How Harvard Business Publishing’s Lucy Swedberg Uses Lessons Learned to Lead

“Anytime you’re asking your teams for a change, or driving something new or different, you [should] come at it from a place of understanding…” Harvard Business Publishing’s Lucy Swedberg told us recently. “[It’s about] catalyzing people to do things differently. People get anchored to things; they like the way that they did things, and you have to find a way to release that. Building those personal connections is a big part of your ability to do that.”

Last month, our Associations, Media & Publishing (AM&P) Network began a new virtual series called Lessons from a Leader. (Kudos to Amanda McMaster for initiating.) Our first guest was Swedberg, executive editor and senior editorial director at Harvard Business Publishing, and someone I have always greatly respected from her long stint at Wellesley Information Services.

Swedberg spoke about the quick pivot that HBP, like so many others, orchestrated in the wake of the pandemic. “Our audience is educators, many of whom had absolutely zero experience teaching online, so when the pandemic hit—for me it was March 13—everything got locked down, and you had a lot of professors scrambling for help and guidance.” It was quite a challenge, she said, but one that they were able to conquer for their 160,000-plus newsletter subscribers to the tune of 11.4 million business cases sold in FY21.

Here are some key success points that Swedberg spoke to in the session, which can be viewed here with the password r#@Pj7q4.

On meeting the moment. “We had an opportunity for real impact that felt like something we could do to make a difference at a time when everybody was just so unsure of what on earth was going on,” Swedberg said. “Within our organization, it was a transformation. We’re a media company, not an academic institution, so I tend to think we are in a nimble and innovative, quick-moving culture in general… It gave us focus at a time when [it was hard] to know which end was up.”

On finding the right job. You want to find something where you can dive in with conviction, she said. You find the passion in whatever it is that you’re doing, and you just keep pushing.

Never stop learning. “I was really fortunate to have leadership and mentors who always encouraged me to keep learning and growing, taking classes,” Swedberg said. “I got my MBA going part time, thanks to the guidance of a past CEO.”

It’s okay to show vulnerability. “That was one of the central themes of our content to educators throughout the pandemic, which, mind you, in an academic setting can be a place where guards are typically up and sometimes there’s a formality to what you share and how you behave. Educators often feel like they can’t open up or be themselves because they’ve got to be the leader of the class, and they can’t show this vulnerable side to their students. The last 18 months showed us that that connection and empathy and understanding are what is keeping students engaged… making sure people feel like they can bring their whole selves. Establishing that level of honesty and openness with your peers, people you manage and your upper management” is essential.

On the importance of processes. “Building in process for a very small team became really important,” Swedberg said. “We didn’t even have a content management system [early on]; we were typing out, ‘please change in the third sentence of paragraph four the semi colon to an em dash…’ Implementing a CMS is not news to anybody, but it’s reassuring to hear that even an outlet like this [had to deal with that] and now we’re flying with real-time content updates.”

On being smart about your time. We have the HBP brand and umbrella to live up to, but at the same token, we have to understand—and this is strange for an editor to say—when something is good enough,” Swedberg said. “’How many times should we really look at this?’ So there were steps, for example, like my personal review of every piece of content, sometimes twice, where I just had to step out and trust my team, so I don’t need to look at every little last thing. I want to reassure you that quality is super important to us, so these process changes are not at the sake of quality, but we’ve just had to find ways with a small, scrappy little team to tighten and trust each other, and to cut the number of cycles… we’ve actually adopted agile methodology for our team, so we do things like have a refinement meeting, and we’re adapting it for editorial needs.”

On the importance of analytics. “One of the best practices that we’ve embedded is an analytics meeting for our editors, so that they can really see their work and how it ends up performing out in the world,” Swedberg said. “You start to hear them thinking and observing, ‘Oh, this thing did really well—let’s do more of those. I love when I hear they’re getting insights from the data. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what will keep us going and [allow us to] make an impact. We have KPIs and metrics that we’re accountable for hitting. We use Adobe Analytics to measure and monitor our web content. We do get help from our friends on our web and marketing teams. They will do the helpful work of serving up that data to us… But it’s ultimately the newsletter editors’ responsibility to make sure we’re always testing something, whether it’s a subject line or what color a button is or a different approach to an editorial lead-in.”

On future staffing. “Over time, I’d like to bring in editors [who are] really jazzed by [analytics] and eventually ask one editor to own it and bring those insights to the team. That’ll be better long term, but for now it’s sort of like a democratic, let’s-all-make-sure-to-keep-an-eye-on-it kind of thing. For now, we have a great dashboard that gets pushed to us once a week, and we can look it over and talk about it as a team…” We’re also trying to ensure that people see paths and growth for themselves. We’re also bringing in more junior positions, affording opportunity to lots of different types of candidates that may not be seen as coming from traditional or typical backgrounds.

Make decisions based on data. “I’m a content is king advocate for life, but I increasingly see that content needs to be coupled with really amazing and engaging visual and technical experience,” Swedberg said. “So we’re seeing a lot of need for UX professionals, and frankly, it’s hard it’s hard to find people right now in that space same with analytics.”

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