managing other writers

How to Manage a Content Team (and How NOT To)

How to Manage a Content Team (and How NOT To)

Taking on a content manager role sounds like a lot of work. That’s because it is. And it’s even worse than you might think. 

Between hiring, training, maintaining accountability, and other functions, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Each wrong decision compounds until you’re stretched thin and the only thing left to do is fire people and start over.

Still, it could be worse. Unlike me, you’ve found a blog about how to fulfill this role effectively. I was stranded and on my own trying to figure it out. Now you don’t have to.

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Quick Recap of My Experience Leading a Content Team

I was hired by a friend to get his content team up to speed. Although I write about mental health, the principles of engaging writing never change. So I was sure I could help his B2B SaaS dev firm do good work.

The content team was all based in Bangladesh so there was a 14-hour time difference, so we met early on Monday mornings.

In the 13 weeks, I tried to:

  • Get them on board with the content plan I created
  • Give them reasons to try harder
  • Guide the decision-making
  • Teach them how to use AI to write and edit SaaS content
  • Help them become more consistent

In the end, we decided to disband the team after the 13 week consulting period. They couldn’t have been successful with or without me. And Jihad didn’t want to give them any more time. Before I came, they published 3 blogs in over 3 months and fired the previous content leader. So they had to go.

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How Not to Hire a Team of Writers

The first mistake we made was in hiring. I learned that if we hire the right people, everything else is much easier. In terms of impact, making the right hire is the highest ROI thing you can do.

Because I came after the team had already started, I didn’t have a choice. I did tell Jihad about this, and later we hired another writer with my help. But even with the new write there was a red flag – he was a friend of our worst employee. We should have avoided him based on this alone, good or not.

It’s hard if not impossible to balance out a team that starts with a negative employee. We should have fired our SEO guy much sooner. I later found out that this employee was getting angry with clients of my friend’s business. 

What we should’ve done instead:

  • hire slowly
  • look at portfolios and writing samples more closely
  • paid more because it’ll attract better talent
  • do a paid test piece that is a full piece, not an example
  • interviews to screen for personality challenges
  • only hired people with experience in our industry, a highly technical one

With this first mistake out of the way, you’ll be in a much better position than we were. PLEASE do your due diligence and hire the right people at the start. If you come into a new team, fire all employees and give them the option to reapply.

Keep the upper hand at all times. Not for the sake of our egos, but for the sake of doing a great job and earning your keep.

managing content team

How Not to Train Employees

Every Monday we’d look at our metrics, discuss our progress and goals, and look at the week ahead. We’d cover upcoming projects, and changes in operations, delegate responsibilities, create accountability checklists, etc.

We’d do a lot. But we wouldn’t train them.

All the encouragement I gave couldn’t make up for a lack of training.

I should have heeded the warning signs. I could tell each employee was winging it. They’d give partial answers that masked their lack of knowledge and do other things that gave it away. 

(Of course, nobody has all the answers and we all wing it at times. But these guys were winging it at an unacceptable, dangerous level.)

In weeks 6-9, I focused on creating a checklist they could use to edit their writing. But all the editing in the world can’t fix the lack of effort in production. I also focused on creating SOPs – standard operating procedures – that they could refer to once I was done acting as a consultant for them.

It wasn’t until week 11 that I finally trained them on how to use ChatGPT-4 (the paid version) to write SaaS content that is helpful and informative. If you’re working with remote writers where English isn’t the first language, ChatGPT is your best bet, hands down.

Anyways, at the point when I trained them, there was only 2 weeks left to:

  • get them to use it
  • train them on writing for LinkedIn
  • to coordinate on the case studies with someone from the development team

Needless to say, it turned into a fail.

What I Should’ve Done Instead

  • Train the employees on writing from ground zero
  • Hold them accountable for producing 1 blog per week
  • Train them on editing live over Zoom and have them do it in front of me
  • Meet 3x/week and not 1x/week in the early weeks for training and checking in
  • Upped their blogging with AI to 2 pieces per week
  • Given away all of my tools, techniques, and secrets
  • Taught them one thing at a time
  • Teach them writing for LinkedIn from ground zero

Most importantly, I should’ve listened to my gut when it told me something was wrong. I hope you can learn from this and trust your gut.

When it comes to training new employees in a different country, you have to be cognizant of the risks and of human nature. We were too nice, trusting, and wishful, so we got taken advantage of.

how to manage a content team

A Note On Culture

“The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.”

I realized too late that my way of doing things created a bad culture. 

When I engaged with the team, I treated it as an obligation that I had to move through quickly so I could get to the things that I wanted to do. Namely, writing service pages for my clients.

This sense of rushing to get it over with must have trickled down to the other employees. “As above, so below.” I wasn’t treating this work with the respect I wanted them to have. Even though my words and actions said one thing, my vibe communicated that a lack of full effort was acceptable.

I promise to give it my all on every project as a rule, never the exception

To Founders Who Want Great Content

The founder of the company is my friend. One of my best friends honestly. And he loves to write.

But he doesn’t have much experience writing for a blog or copywriting for a business.

If you’re like my friend, here’s some advice I’d give:

To have a successful content writing team, you need to understand what the writers are doing on a visceral level. You need to write content (or to have written content in the past). And it needs to be published. And you need to promote it. And it needs to be optimized for search engines.

The basic reason I say this is that you need to be a sophisticated buyer of writing services. And the best way to do that is to have gone through the process a few times yourself.

It’ll give you the mental references to know what’s really going on. You’ll ask better questions, be patient with the process, and know what to expect.

managing a writing team

How Not to Run Meetings

We had two 90-minute meetings,  six 60-minute meetings, and five 30-45 minute meetings. Realistically, after training, our meetings should have tapered down to one 30-minute meeting every other week.

Adding on, the founder and I could have had the writers share ownership and responsibility for the meeting, or put one person in charge of running the meetings. Each meeting could have been recorded and placed into a folder in Google Drive or a shared TL;DV account. That way the company CEO could have watched it at 2x speed, saved time, and still had an element of accountability.

Our meetings were long-winded, poorly structured, and sometimes devolved into tangents. Not optimal, to say the least.

How to Run Better Meetings

  • Send out an agenda ahead of time
  • Start each meeting on a light note: How was everyone’s week? What’s your favorite color? Who was your best friend in elementary school?
  • Choose one employee to quickly cover our metrics
  • Have another employee follow up on past items
  • Use the ONE THING principle to have every employee choose their single most important task for the week ahead.
  • Leave 2-7 minutes at the end for group Q&A
how to manage writers

On the Importance of Standard Operating Procedures

Matt Gray. Justin Welsh. Sahil Bloom.

What do these men have in common?

They all talk about the importance of establishing Standard Operating Procedures. Basically,

  1. writing down how you complete each business function
  2. recording a Loom video explaining it, and
  3. having it in an internally accessible folder for all employees to refer to.

I created SOPs for 

  • Gathering expert quotes for our content (using Qwoted)
  • Gathering content ideas using forums like Reddit and Quora
  • How to brainstorm and use seed keywords to create a content plan
  • How to edit your blogs before turning them in for review

I also created a Style Guide for the writers to follow. It covered things like how to format our blogs for consistency (so each writer doesn’t do it their own way), what words to avoid, and the general tone we like to use.

I’m hella proud of this work. It’s this type of work that’s working ON the business rather than IN the business. So, it’s hella valuable and important.

You know, I often think of Stephen Covey’s concept of Q2 work – working on things that are important but not urgent. This is a passion of mine. Building the infrastructure that makes businesses go from good to great.

The takeaway for you is simply that you should be working on these things. Having SOPs, checklists, Style Guides, and other internal documents is how you let your business run without you. SOPs in particular are very valuable for therapy practices.

How I’d Improve This Next Time

Admittedly, working on SOPs took some of my time away from working with the team. Knowing what I know now, I would have got the team up to 90% as the priority. Then I would’ve had the freedom to work on SOPs and build on the team’s success. Doing it all at the same time was a recipe for…

Not disaster per say. But weak results and floundering morale 100%.

I could’ve given the team more responsibilities over time. But only after they proved they could get the basics right.

  • For a small team, most SOPs can be a collection of articles you can find online. For example, I don’t need to write an SOP about how to do a keyword gap analysis. SEMrush already covered that better than I can.
  • Make SOPs for the things that I do on a weekly and monthly basis, especially if I learned on my own or from a mentor. Some things can’t be found online.
  • I need people on the team to use the SOPs so I can see where they hit snags. The SOPs are only done when employees can use them without help or guidance from me. So having an employee use them while I watch in real time is essential.
manage a content team

A Better Way to Hold Employees Accountable

What I learned a bit too late, is that employees can only do ONE most important thing. If you give them 5 things to do, they’ll do the 2 least important ones and kick the can down the road.

One employee, let’s call him Alfred, did this with the content plan. He’d kick the can down the road and have a “good” reason. He wouldn’t do anything until it was urgent or unavoidable. He’d voice concerns indirectly.

If I could go back, I’d fire him.

If I could go back but not fire him, I would give him ONE most important thing to do each week, and enforce consequences. Perhaps 3 strikes in 180 days would be enough. Or since the consultancy was 13 weeks, we could’ve done 3 strikes in a quarter/91 days. 

I understand why job descriptions are the way they are now. Some employees don’t perform and it drags down the effectiveness of a whole organization. Employers need a framework to push out underperforming employees, and the guts to enforce it.

It’s just business.

how to manage a team of content writers

How to Plan a Consulting Period Ahead of Time

Planning ahead helps people get more out of the time you spend with them. It’s why teachers follow the motto, “Tell them what you’re going to teach them, then teach them, then tell them what you’ve taught them.”

Having a plan ahead of time let’s you know you’re on or off track. And now that I’ve had this experience and learned from it, you can steal my plan:

Weeks -4 to 0:

  • Focus on hiring the right employees with the right character and experience.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities. The more focused, the better.
  • Conduct paid test pieces and interviews.
  • Assess portfolios and resumes, knowledge and skills.
  • Hire one at a time and go slow.
  • Set up project tracking in ClickUp.
  • Write your Style Guide.
  • Create the self-editing checklist.
  • Create a few SOPs ahead of time for faster work later.

Weeks 1-4:

  • Meet and orient the team around company values, expectations, and goals.
  • Ensure everyone is up to speed with your project management software (ClickUp).
  • Teach everyone productivity principles like the ONE Thing and not delaying what can be done today.
  • Go over SMART goal setting with every employee.
  • Go over consequences of inability to perform to show we take the business seriously.
  • Train employees 1:1 in their functions: how to create a content outline, how to do keyword research, how to build a content plan, how to write a great introduction, etc.
  • Continue with training – early and often, in groups and 1:1
  • Delegate more responsibilities
  • Teach more advanced writing and SEO skills

Weeks 5-8:

  • Train the SEO person to upload blogs, optimize each for SEO, submit each blog to Google Search Console, and look at Google Analytics.
  • Train the writers to outline, write, edit, and submit 2 blogs each week, regardless of length. Teach them more granular items like formatting, mindset, best practices, using screenshots, finding examples, and more.
  • Shadow team meetings. The goal is that they can run their own meetings effectively.
  • Collect SOP ideas and questions.

Weeks 9-13:

  • Don’t shadow the content meetings. Instead, view the recording after the fact to ensure they’re maintaining quality and professionalism.
  • Train writers on writing for social media like LinkedIn and Twitter. This will help promote the blogs, an essential function for success. Based on the business we’re working for, it’s also essential for inbound and attracting new leads.
  • Create SOPs and monitor an employee as they try to put them into action. Smooth over any snags and make the SOP impossible to mess up.
managing a team of content writers

Final Words and Lessons for Managing a Content Team

I usually write for mental health companies like therapy practices and startups. So what can these companies learn from my experiences managing a content team?

  1. Spend time on hiring, and don’t feel too urgent about it. More time hiring means less time training and managing.
  2. Train all employees often and hands-on.
  3. Keep it constructive and positive. But use pre-established consequences when your gut tells you to.
  4. Be the leader you want your employees to be. Take radical responsibility and promote this to them.
  5. Teach employees to prioritize tasks using the ONE THING principle.
  6. Only give more responsibilities when employees have proven themselves.
  7. Trust your gut. Trust your gut. Trust your gut.

Of course, if your writers are your therapists, they’ll have some intrinsic motivation to write and help more clients. So some things won’t be as serious as my situation. We had a hard time because the employees didn’t feel a sense of ownership, which goes back to hiring, training, and investing in them.

If you’re ready for your team of therapists to start writing and building your SEO, I can help. Contact me and let’s discuss getting your team up to speed so your SEO blogging feels helpful and automatic.

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