How To Build an Editorial Team Operating Contract

Throughout history, women were not granted the right to own property. That’s one reason prenuptial agreements were created, starting with the Married Women’s Property Bill of 1870. They served as a way to make sure a woman could retain marital assets in the event of her husband’s death.

Now I know what you are thinking: Why on earth am I reading about prenups on a content marketing blog?

Well, just like marriages of yesteryear, many editorial teams struggle with feeling like they have an equal balance of ownership. This can lead to a lack of psychological safety and an overall underperforming team. How do you change that dynamic? How do you create an environment of team bliss and growth?

Meet the editorial prenup (or postnup) – your editorial team’s operating contract.

Vast research has been done on what makes a successful team. Spoiler alert: Team success is never about the work itself but how the team works together. While jumping straight to the work side may seem natural, it can lead to miscommunication and clashing team dynamics. A team operating contract sets everyone up for success by creating boundaries, outlining shared accountabilities, and mapping out individual working styles.

Team success is never about the work itself but how the team works together, says @AmyWHiggins via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When creating your team operating contract, break it into two distinct yet interwoven areas: dynamics and mechanics. Team dynamics focuses on behaviors — how team members behave with each other, people elsewhere in the company, and even those outside the company, such as agencies. Team mechanics addresses operations and collaborations — what are team members’ preferred ways to work, what times work best, and what plans are needed to publish our work.

4 key ingredients for an editorial team operating contract

There are four broad questions to ask the team when building the operating contract. Of course, your team may emphasize one area over another, and that emphasis may shift because, unlike a marital prenup, your editorial prenup is a living document that will change as your team or company does.

These questions can be asked asynchronously or during a team call. I find that a combo of the two works best. Have your team answer the questions on their own. Then, come together to outline the operating contract.

1. How do we show up?

This isn’t about the preferred Zoom background or if the team wants to show up on camera. It’s about what others think of your editorial team and how the team supports each other.

Is the team viewed as a trusted partner? A valued friend? A fixer of problems?

To determine that, ask team members to understand what they think:

  • How is it to interact with our team?
  • What emotions best describe us?
  • What’s our mindset?
  • What adjectives best describe our team?
  • How do we show up for each other?

You could even have a little fun with these questions: What’s our team walk-on song? What is our superhero power? What Care Bear (yes, I’m a child of the ’80s) are we?

2. What are our boundaries?

Once thought of as a wall to keep others out, boundaries in the workplace have taken on another meaning. They are set and shared to help define what’s OK and what’s not OK. Boundaries help keep everyone’s psychological safety inclusive of the work and the space needed to be their authentic selves. Put simply: You be you, boo.

Boundaries help keep everyone’s psychological safety inclusive of the work and the space needed to be their authentic selves, says @AmyWHiggins via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Ask your team these questions to help establish boundaries around time:

  • What are the working hours? Is there a time everyone needs to be online together?
  • What are our work-hour boundaries? For example, when on weekends are pings OK?
  • How much notice is necessary to set up a meeting? What are the exceptions?
  • As creatives, we all need blocks of time to think. What time works best for the team? What time blocks work best for each of us? How and where do we block time to let others know we are heads-down working?
  • What type of turnaround time is acceptable?
  • Do you have sacred blocks of time? For example, you pick up your kids from dance on Thursdays.

Boundaries, of course, are about more than time. They can get deep too.

Ask your team these questions to help establish psychological safety boundaries:

  • What’s OK to discuss or do? For example, is it OK to talk about your kids?
  • What’s not OK to discuss or do? For example, do you prefer not to have your coworkers follow you on social media?
  • What type of conversations stays in the “vault” – i.e., not shared outside the team?
  • What’s something you do you’d love others to know? For example, are you prone to resting bitch face while on virtual calls? If so, is it OK for people to check in on how you are doing?

3. What is our working style?

How people work can be different for everyone. For example, I work best in the morning. As a kid, I woke up early to do my homework. Now, I wake up early before turning on my Slack and checking email to get my deep-thinking work done. By outlining how your team works best, you can easily assign workloads and communicate with them on their terms.

Ask your team these questions to understand how your team can do its best work:

  • What time of day do you do your best work?
  • Do you prefer to brainstorm out loud with others? Or do you prefer to do research on your own and come to the table with fleshed-out ideas?
  • How and where do you like to communicate? What channel works best for you – and for topics? For example, I work best on Slack for one-on-one conversations and team standups. Email works best for me to share larger strategic discussions.
  • Are you direct in how you communicate or more laid back in nature?

But many cringe at the question, “Can I give you some feedback?” If you understand when and how people prefer to receive feedback – good and bad – you will be more successful.

Ask your team these questions to understand how they think about feedback:

  • How do you like to receive praise? Do you like public shoutouts? Or prefer praise more one on one?
  • How do you prefer feedback for growth opportunities? During a normal one-on-one conversation or a time dedicated to that topic?
  • Do you prefer written or verbal feedback? Or both?
  • How do you want feedback about your creative work? Do you like direct edits or comments in the file? Or do you prefer to review verbal feedback?
  • What’s your “working” love language? For example, do you prefer gifts (e.g., thank-you flowers), words of affirmation, acts of service, or time?

To further assess your team’s working styles and uncover how to work better together, you can have them take tests like DISC, Myers-Briggs, or Enneagram.

4. What does each of us bring to the team?

Individuals make up a team. Each member brings a special unique perspective and strength to the team. Take the time to learn what makes everyone tick. What does everyone value? And how can your team help lift each other up when needed?

Ask your team these questions to understand what makes them tick:

  • What are your individual values?
  • What are your top strengths?
  • What are your saboteurs or accidental diminishers? (What do you do with good intentions that may have a negative impact?)

Draft the editorial team operating contract

Now that the team has taken the time individually and together to answer those questions, it’s time to draft the contract. Unlike many legal contracts, keep your team operating contract simple. I recommend breaking it into two key sections – team and individual.

Editorial team operating contracts should address the team as a whole and individual members, says @AmyWHiggins via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Team component of the operating contract

Informed by the earlier answers, the team operating contract can include your team’s vision, values, goals, and metrics. It should be shared with others to help your partners better understand how to work with your team.

Then, use the more detailed responses above to define the team’s dynamics (behaviors) and mechanics (operations). Keep this section visible only to your team, and refer to it often. You may want to adjust it as new people join your team or as the team’s priorities change.

Individual component of the operating contract

When I discussed this idea with others, someone asked if an operating contract only should be built between managers and the direct report. While some items, like a professional development plan, should be shared only between the employee and manager, each team member’s individual operating contract should be shared with the team.

Each person should be able to determine what they’re comfortable sharing with their fellow team members. But, I have seen tremendous value in sharing your individual strengths with your immediate team. It helps break down barriers and makes uncomfortable conversations easier for everyone.

For example, one of my team members identified a rapid responder as their accidental diminisher. They responded quickly with the intention of always being on it, but that meant that sometimes they did not fully take the time to think through their response. As their manager, I had received feedback that reflected that assessment – this person’s replies could be hard to understand, too direct, or incomplete.

With this knowledge, we created a plan during our one-to-one meeting. We brought it to the team for their help. Together, we could provide the support this person needed. And since we had the editorial operating contract, we added solutions to help each other out. For example, we added that it was OK to send after-hour Slack messages and it was OK for others to not respond until working hours. The rapid responder now had the breathing room to be OK with not replying to Slack messages at a moment’s notice, especially after their working hours.

By taking the time to draft a team operating contract together, you can set each member and the team up for success. It allows you to have a defined plan of action about how the team works together and individually.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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