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Content vs. Context: Which Matters Most?

Content vs. Context: Which Matters Most?

Very often in my 20+ years as a business leader, and now as an executive coach and board member, I’ve had deep conversations with leaders that spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, style, and skills, as they believe this “content” is the secret sauce to their success.

In other words, they are implicitly assuming that their content is the most important component for top performance. From their years and areas of experience to their soft skills and achievements, most leaders place a high premium on their own content, under the premise that it is the single most important driver to sustained results.

My belief is that success is actually 50% content and 50% context. And I have learned that you are just as responsible for your context as you are for the content.

[Related: You Want to Be Taken Seriously in Meetings? Work on Your Executive Presence]

By “context” I mean the business environment in which you showcase and bring to life your content. From your company culture to your immediate team, picking or creating the right context is just as important as getting your own content right.

There are a few moments in your journey when carefully choosing context really matters. One of the most important is when doing your due diligence and research while you are evaluating a new job opportunity. Being able to honestly and carefully assess if the context in which you will operate is a good fit to your content is key to predicting your chances for future success.

We are often optimistic creatures and tend to overlook many essential aspects of these intangibles, as we often focus more on the attractiveness of the business model, the role we are considering, or the "wow" factor of the company.

What context elements to look for in a due diligence phase:

  • Have I been transparent and explicit about my skills and my style? Have I asked multiple stakeholders how that will play out in the context of the company culture?
  • Will my skills and style be fully appreciated, especially if they are very different from the average profile of most people? Have I had the right (sometimes uncomfortable) conversations to pressure-test this?
  • Is there a good culture fit between my core values and the company’s?
  • What are observable examples of how the company culture goals truly come to life? Are they aligned to their “boiler plate” culture statement, or do I see discrepancies?
  • Will I have enough resources, autonomy, and empowerment to make things happen? Have I asked enough people in the company and people that have left if this was their experience?
  • How do they deal with conflict and disagreement? Have I asked more than three people for specific examples of these situations and how they were resolved and managed?
  • Does the company have a truly diverse team that complements each other’s strengths and styles, or are they more alike than different?

[Related: The Added Challenge for Small Companies and Departments]

Another key moment where spending time consciously thinking about context is when you are building the culture of a team or an entire company.

As the architect of context, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • What do we want to achieve as a business and what content/skills do I need to reach these goals?
  • What are the top three defining context characteristics I need to create to have a good interplay between content and context?
  • How do I actively build a culture and a context when everyone’s content will be put to best use?
  • What elements of culture do I need to create, embed, change, or secure to enable everyone’s content to show up at its best?
  • How do I make sure I understand what it takes from me as a leader to create vs. embed vs. change vs. secure, as they are different skills?
  • How do I make these “content” and “context” characteristics explicit to my team so that we are all on the same page?
  • How will we keep each other honest about how we are living these principles, and how will we correct and adjust when needed?

When going through the process of assessing the context in a new opportunity, or building the context in your own business, it is key to open your thinking to other ways to look at things. Engaging people you know and trust as thinking partners can be key to help you avoid the trap of overlooking the importance of context.

Realizing that you put the right content in the wrong context when it’s too late is definitely not a good place to be, so being able to spend time reflecting and really doing your homework early on to strike a virtuous balance between content and context will pay off.

[Related: Back to Basics: Do You Know Your Mission and Vision?]

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Lucia Nunez is an executive coach with 20+ years in senior business leadership roles, including as CEO of Fortune 500 companies. She helps her clients achieve their goals, and has a profound passion for and expertise in helping women leaders unleash their potential.


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