Make Your Own Demands: Forging a Career Path in Content Strategy
Margo Stern presented “Make Your Own Demands: Forging a Career Path in Content Strategy” at UX Camp Fall 2020. Enjoy!
Now that some of the industry has begun to rally around the job title of “Content Strategist,” what does the actual job and career path look like? Why should we keep showing up and do the hard job, at scale? What are the challenges we all face, and when is some of this wicked ambiguity going to get cleared up?
In this talk, I consider the common challenges of a CS, the insecurities we battle, and how to sort out what to do when we’re faced with them. Drawing on my experience at Google, Twitter and Facebook both as a manager and as an individual contributor, I’ll share my worst mistakes, my best wisdom, and maybe some well-intentioned speculation.
Content Strategy Lead, Level
Margo Stern, a Content Strategist at Level, has been making the rounds in Silicon Valley content circles since it became a thing (about ten years ago). After stints at Google, Twitter and Facebook, she made the switch to the start-up world in September 2020. Margo lives in San Francisco with her husband and (at least) two cats.
When she’s not working, Margo can be found at a dance or yoga class or at the top of a local mountain. She’s also a member of a musical improv troupe with regular shows in San Francisco.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
So thank you so much for joining me today. My name is Margo start, and you just heard a little bit about me working at level, and I’m not gonna talk about that much today, but what I am gonna talk about is general career paths and how you find your own way… I think both, and content strategy and in design. So I think what’s interesting and fun about this is that content strategy is still something of an amorphous thing, we come from a variety of disciplines, like journalism or advertising or library science, studied all different kinds of things, like fashion, literature for me, or journalism or psychology, and it’s not really surprising that many of our industries and cross-functional partners don’t have a clear understanding of what we do and have clear expectations of us, ’cause I think we all show up a little bit differently, but for me, I think that it’s not different that makes us stronger, that keeps us connected one with one another, both in our teams, in our community, we can’t do it all and we shouldn’t have to, but knowing our strengths and where we’re the most awesome, I think are aware our special powers lie.
So what I’ll ask you to do here is kind of go through an exercise with me of defining yourself of getting in front of that ambiguity, so you kind of understand what kind of content strategist you are, so this means not only looking at the kind of work that you’re doing today, but the kind that you wanna do in the future…
So when you define yourself first, you can calibrate your own successes objectively and also your failures, both real and perceived, you can set expectations with your cross-functional team, you can help other people help you, and you also can assess a misalignment of strengths and how to take the right actions and determining your strength isn’t just about what you want to do today, but how to plan for your career in the future, there isn’t one way to do content strategy, and there isn’t one way to have a content strategy career, there Isn’t a… Well, tried career path. We’re all still figuring it out. So if you ask a little angry Margo here, she would not have said this because when I was seven, design contest AEG wasn’t a thing, but if you did ask her, I think I would have said that I wanted to be a writer or something to do with words, writing in that area has always been a strength of mine, from being an avid reader to being a little too proud of the dictionaries that I have, so this led me to finding a career in advertising initially where I could put my words and my wit and content strategy or content brain to work. So this feels like a lot of change, but it’s kind of smaller, zig and zag from the five years before it, I went from a small agency where I started out to a big agency in Portland to a meeting, even agency, and then tried freelance, and then back to full-time, ’cause I realized that full-time was really the thing that I like to do.
But then I took a total left turn to see if I wanted to be a cheese Monger for a few months. I did not, and then I went back into advertising to really see what were the things that meant the most to me until I finally left.
And to be almost since I left advertising, my path has looked kind of the same. I like to move around a lot, but the moves get smaller and more fined, I know that I like to work on tricky problems, I know that I like to work on consumer problems, and I know that I prefer being an independent contributor to be a manager, so even though things change, they kind of stay the same, so that said, There’s a reason why the slide is blank, I can’t tell you how to make a five-year plan and stick to it, I can’t tell you that with much confidence, but I can tell you the kind of work I wanna be doing, I wanna be working on tricky word problems, I wanna be working on consumer-facing problems, also I need to care about the work and be genuinely interested and excited about it. I also wanna leave room and time in my schedule and calendar for doing talks like this. So how did I get here? How did I actually start by figuring out what it is the most important thing for me.
So I call it finding your awesome
At Facebook, where I was most recently, they take a strengths-based approach to personal and professional development, I Used to call this finding your awesome.
So when I was managing a very small team at Twitter… It was in a similar position to what I am now, which was there was too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
So I asked my team, I said, Tell me what is the thing that you are most in the zone doing? What are the things that you wanna spend most of your time doing, and I as your manager will help you do that thing. So the important thing to know about finding that thing is that it’s okay if your job is easy sometimes, and don’t take for granted that the thing that comes naturally to you is something that anyone can do, you have skills, you have talent, you have training.
I kind of recoil a rebuff when someone tells me to go do my magic, it’s not magic, it’s a skill that I have that I’ve cultivated every year. But something that is a strength is something that goes by quickly, it advanced ahead of me, Gothic-ly, when you’re in the zone, when you’re dieting out about things, and also it’s okay if you enjoy it, if you enjoy your work that said, You don’t have to do everything, you’re awesome, what you’re really good at isn’t gonna look like everyone else’s, and someone might be showing… What is their awesomeness? Maybe I talk like these. And you’re like, Well, there’s no way I could ever do that. And I think the good news is, is that you don’t have to… I, early on in getting into UX, I would see these crazy, beautiful mind spreadsheets audits, and I thought, That’s great, I hope that no one expected me to do that kind of work because that’s not the brand that I have, and I’ve found a way that I don’t have to do that, that I can solve problems the way that works for me, and if I do have to do that kind of work, I can tap into the community to find things better.
I find things that work.
So this is how you identify your design or content strategy strengths, and this is probably a little too small to read, and I’m sorry, but this is kind of how we get to where we’re going, it’s just an exercise to determine your strengths, and it’s gonna seem simple but you know, I just told you a couple of slides ago that it’s okay if it’s easy, you just write down everything that you do in a given day or week or half or year, everything, all of your tasks, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a design or a content strategy, only task or something that has little to do with work product at all, like mentoring, degenerative from there, start grouping and identify the ones that call to you most, the ones that where you feel most in the zone about what you’re doing… Take a look back, maybe it passed reviews or have a conversation with your manager, ask your peers, and from there, you make a list, and that list is your definition of what it is to you to be a designer or contradict… So that’s it. I think it’s also important to identify your not strengths, and I’m not calling the weaknesses for a reason, these I think can be both content design, content strategy, and not…
Those tasks, for instance, I’ve gotten pretty consistent feedback my entire career that I can be a little too direct or aggressive or abrasive.
So I would try to change who I was and how I showed up, I literally wear a floral colored Boston, more scale back lipstick, and it was just a soft and my appearance, but honestly, I was then just scaling through a very new lip and still the same person, but as I went through my career, I was certainly aware of what those kind of… Not strengths were. It’s important. So you know what to do with them.
I think it’s important to just keep an eye on them. And again, I don’t call them an area for growth or improvement or weakness, I think those euphemisms can put too much pressure for us on how to grow in an area that might be a little slow to evolve, but you can be upfront about them, and I’ll talk about that, but tend to them and be honest and patient and gentle with yourself, focus on the good stuff, but really know where you’re fallible too, and do you know the growth doesn’t have to be management, I think about growth in a career perspective from strength, it’s not necessarily from managing other people, I was a manager for a long time, and there were aspects of it that I really enjoyed, like mentorship and helping people with the craft, but there were things that I didn’t really have patients for, and to be honest, I missed doing the work, so I went back to being an IC, but I kind of took with me what I found strengthening finding time for mentoring for advice and counsel, and like I said, I think these are two valid and equal career paths, and there’s often a good deal of overlap I can still mentor and help other people without losing myself or losing what’s strengthening to me.
Okay, so now that you’ve gone through the exercise theoretically, of determining your strengths and not strengths, what do you do with them? You tell everyone.
So sharing your strengths and what you’re good at isn’t bragging, it’s setting expectations on how to work with you and where you’ll do well, it helps your manager and make good connections about getting you the right work and support, it helped your cross-functional team understand what you’re there to do and the value that you bring. And it helps you assess if you’re doing the right job, and then lastly, it helps you identify your own gaps and then how to tap into the community to fill them.
So if you first start with your strengths in your manager, I think I see boss type leadership where they’re very directive and tell you what to do, I’ve also seen servant-type leadership, for me, I prefer to have peer-type managing where it’s a partnership or a trusted friend, so as a manager, I wanted people to tell me where I regret what they were graded out so I could help them play to their strengths, and to someone who’s being managed, I want my manager to know my strengths so they can help me get unstuck or connect me to the right fitting opportunities, help me choose the right fitting or the right projects as well, and in some companies, like the bigger ones that I’ve been at, there’s a lot of manager turnover, and I think it’s useful to know your strength and share them so in that first one-on-one, you can get them up to speed faster on how to help you and how support you… So if you think about how to take your strengths to your team.
So cross-functional teams are made up of all kinds of diverse roles and strengths, but ideally come together to work on one goal, this diversity can lead to a lot of strength and cooperation ideally, but also a good amount of confusion, so that’s especially true, if we don’t fully understand what everyone else does or how everyone else works.
I think This is extra true for our content strategy.
There may be varying degrees of familiarity with what we do, depending either on your new ness or your peers, familiarity with the role and what we do, so being explicit and collaborative with your team about your strengths, better set up a good working dynamic and gets to that good place faster.
And with a new team, either one you just joined or just formed you can skip the kind of that awkward tessin out and getting to know each other, maybe often over weird zoom drinks, if that’s still happening, or strange team building exercises, you can ask all of them to articulate their strengths as well, and there’s a couple of different ways to do that… So these are two books that you may consider, this is my cat Canoga, I will tell you about her strengths, these
Are kind of like Cosmo or BuzzFeed quizzes for the workplace, their tactical tools to help you find your strengths and not just finding your content or design strengths, but more workplace ones overall, like how you work independently, or having empathy or leadership or problem solving, so these tools don’t only help you assess your strengths with the overall make-up of strengths on your team, So Canoga here is very adaptable and also commanding, especially when it comes to kibble that is probably already in her bold…
I think that’s really cool, that… This is cool for a couple of reasons, one, this is the output of me doing this with a team of mine a few years ago, and what I love about this is how it shows the diversity of strengths within one team, and this is not a cross-functional team, This is just a two of content strategists who are all very, very different in how we show up to work.
13:15 S1: What I also like about this and the chart that follow is that these charts were made by a Cognos rate gist who was really interested in doing data bus, and it was incredible about this is that I could never make this. I don’t know how, but I had someone on my team who did and could… And that was part of his skill set. Which we really appreciate it.
Another somewhat more scrappy tools are two of them, one is called operating instructions, and the other or call Come to me when… I like these because they’re a little bit… They don’t require books, and you can just do that with your team at any time. I’ll talk a little bit about the advanced slide. Cool. So come to me when… It’s a really great way to tell a co-workers what you’re good for, it’s a nice light way to either convey your work strengths or your personal preferences, you can keep them in a shared dock and then everyone can go and refer to them.
So these are mine, so I… To me, when you’ve got a huge larger problem to solve, you wanna geek out about word choices and coaching on how to have a conversation, you don’t know where to start, you need to get check about something, you want a recommendation on where to eat in Francisco or you wanna look at cat pictures. I’m always quite good for that.
Operating instructions are a little bit different. They really give your team clear indications on how best to work with you.
And this might look like your work style or your effect or how you show up, maybe answers the questions that no one thinks to ask. I like them because they’re direct and they may address from the outset some of those… Not strengths that I talked about earlier. So some of mine I’ll share with you are getting ahead of some of that feedback that I always get, right. So I use humor to connect… That’s just kind of who I am and how I show up. It’s just baked into my DNA since I was a kid that I like to make people off, and I’ve gotten feedback that sometimes that can be unprofessional. That’s just how I am. And it’s just part of what I do. I’m more approachable than I look. So sometimes my face can fall in a pretty serious continent and I think it’s just the way that it is or I can get really serious, which is a nice contrast to that first one. I’m down with feedback, I wanna let people know that I am approachable and I do want feedback. Because it’s really important to me, in order for me to grow.
I have a finite amount of energy. This is kind of how I explain that I’m up at 6 in the morning and I am going on going… 110 AM is kind of like my perfect time for doing work, but schedule a meeting with me after 40 PM, and you’re not gonna get a very useful Margo, and I’m an introvert extrovert. So I am very happy on stage, are very happy in a group, but I definitely downtime to connect or to refresh, so what that means is like after a whole day of meetings, I’m probably not gonna come to you after work drinks.
So how to use the two, I think that operating instructions are better for a cross-functional team or a new team, or a team that needs reforming or rebooting, or when you’re introducing yourself to a new team and come to me when I like it, better for peers I think it’s good to show kind of humanity and what you’re into outside of work, and then I think it’s less good for working style.
So your strengths in your team. So this is the Facebook content strategy now, content design group from a couple of years ago, and this is huge, and it’s even larger now, and I know that everyone’s team is not this big, but you have a peer group that is this big either on Slack or in conferences like this, you have ways to connect, and I think what’s really important is to tap into a peer group in order to find balance with the strikes that you have and and what you can offer to other people and how other people can help you. So when I said that you can’t do everything that you don’t have to… It’s true.
So if you know you’re strings, you can know your gaps, and when you feel like you’re approaching one of those gaps, that’s where you can tap into your peer group, so that means if you are in a place where you have to do one of those scary audits, and you don’t really know where to start. You go into a group and maybe you feel a little vulnerable and you say, I don’t know where to start, Can anyone help me? Maybe someone has tools and templates for me right now in this new org, I’m in a position of having to assess CMS, and that is a very, very new space for me, even though I’ve been doing this for a while.
So your strengths in your future… This is a little bit more of the determining your career path, and really how to start moving forward and how to assess your strengths in order to determine where you wanna go next, it also means using your strengths to suss out a misalignment and the different actions that you can take… I’m gonna skip this ’cause I don’t have time and I met to scissor. So I think I wanna start with, if you feel like you’re ready to leave your job, how to take the next step, so it’s how to assess if you have your strength, you know what they are, but you’re unable to wheel them. This might be because there’s a misalignment between what you wanna do and what the team wants to do, or one person as a blocker, like you have a work nemesis or the company culture just doesn’t work. So there’s three ways to go with any kind of big change, you can stay, you can leave or you can adapt, so we’ll start off with today, I hope everyone knows who this is, if not, talk to me after class. So when you could say there’s a few different tactics to stay, you can stay and try and change nothing…
And some people can do this. Sometimes I think I can do this, that I think everything else might change around me and I can just keep doing what I’m doing, and it’s an option for some people. I just know if I’m just trying to put my head down and I’m not challenged what I’m doing, it’s not going to last long. You can also stay and try and disengage, and this isn’t actually a really a strong recommendation for me, but it works for some people, being able to take a step back and care a little bit less. Like I said, one of the things I know about myself is that I have to really care about the work in order to be successful, and
Maybe this isn’t a course of action for forever, but
If you’re feeling charged and triggered or overly dependent on the work to bring you happiness and satisfaction. Maybe try and look for it somewhere else or just take a break for a while, if you can…
You can also try and wait it out, so my friend Mike says, if you’re constantly putting out fires, you might have an arsonist on your team. I find that if there’s one person on the team that is a blocker or feels like a work nemesis, in my experience, they’re probably not having a good time either, you can have conversations, you can try and work on the process, but sometimes it’s just a per something and I find that they tend to work themselves out like a splitter that might get under your skin, leave enough time and that kind of thing tends to resolve… You can also stay and set a kind of in order to keep yourself honest, so having a really tactical thing that you need to have happen in a certain out of time, and then you can give yourself permission to re-assess your options. So in six months, we either need to ship X feature or leadership needs to change in a specific way, or the website goes live, it needs to be very specific, not like Steve needs to be less of an asshole, right? So you wanna set a goal, set a deadline, and then give yourself permission to check in and start looking for a new thing if you want, so you can also adapt to your current situation and knowing how to stay in the place that you are and not just kind of let everything change around you, but change what you do, and the first part of that is to know to change what you can change and what you can’t change to figure out what’s in and out of your control.
So you can also… You can change yourself, you can change your outlook, you could change your expectations, you can maybe change your team if you have that flexibility or your allocation, you can change to spend more of your time on the things that you’re good at and not… The thing is that you’re not… You probably can’t change Steve to be less of an asshole again, Steve, or the mission statement of the company or the earnings, but I find this really good for kind of grounding what is and isn’t under my control, and I find that actually to be good, just in 2020 in general, identifying what is… What’s causing the anxiety? And what can I do about it? And if it’s nothing, how can I find a way to let that go? You can also adapt by having crucial conversations, so this is a really good course that we have at Facebook, I had a Facebook… It’s a… That you can find as well, it looks like this, but what it is, it’s a structured conversation to have with a person when things aren’t going particularly well.
It makes scary conversations a little less scary, so you can find that you can also adapt by flexing differently, so you know what your spring, sorry, you know what you’re not strengths are, but is there something that falls in between an area that you want to grow and maybe it’s being a better designer or tackling certain tools like CMS, is there something else that you can flex, is there somewhere that you can grow and develop, can you use the same muscles that you know work well, would maybe use them differently. So what happens when you’re like, No, Margo, it’s not working, I need to leave. You’ve aligned your strengths or not matching up, you’ve done… You’ve ordered your quick cake, so I would actually got the breaks again, and sees what happens if you go, what happens if you are not there to fight these fights that you’re fighting. I think one of the most frustrating things about our work as designers, and that’s kind of the capital D design, is compassion fatigue, that we are there to be the advocates in the room for the people who are not in the room, and that can be exhausting.
So if you feel like these fights are worth fighting, if you leave, who will be there to argue that case or advocate for those people that said… I think it’s also really important to know, is the advocacy working… Is the impact landing? What would it feel like to relieve yourself of that burden of that inclination, of that guilt maybe? Of trying to do that work. Is there a place where you can go and just do the work? And not have to worry about that. Something to consider. I said, When you are ready to leave. Don’t go it alone. I would say find a mentor or even if you, your manager or a partner to work this out, a little bit ago, a friend came to me because she was ready to quit and she wasn’t advancing or growing, and the conversations he had to be in going nowhere. And she kept getting feedback that she needed to be more self-aware, and I asked her if she knew what that meant, because I didn’t know what that meant, and she said No, and I asked her if she had gone to her manager to better understand that and she said no.
So no, in that conversation, we realized that there was still some opportunity for her to dig in more and understand the problem before she kind of got her linked in. Ready. I know that when you leave, you will take it with you, you are who you are wherever you go. So this is me on my first day of a new school in seventh grade, and I thought I was gonna have any life when I was gonna be super popular, mostly because of this church, so the shirt, other than being off the shoulder, a lot for a seventh grader, it was a peace color, it was tidied, and it had a sequence sign on it, and I thought this was gonna be the thing that rocketed to the top of the popular class. It did not, because I was still me. Right, I was still someone who was more comfortable with the book and then I was with other people, and I was still who I was, so that said, even if you try and reinvent yourself for a new job, you’re still gonna take your strengths and you’re not strengths with you, and you have to be honest with yourself, to not just go with really find a place that’s gonna play to your strengths.
Pinterest tells us, leap and a net will appear. John Burroughs actually sites. But I think there’s truth in it and also not… I think that taking a step in your career shouldn’t feel like a leap of faith. I used to say if you were a little afraid of doing something, you’re probably doing something right, but now I kind of believe something a little bit different, which is that you make your own net, the net seems to appear because you’ve been making it all along, it’s been inside you like Spider Man.
The more you know yourself, the more you know your strengths, the better position you are to navigate your career, no matter how it shakes out.
Like I said from the beginning, I don’t know where I’m going, but the knowledge about who I am for better and for worse, keeps me secure that I know that I’ll be okay when I get there. Oh no. This was a fun time. So this is some music direction from Sati and a piece that I play from time, time, but I also really like it as career advice… Growth can come in many forms. Your career path will take different turns, and growth doesn’t have to be management or even a promotion at a certain level, you can expand your impact or influence or just do your job and leave more balance for your life, you make your own demands. So all in all, to that point, you choose your path and you get to define it on what’s a strength for you and what you do best, take some time, learn what it is that you wanna do and then trust yourself and enlist others to go and make it happen. Thanks.