A Fresh Start

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April's "new" office, with green wallsI’m sitting in my freshly painted and de-cluttered office, after spending the last two days in home-improvement-frenzy mode. And you know what? It feels like freedom.

Let me explain.

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I was recently laid off from a company where I worked for 10 years. I know, I know… 10 years is a long time. But—here’s the important part—I was still having fun (and getting results). I rewrote my job description several times over the years. Internal communication? Market research? Digital marketing? I can do that. And that. And that.

But sometimes, even reinventing your position and honing your skills to stay relevant isn’t enough. Nor is doing more “more” with less than anyone should expect. It’s not you (or me, in this case). It’s just business.

The day I received my notice, a couple thousand of my colleagues in the company’s federal business unit did too. (Thank you sequestration.) Someone I’ve never met called me to break the news; I was chosen because my department was what an outside consulting firm considered to be extra overhead. (Yet another reason you should make communicating your value a priority in a one-person shop, but even that won’t protect you from the Bobs.)

Of course, I was disappointed that I didn’t leave on my terms, but I’m choosing to view this as an opportunity to figure out my next adventure. Several months earlier, I realized that though I was having fun and dearly loved my job and coworkers, it was time to move on. Which, of course, is easier said than done … particularly if you don’t quite know what’s next.

Most days I wish I had nine lives, so I could choose a new adventure each time. Maybe next time I’d be a nutritionist. Geologist. Chef. Novelist. Ancient astronaut theorist. (OK, maybe not that last one … but the show is entertaining.) For now, I’m looking for a way to combine things I’m passionate about—healthy food, wellness, fitness, public health, business writing that sounds human—with the skills I’ve built in my 15+ years in communications.

Maybe that’s creating my own path as a contract worker, or maybe it’s with a great organization that’s already doing those things. I’m optimistic that my next grand adventure is just around the corner. For today, I’m going to go make it happen.

p.s. At every life science networking event I’ve been to, nearly everyone I talk to says, “Oh, that happened to me,” and some more than once—it’s a fact of life in corporate America and start-ups alike. These are smart people in the prime of their careers, and most have moved on to better things. Have you? I’d love to hear your story.

Translate your communication skills to new business areas

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Calculator with financial statement

When I went to grad school for an MBA, it wasn’t something a lot of communications professionals did. (You want me to take how much accounting?) I read an article long ago that noted how much better prepared the author had been for many business school challenges coming from a communications background, versus engineering or finance.

I had a similar experience in grad school, breezing through business writing, research and presentations.  School experience is great, but we all know it’s what happens in the real world that counts—a reason employers are so keen on hiring experienced workers.  While it doesn’t immediately prepare you for technical or niche positions, a communications background can help you transition into any number of other jobs, or provide additional value in your current role.

Why? Let’s start with the ubiquitous, yet notoriously ambiguous “communication skills.” Finding a communications professional who doesn’t have better-than-average skills in this area is difficult. Far from impossible, yes, but a better bet than in most other professions.

Of course everyone thinks his own communication skills are impeccable. “I don’t know why Alice, Bob and Clarice don’t follow instructions—I sent them a fax last year.” “No one tells me anything.” “I only copied the people who need to know. What about Doug? Oh, I guess he does need to send that form…” You get the idea. And, of course when things go wrong it’s always a “communication problem” … but that’s another post.

As a communicator, your natural instincts help you make good business decisions. Before sending any message, you think about what action you need your audience to take. You think about how you will make that clear, who needs to be copied, and the next logical questions. Then you go ahead and answer those too, while keeping it concise.

Your research and communications planning skills can also translate to a variety of other business applications. For example, you’re used to creating communication strategies with sound objectives and realistic tactics, all the while ensuring that they’re also measurable (easier said than done) and within your budget.  This approach works well to solve other business challenges too.

Write down the business problem. Research your options—from industry best practices to customer interviews to digging in the data—then form an approach that’s realistic. Plan how you’ll know it’s working (or not), and what it’s going to cost (don’t forget labor hours). Think about what could go wrong, and plan for that too. Think about what happens if you don’t do it (purposely taking no action is also a strategy).

If you’ve ever been a one-person shop, chances are you’re well-equipped with solid business instincts, MBA or not. So go ahead. Get out of your comfort zone, and speak up about how your excellent communication skills can support other areas of your business too.

An Honest Bio

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Christmas with the Daleks

I recently read a beautiful piece in—of all places—Harvard Business Review. The author shares his personal story about how difficult it can be to stay true to yourself in life, and in business. Somewhere between leveraging our best practices, [insert your favorite cliché here], and doing more with less, we forget to be human.

I’ve said before that being human is the best path to success in social media. Books like Unmarketing and Rework make me think that soon, being human will be the path to business success too. I’m ready. Instead of listing degrees and years of experience, here’s the kind of bio I’d like to see more of.

I am a nerd. Since I joined the braces-wearing, marching-band-enthusiast, overachieving-student club, I’ve been a nerd. I’ve worn hipster glasses since 7th grade, and though I won’t say exactly how long ago that was, it was before glasses were cool. I own all seven Harry Potter books. And a Gryffindor scarf. I’m secretly thrilled they made The Hobbit into three epic films. I own not one, but two Dalek figurines (it’s a good way to identify fellow nerds). I’d rather read a book than go to a party. I read about infectious diseases for fun. (Spillover is scarier than any murder mystery I’ve ever read.) I own four pairs of orange shoes. I ran a marathon, just to see if I could, and then did a Half Ironman. (Related: I now understand the difference between could and should.) I hope we’ll have snow at Christmas, and peace on Earth.

I’m a real person. I’m good at what I do because I think. I stop to ask why, and what if, and what happens next. Assign me a research project; you won’t see me for a few days, but I’ll let you know when I’ve found patterns in the data, and brainstormed ways we can use it to achieve a goal or solve a problem. When writing, I put myself in the reader’s shoes. I’ve made some mistakes, but never the same one twice. I’ve learned management lessons the hard way, but still have faith in my team members, and do everything in my power to help them succeed. I won’t tell you something’s a good idea unless I really believe it. If you give me a chance, you won’t regret it.

p.s. Thank you to the ladies of SC (you know who you are) for being kind and supportive, and helping me learn that being a nice person and succeeding in business don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I wish you all a magical holiday season.

Management: Trial by Fire

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Burning match on black background

Yes! You’ve finally gotten some help (buh-bye one-person shop!), or been invited to the coveted ranks of management. You got there because you’re good at what you do, and someone saw your potential to do more (go you!). Here’s what they won’t tell you about management before you accept that promotion.

1. Management is trial by fire

No training course–no matter how carefully simulated–can totally prepare you to manage people. I can say this with some certainty, after earning an MBA and surviving countless management seminars. Why? People have emotions, and they don’t check them at the door (with the possible exception of prison guards–I gave a speech to such a group once, and could swear they were carved from stone).

You never know what’s going on in someone’s personal life unless they tell you. And, believe it or not, some of them will tell you. More than you wanted to know.  Some employees want to talk about illnesses (in graphic detail), family problems and relationships with you, their boss. As a manager, you have to listen, whether or not you have time. (And you usually won’t.)

No two employees are the same.They all need things from you, but different things. The new college grad may want mentoring, or some help as he adjusts to life after State U. The experienced professional may just want someone to listen as she vents, and support her professional decisions.

2. You’ll learn stuff you don’t want to know

Communications needs a seat at the table early, to head off potential communication problems. Be glad you work at an organization that recognizes this. But at that table you’ll hear things that make you uncomfortable. You might realize that your company’s “people first” motto is complete B.S. (see Pam Slim’s excellent letter for more on this). You can bet if you work for a public company that shareholders (and thus earnings) come first, middle and last; that’s the first thing they teach you in business school.

You might become aware of major issues affecting your company’s future. It’s exciting to help solve big business problems, but you have to grow a thick skin, and have more than a little confidence that your company is on the right path to push through both large and small issues. Because there will always be issues.

You might also learn that simply being in Communications puts a big “Overhead Expense Here!” target on your back. Speak up in meetings. Share that great idea, or angle no one has mentioned. It might be uncomfortable at first to speak up. Do it anyway. Prove that you deserve your seat at that table–that your organization needs you–then do it again. Every single day.

3. No one wants to hear you complain

You’re required to be there for employees who need to vent, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You’re not allowed to vent to your employees. You’ll never convince them that your struggles are greater than theirs, so don’t even try. With the privilege of sitting at the management table comes a degree of isolation. Keep your gripes among your management peers, or grouse to your spouse. And remember: before you complain to your boss, be sure it’s a real issue, and you’ve thought through several alternatives.

4. Giving feedback is harder than it looks

Praise in public, correct in private. Feedback works best when it is specific and in close proximity to the event. For example, if your employee did a great job preparing for an upcoming trade show, tell her exactly what you appreciated about that while you’re there, or shortly after you return. It’s easy to let your stars go on autopilot–they’ll do a great job regardless. Resist the temptation, and make a point to regularly remind them how awesome they are (specifically, of course).

5. You don’t get to do the cool stuff any more

If you’re great at what you do, and work in a big enough organization, you’ll likely end up promoted to management. This is great, of course, until you realize you don’t get to do the things that got you there any more. You have to spend much more time on paperwork and people management (which takes longer than you would think), and delegate the cool stuff. You can’t just delegate busy work. It is now your job to help your employees grow and learn new skills. So no matter how much you want to do that video editing project yourself, let it go.

Delegating is especially hard if you’re used to not just running but being the show. No one will do it exactly as you would. Bite your tongue and let it go. Give your employees the freedom to figure out how to do things (lest you become the dreaded micromanager). They might find a quicker or better way to do something, but only if you let them try. Correct only on the important things, like strategy, and stay out of the details.

Have your own lessons from becoming a manager? I’d love to hear them.

Other duties as assigned

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Orange riding lawn mower

We really should be more prepared for the real world after college, but some things you just can’t prepare for. Those would be the “other duties as assigned”–the loophole in your job description.

A few things I did for my first “real” job after college (the first was actually waiting tables at Dry Dock Seafood #2 in Carrboro, NC). This was an event marketing position, working for Kmart’s Kids Race Against Drugs. It was a cause I could get behind, and I didn’t want to be slinging popcorn shrimp my whole life–in fact, never waiting tables again was my main motivation for graduating. (It was not to be, but that’s another story.)

  • Lawn mower maintenance. The kids raced riding lawn mowers (minus the blades) around a track we built in store parking lots. The lawn mowers, of course, were not designed for this. We had to keep them running, when week after week 7-year-olds ran them into every possible obstacle, including fences, foam pads, tables and me.
  • Construction/temporary labor crew management. Really wasn’t prepared for this one. My crew in every city was from a temp firm that seemed to specialize in finding the drunkest possible vagrants and sending them to me at 7 a.m. We–me and a couple other 22-year-olds–then had to convince them to help us build a race track in inner-city Kmart parking lots. Two words: manual labor.
  • Loading/unloading semi trailers, in all kinds of weather. We had two tractor trailers that followed us around the country. Everything would fit, but only if packed precisely. And since we depended on temporary help, we were always in the back of the truck shouting for the next piece. Which didn’t land on us, if we were lucky.
  • Unholy hours. Regularly rose at 4 a.m. to race the weather guy for morning news segments across the country. Sounds way more glamorous than it actually is. Plus, you have to let the weather guy win.

I learned some important lessons on this job. I found out the hard way where my strengths lie. I was a master at packing the trucks, changing tires and completing the reams of paperwork required for every weekend event. I wasn’t so good at immediately building a rapport with the store workers, volunteers and labor crews–this required more of a touchy, feely personality and I was too green to realize that and try to fake it. I suspect faking it wouldn’t have gone well because, really, when does it ever?

If the job hadn’t been temporary, I wouldn’t have stuck it out so long. I craved a creative position and stability, and this was Road Rules late 90s and manual labor. But I was determined to learn what I could, and use that knowledge to find a position that offered more of the work I liked.

What does this have to do with being a one-person shop? I was thrust into that role early in my career–the job right after this one, to be exact. It was my first desk job (though, to be fair, that one involved a lot of event and warehouse work too). There are things in every job that you’ll never love, just like there are problems in every organization.  Trust me. Every job. Every organization. The key is finding the position/organization that offers the most of what you excel at (and the problems you can tolerate).

The cool thing about one-person shops is that you can often invent the job as you go along. So even if you don’t start with a position tailor-made to your strengths, you can create one. Yes, you’ll still have to do things you’d rather not, but let’s face it. That’s just part of being a grown-up. Take the opportunity to learn from those dreaded tasks, and maybe you’ll be able to delegate them one day.

Side note: I almost named this blog Other Duties as Assigned, since that’s what I seem to spend most of my time doing. I’d love to hear the wacky things you’ve had to do in your communications adventures.

The Rules of Modern Business Communication

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Wet floor signs, in a fountain

Some things should be obvious.

Get Stuff Done Tuesday will be back next week. Today I’d like to share some notes I made for a presentation. I spoke to a small but enthusiastic group at the Frederick Chamber EXPO (always a fantastic event!) this morning about modern business communication.

When I signed on to give this presentation, I thought I would talk more about things like grammar and tone, but as I started creating the slides, a different theme emerged. In the 15 years I’ve been a communications professional, and even the last 8 in my current job, what I do day-to-day has changed. The reason for my job hasn’t, but the ways I accomplish it are vastly different.

The rules below are a collection of things that stuck with me as I read various books and posts, and that I’ve tried to implement in my own work. They represent trends and advice from a lot of smart people, including Frederick’s own social media trend-spotter Beth Schillaci of VillageWorks Communications, event-planner and communicator extraordinaire Jessica Hibbard (if you’re near Frederick, Maryland, don’t miss her Spectra Show!), and authors including Scott Stratten, Phil Simon and Amber Naslund.

The rules, as I see them:

Be a real person.

Don’t hide who you are. People root for small businesses, and they expect transparency, especially for online-only businesses. Personality encouraged.

Don’t forget the obvious.

Common courtesy is still required. Please, thank you and excuse me go a long way. Customer service is still critical. People still judge by appearance, including your writing and website.

Don’t just broadcast.

Communication is—more than ever—a two-way street. If you only broadcast (that is, talk about “me me me”), you get tuned out. Engage. Ask questions. Get to know your audience.

Be helpful.

Skip the hard sell. Offer useful information. Help people, and when they need your product or service, they’ll remember you.

Don’t take shortcuts.

Building relationships—even virtual ones—takes time. Services that claim to net you thousands of social media fans or followers are most likely scams. Offer helpful content, and earn them instead.

Automate with caution.

Tailor your message to the platform. Never send automated direct messages on Twitter. If you automate posts to help with time management, remember to check comments/replies.

Don’t steal. Or spam.

If it’s on the Internet, assume it’s copyrighted. If they didn’t sign up for your email newsletter, it’s spam. And it’s illegal. $16K per violation illegal.

Do the right thing.

Make your website accessible, even if you aren’t required to by law.

Ask for help.

You (probably) wouldn’t try to fix a major electrical issue yourself. Consider your website a digital extension of your building. Work with professionals to make it your best possible window to the world.

Make your own rules.

One size does not fit all in the digital economy. Figure out what you want to accomplish, set a strategy and get started. Mistakes happen. Learn from them, and move on.

What are your rules?

Frederick Chamber EXPO materials:

Presentation (PDF): Modern Communication: Professional Writing for Your Business, and Why it Matters

Handout (PDF): The Rules of Modern Business Communication

Wow, you’re quick!

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Thanks for stopping by! I’ve been working as a communications professional for 15 years–most of that time as a one-person shop. I’ve learned just about everything the hard way, and will share my mistakes here, so you don’t have to make them too.

What questions do you have? Let me know, and I’ll add them to the list of future posts.

Busy woman cooking, with phone in ear and using latop

(And no, this isn’t me, but I’ve done this more than a few times.)