What is high performance in editorial project management?

Last updated 28 June 2023

‘High performance’ is a concept that’s been around in business for a while. It can be interpreted in different ways and can apply to individuals, teams or whole workplaces. In essence it’s just jargon for ‘functioning very well in a chosen field’ and as such it can mean pretty much whatever anyone wants it to mean. For example, arguably my dog is a high-performance dog because when she sets herself the goal of catching a frisbee, she chases it down with a laser focus of which few CEOs can boast.

Many commentators on the topic (high performance, not my dog, brilliant as she is) characterise high performance as requiring a good dollop of introspection and well-rounded personal growth.

So, to extend the dog metaphor: when High-Performance Dog occasionally fails in her ambitious plan to snatch out of the air every fast-flying frisbee that comes her way, she will immediately switch from pell-mell pursuit mode to icily serious search mode, tenaciously (one might even say doggedly) scrutinising every blade of grass for evidence of the lost item. And then, when we get home, she will mindfully retreat to her bed to reflect and recharge while being ready to offer support to her hominin team (by sitting on them and generally receiving their adoration) should they need it. In short, she adopts a balanced approach to life, ensuring that she is adaptable and able to rise to whatever her role requires of her in the moment.

A small black dog in a muddy field, wearing an orange coat and holding a green frisbee
High-Performance Dog with her frisbee

This idea of grounded adaptability is one that I find immensely helpful in my business (it has links with what I have termed ruthless balance). So I thought I’d take a look at what high performance might mean in editorial project management and how it can help editorial project managers (and in fact pretty much any editorial professional) to deliver better projects.

Detached but not dispassionate

Several of my clients have commented over the years on my ability to stay calm under pressure. I really don’t do ‘drama’ in my work – it doesn’t help anything and usually distracts from the ability to find the best solution to a problem. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care about the project. On the contrary, on almost every project, it is easy to find something to admire and get behind, whether it’s compelling writing, the author’s drive to communicate their message, or a more technical source of enjoyment such as the professional satisfaction in seeing a disparate manuscript come together into its final form.

High-performance editorial project managers find the sweet spot between objective assessment and subjective enjoyment.

Confident but not condescending

This is about being confident in what you know and not being pushed around, but also understanding when to defer to others. When I’m making recommendations to my clients and authors, I am a partner or coach, not wisdom-dispenser-in-chief. I may be the expert in the editorial world, but they are the expert in their field. We each bring different skills to bear on our joint endevaour.

I link this with the idea of having strong ideas that are loosely held. Approaching a project or an author thinking you know everything is a recipe for disaster. Instead it’s important to be confident in what you know but ready to adapt when something unexpected comes up.

High-performance editorial project managers work with others to co-construct solutions to a project’s problems.

Authoritative but not authoritarian

This point is similar but it relates to managing others. When I’m managing a team of editorial freelancers, I’m always aware that I’ve engaged them because they’re experts in what they do. As such, a degree of humility is needed. Even if I’m theoretically as much of an expert as they are (for example, in my copyediting work), they are by default the expert on this particular project because they are the ones spending time at the coalface, working directly with the author and assessing every single word.

I’ve written more about this in my post ‘Trust and Conquer’, and copyeditor Sue Littleford has put forward an eloquent argument for what she calls ‘black-box editing’.

High-performance editorial project managers are confident enough in their freelancers to sit back and let them work their magic unimpeded.

Exacting but not eviscerating

OK, so I’m stretching the dichotomous headings here, but don’t worry – I abandon them below.

I’m talking here about the standards an editorial project manager requires of others and of themselves. Exacting, yes. Eviscerating – in the sense of taking away others’ or one’s own sense of competence – no.

I’ve written here about my attitude to giving feedback and how I aim for it to lift the recipient (and indirectly the project) up rather than pull them down. And I believe it’s important for project managers to do the same with themselves: self-reflection is a powerful thing when we balance knowledge of our strengths with acknowledgement of our weaknesses.

High-performance editorial project managers nurture others’ strengths to the degree that is appropriate in context, and are realistic about their own weaknesses.

Clear sense of ‘why’

In the midst of my PRINCE2 project management training a few years back, I had a lightbulb moment. This came from learning about the PRINCE2 principle of ‘Focus on Products’, which is ultimately about remembering why a project is happening in the first place. It’s easy to get lost in the details and forget that the whole point of the editorial process is to end up with a text that an author is offering to a reader to fulfill some purpose. I try to keep one eye on this aspect all the time – and foster the same attitude in the people I’m working with.

High-performance editorial project managers focus on the aspects of the project that will best deliver on the ‘why’.

Beyond authentic

Authenticity is a concept that often comes up in relation to high performance (e.g. in pitches and interviews) and rightly so. When we are authentic, we lead as ourselves and without hindering filters, which I’d argue means that we’re more likely to be effective and find flow. But, precisely because it’s become such a widely appreciated trait, in my view authenticity has also become rather performative – and therefore the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be.

I recently heard the same view expressed by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, host of the podcast Feel Better, Live More. In an interview on the High Performance Podcast, Dr Chatterjee suggested the alternative idea of ‘presence’. By being present in the moment, he argues, we put ourselves in the best possible mindset to perform well – in whatever we’re doing.

High-performance editorial project managers go beyond worrying about how they appear to others and instead ensure they are giving their full attention in the present moment.

To be crystal clear, I am certainly not claiming to do all, or indeed any, of the above to an exceptional degree. At the risk of introducing a rather dreary cliche, the idea of high performance is inherently based on growth and improvement. As such, I think of this list as aspirational more than anything else.

What would you add?

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

1 Comment

  1. Sue Littleford on 24 May 2023 at 10:33

    I love this, Hazel – such a good encapsulation of the mindset for being an ace project manager! And I love the notion of strong ideas, loosely held – that works in personal as well as professional life – so thanks for referencing that. Oh, and thanks for linking to my post, too – I’m glad you liked it 🙂

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