s a subject I’ve tended to hold at arm’s length, for two reasons. First, although I know ageism is a genuine problem in today’s workplace, it fortunately has never affected me directly. Second, since there’s nothing I can do to change my birth date, I feel like there’s nothing I can do about ageism.
To find elder statesmen who are still venerated, you might need to go to Middle Earth.
But there is something I can do. And it turns out I’ve been doing it all along.
In Age: The Last Socially-Acceptable Bias, author Chip Conley describes returning to the workforce in his mid 50s, saying that “what I lacked in DQ (Digital Intelligence), I made up for in accumulated EQ (Emotional Intelligence).” The experience, he says, turned him into a modern elder.
Long ago, and still today in some communities, the oldest members were venerated. In the mid-twentieth century world that I grew up in, elders in the workplace were handed a gold watch, shown the door, and expected to shuffle off to a rocking chair.
On reading Conley’s article, I instantly embraced the term modern elder because I recognized the need to redefine the status of elders in the workplace, and because I realized that it’s something I already try to embody.
According to Conley, a modern elder is “someone who marries wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to learn from those younger.”
As I pulled Conley’s definition apart, I saw something that I hope others see when they look at me.
Wisdom and experience
Here’s where I really do have an edge on my younger colleagues. After almost 40 years in the working world — and more years than that in the non-working world — I’ve seen, and lived, a lot of things. If nothing else, I’ve gained perspective: I know that, for the most part, good things aren’t nearly as wonderful as people think — and bad things aren’t as dire.
Although I try to avoid falling into the “I’ve seen this before” trap — because every situation involves a unique mix of people, technical issues, and corporate culture — I often recognize situations and problems that resemble things I’ve already seen and already learned from.
Whatever success I’ve had in my professional life, I credit in large degree to the fact that I always want to learn. I’m always curious. I cultivate a beginner’s mind..
What’s a beginner’s mind? Think of a time when you first discovered something that would become a favorite pastime or hobby. Think of how eagerly you drank in everything you could about that subject or activity, how you wanted to devote all your time and energy to it. For that matter, think of a time when you fell in love. For a while at least, that person became everything to you.
A beginner’s mind is like that. I hope that I’l have a beginner’s mind, right up to and beyond the day I retire.
A willingness to learn from those younger
I’m confident knowing that I have a lot to offer people who are younger. Yet I know that they have a lot to give me as well, because they’ve lived through different things.
Here’s just one example.
I entered the business world at a time when many people still expected to spend their whole careers with one company and then retire with a fat pension (to go with the gold watch and the rocking chair). True, that illusion was already starting to unravel when I began working. But in at least one company — IBM, where I worked until I was 45 — it remained a huge part of the corporate culture.
People who are now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s can’t imagine having that mindset. Their view of loyalty between company and employee is much more aligned with reality than the one I was indoctrinated with — and it informs their attitudes toward work and career. I can learn a lot from them.
The modern elder in today’s workplace
So there you are. If you’ve worked with me on the job or in a volunteer capacity, I hope that you’ve seen something of Chip Conley’s modern elder in me. It’s an attitude I’ve tried to embody, and I’ll try all the more now that I know what to call it.
What about you? Have you been confronted with ageism? If so, how have you dealt with it? Might you too be positioning yourself as a modern elder?
If you’re a younger reader, what’s your take on the modern elder? Does Conley’s description square with what you want to see in your older colleagues?