Content leaders: Manager, strategist, or practitioner?

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What kind of content leader does your company need?

  • By Kathy Wagner
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  • Aug 1 2017
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  • Categories: Articles

In a job interview for a mid-level position, I was once asked “When you move into a senior role, do you see yourself as a strategist, a manager, or a practitioner?” Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that there are different paths that people can take to grow their skills and build their career.

Now, when I’m working with large organizations to help them articulate and hire senior-level content positions, I often come back to a variation of that question: Does your company require a strategist, a manager, or a practitioner?

It’s a critical question, and the answer will shape an entire team and its business impact. But many executives don’t realize that there are different kinds of content leadership roles, each requiring different skillsets and aptitudes.

A common scenario

A large company is growing and formalizing its content team. They have a senior writer who consistently impresses them with her work ethic and quality of content. She’s well liked and forward-thinking, so they ask her to step into the new role of department manager and to set the strategic direction for content across their organization. She’s thrilled to be given greater responsibility, but struggles to help her new reports understand their roles and is frustrated by the paperwork and meetings required to actually run a department. At the same time, she knows she’s woefully unprepared to identify new strategic opportunities for content and doesn’t even know where to begin. The result is a poorly functioning team, bad morale, and no strategic direction.

Understanding content leader skillsets

To avoid this, you simply need to understand the different skill sets that senior people can bring to the table, and ensure that your new hire has the right ones for the job. Let’s look at these Merriam-Webster definitions:

Manager: Someone who is in charge of a business or department. Someone who directs the training and performance of a team.

Strategist: A person who is skilled in making plans for achieving a goal. Someone who is good at forming strategies.

Practitioner: A person who regularly does an activity that requires skill or practice.

Looking at these definitions, it’s easy to see how someone who excels in one of these areas may not perform well in another. But, if your team is large enough, it’s important to have all three roles included in leadership capacities.

A content manager’s strength is their ability to manage teams and successfully navigate corporate politics. Because they need to know enough about content to ensure quality control, they often rise from the rank of practitioner. But what really drives them is a strong understanding and interest in team dynamics and mentorship, and how to maneuver through bureaucracy and personalities to make their department and team members successful. Good content managers are all about eliminating roadblocks and making their people shine.

A strategist sees possibilities and then creates the vision and plan needed to realize those possibilities. They also provide the tools and frameworks needed for the team to work in unison towards the new vision. Strategists need to have enough leadership and authority to be able to set strategic direction and ensure that the strategy is executed and measured. Good content strategists are all about creating positive impact through content, and identifying what’s needed to make it happen.

A senior-level content practitioner is the perfect person to become a practice lead. This is the person who trains others in their particular area of expertise and is responsible for the standards and guidelines for that practice area. Information architecture and web writing are two examples of content practice areas for which you may want to assign practice leads. Good content practitioners are all about doing exceptional work within their area of expertise.

Does your company require a strategist, a manager, or a practitioner? It's a critical question. Click To Tweet

So, next time you’re faced with filling (or stepping into) a content leadership role, ask yourself that one simple question. The answer could save you a ton of headaches down the road.

And by the way – In my interview I answered “strategist” without any hesitation at all.

Further reading

Content insights from growing companies

Content strategy in 8 simple steps

Content toolkit: Decision trees

Our content strategy services