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.

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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.

Make Your Own Motivation

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Girl flying colorful kite in a grassy field

I’ve talked a lot here about self-motivation–the one thing I believe is key to success in a one-person communications shop (or any job, really). But everyone loses that drive every now and then. What do you do when that happens?

You could start looking for a new job. A decade or so ago, this was my preferred approach. I was green enough to believe the grass was more vividly verdant elsewhere. A stint in management has assured me that every organization has its challenges. Switching jobs means you’ll be exchanging a set of known issues–ones you’ve developed strategies for coping with–for unknown ones. In some cases it’s worth it, but you probably don’t need a new job to find your motivation again.

Here are some much less drastic approaches. Try one or more of these next time you need a little push.

Find some new reading material. I get my best ideas while running, but it’s usually because I’m thinking about something I’ve read. I don’t read a lot of blogs, books or magazines about PR; they all started to sound the same after about 10 years in the field. Try related topics like business, HR or content management. In college I often wondered at the coincidental connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. It wasn’t a coincidence. I make lots of connections now between non-PR reading material and work, and often think of ways these ideas can apply to my job. With a few tweaks, which brings me to…

Rewrite your job description. If I still followed the same job description I was given 9 years ago (when I started working for my current employer), I’d be doing the same job … and it would be increasingly irrelevant, since it was mostly creating print collateral back then. I’ve been promoted twice, and each of those was a result of looking at industry trends, and how we could apply new ideas or technologies to meet our business goals. I looked at the organization and noted what wasn’t happening (or happening consistently), and said, “I can do that.” Internal communications and market research are two examples. Take care to also examine what can go; you’ll probably need to reduce, delegate or eliminate other activities to make time for new priorities.

Talk to your boss, or even another department, about new projects. Chances are, you don’t have a complete view of the organization’s needs and priorities. Ask about them. If you’re having trouble determining how else you can help on your own, ask to hear more about the company’s long-term strategy and growth plans. During that conversation, you and your boss are both likely to have some a-ha moments about how you can help make the company’s top priorities happen. If these tasks are outside your usual job description, all the better–you’ll have the chance to learn, and grow not only yourself, but your company as well.

Get a support group. Everyone needs a sounding board. Find a few communications colleagues who aren’t your company’s competitors, and get together regularly. Share your latest ideas, and watch them take shape as your friends talk them out. Listening to others’ challenges and helping them work through solutions is not only very rewarding–it can help put you in a new mindset to approach an old problem in a new way. This group can also help you figure out if the grass really is greener, if you’ve tried all of the above and still need a new challenge.

And maybe–just maybe–ennui with work isn’t really the problem. When’s the last time you took a day off, or did something just for you? Regular breaks–when you do absolutely nothing work-related–are essential to creativity. Unplug for a day or two. Ride a bike, take a walk, fly a kite. Sometimes all it takes is a little time away.

What’s so different about a one-person shop?

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Business woman covered in post-it notes

Most organizations have a communications function for similar reasons, though size varies widely based on how big the company is, and what the communications department is expected to do. The good news–and the bad news–is that even in small and one-person communications departments, you’re still expected to produce results on par with those that have dozens of communications staff.

How could this possibly be good news? In a word: experience. You’ll have to do everything (or at least manage the outsourcing, if you’re lucky enough to have a budget). So, instead of updating media lists and fetching coffee early in your career, as an in-house staffer in a small org, you’ll do it all. As a result, you’ll be better prepared for the next step, whether it’s another job or striking out on your own. Lucky for you, you likely already have an entrepreneurial mindset as a one-person shop.

How one-person shops are different:

1. There is no one else. Obvious, yes, but with a host of implications. You need more than a little fortitude to thrive in such a position. You must be a self-starter, and provide your own sanity checks. Your co-workers are probably great, but if they don’t know much about communications except how to use “the Facebook,” you need to find trusted advisors elsewhere. Confidence in your own skills and judgment is a must; you don’t have to know how to do everything, but you have to know how to learn. You also have to think creatively (emphasis on think), since you’ll host brainstorming parties of one.

2. Your boss doesn’t know how to do your job. Or she doesn’t want to. (Smart bosses hire people who are good at things they aren’t.) You have to figure things out on your own. Even if you ask your boss, be prepared for “I don’t know.” Be prepared to explain your job, or parts of it, repeatedly (AKA “the press release talk”). Google is your friend. And so are we, the one-person shoppers. Find a few others in your boat, and start rowing together.

3. You have to be comfortable managing yourself. Your boss will still give you stuff to do, of course, but the how will be up to you. For example, you might be tasked to “help us sell stuff on social media.” You’ll need to figure out how to build an audience (and their trust), and still meet your organization’s goals (hint: be helpful–not pushy–and be patient). Much of communications is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself time to succeed.

Starting my career–and continuing most of it–as a one-person shop has helped me in more ways than I can count. It’s helped me understand what I’m good at, and what I’m not, which helps answer “what’s next?”. When I was able to hire, I knew what skills to look for–those that would complement my own, rather than duplicate them.

How have you found life different in a one-person shop?

Do Your Shoes Fit?

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Peep-toe heels with black, white and silver pattern

The Shoes

A couple birthdays ago, I went shoe shopping. (Free advice: don’t buy shoes on a milestone birthday.) I was feeling a bit rebellious, which led to stilettos-that-shall-not-be-named. I was pumped (pun intended), and ready to start my new, more glamorous life.

But here’s the thing. I’m much happier in my Friday shoes.

Pink hiking shoes

Friday shoes

I’ve never actually worn the aforementioned heels because they just don’t feel right. They technically fit, and I like them, but more in a “wow, those shoes look awesome on her” kind of way. Kind of like when I see a super-confident extrovert at a networking event, with people lining up to shake her hand. I admire that, but it’ll never be me.

Sure, I could teeter around in those shoes for a while, but at the end of the day, I’ll probably have sore feet and blisters–not the glamorous persona I was striving for.

In one of my first jobs (before we used email for everything), I had to cold call nonprofit donors and ask them to buy our special holiday donation cards instead of sending gifts to their clients. It was a great program, and I actually sold some cards… but it was probably because the poor souls felt sorry for the awkward, stammering mess (me). I could not be worse at cold call sales, and it’ll be a cold day in you-know-where before I willingly do it again.

Cold-calling and willingly being the center of attention are like my stilettos–I can’t get out of there fast enough. Mercifully, we now have better ways to build relationships (thank you, social media).

The point of all this clodhopper clamor is that you can build your skills and learn new things to a point, but some things you just can’t fake. And even if you can, you’re probably not going to be very happy for the duration. Instead, embrace what you are good at.

If you’ve ever felt bad because you’re just “not a people person,” read Quiet by Susan Cain. While exploring inborn differences in personalities, she gives practical advice for not just surviving, but thriving in your work.

A good closet-cleaning also works wonders. Get rid of the “if I just lose 5 pounds” pants already, and fill your closet with things you feel awesome in right now. Look at your work to-do list. What do you put off? Chances are, it’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but it has to be done. Maybe it’s calling members of your organization. Is there someone outgoing who might like a change of pace? Maybe a receptionist, intern or recent college grad would welcome a task that allows them to talk with new people.

Instead of envying someone else’s shoes (read: talents), spend that energy improving your mind. Read. Learn new things. Try a new approach to your dreaded task(s), or just stop doing them. Would anyone notice or care? Some of my previous to-do list offenders were self-inflicted. When I stopped doing them, you know what happened? Absolutely nothing.

p.s. If you’d like a lovely pair of never-been-worn peep-toe heels, size 9, they’re free to the first taker. Seriously. (Will deliver in Frederick, MD, or ship to continental U.S.) The only condition? You have to feel awesome in The Shoes. And maybe send me a photo.

The Illusion of Progress

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Modern staircase

I was struck by a phrase from this Harvard Business Review article: “the illusion of progress.” The article itself is about things we should all stop doing, including reading annoying things and making life too complicated; it’s a good read.

Like many people, I struggle each year with making resolutions that stick. It occurred to me: maybe I’m doing it wrong. Why not apply a traditional business goal-setting model to this year’s resolutions? Take your main resolution, and try making it SMART:

Specific – If your goal is “exercise more,” that leaves a bit too much wiggle room. Instead try setting a goal, such as run 3 times per week instead of 2, or finish a race. If you want to be more productive, list some specific ways you plan to do this, whether it’s blocking time for key tasks, a “not to do” list, or reducing the number of meetings you attend.

Measurable – If you want to run any race–5k or ultramarathon–you’ll need a training plan. Lay out how you’re going to get there, and track your progress. If you want to build your business network, brainstorm a list of ideas on how you will do this, then put them on your calendar. Find a “goal buddy” and keep each other on task.

Attainable – If you don’t exercise much now, a marathon probably isn’t attainable right away. Start small, and build. If your goal is a raise and salaries are frozen company-wide, it won’t happen no matter how much you deserve it.

Realistic – If you plan to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, be more productive, expand your network, stay in touch with friends and spend more time with your family this year, you might find that your goals conflict (unless, of course, you’ve found a stray DeLorean). The more time you spend at the gym, the less time you’ll have to spend cooking healthy meals. If you can’t pick just one goal, find ways to make them work together. Maybe spend time cooking healthy meals with your family, or exercising with a friend.

Timely – Can you reach the goal(s) you’ve set within a few months, or a year at most? If not, maybe your goal should be broken into smaller chunks, so you can make measurable progress sooner. Run a 5k this year, and imagine how happy you’ll be if you get to the 10-miler too. Instead of setting the goal “write a book” try “write a chapter a month.” It’s a lot less intimidating goal in that form, and you’ll probably make more progress.

Be sure to think about the reasons behind your goals. If your goal is to arrive at work 30 minutes earlier, it might help to think about why. Do you want to spend more time working on important goals? Arriving half an hour earlier without a plan for how this will improve your productivity will most likely just result in spending an extra half hour at work–the illusion of progress.

Track your resolutions like business goals this year, and see what happens. And remember, the same rules apply as in business: the more strategic goals you try to tackle at once, the more likely you are to fail at all of them. If you have multiple goals for the year, try spreading out the start of each, maybe one per quarter. That way, the first becomes habit before you tackle the second.

p.s. If you’re not sure what goals to set, you could always let someone else set them for you. I did this last year, and made substantial progress with my goal of relaxing (set by my husband), by taking yoga classes most weeks (every week wouldn’t have been realistic) and spending time reading on Sunday afternoons. By simply clarifying how I was going to get there, I was able to achieve my goal of doing more nothing.

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