What’s next?

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Series of words about goals (purpose, dreams, ambitions, etc.)

Now is a perfect time to reflect on your career goals. Not your work goals, but your personal goals. (Seriously, take advantage of the quiet time while everyone at work is distracted by sugar cookies.)

We’ve all heard that failing to plan is planning to fail. We wouldn’t dream of implementing communication tactics without a strategy, but how many of us do exactly that with our careers? I’m as guilty as anyone. I found my current organization purely by chance. I moved to a new city when my husband took a job here, and answered an ad in the newspaper.

I had never worked in biotech, and didn’t expect to like it, since I was looking for a non-profit position. But a funny thing happened. The more I learned about how biotech research is saving lives with new discoveries, the more I wanted to be part of that.

Most successful people I’ve talked with admit that their career progression involved a bit of luck. A trainer from a class I took yesterday quoted an entrepreneur friend saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  In the same class, he quoted a former Lockheed Martin CEO who said, “hope is not a strategy.”

While we can all hope for luck, a strategy is never a bad idea. Make a career plan right now. Write it on your grocery list or the back of an envelope if you’re afraid to commit, but put something in writing. Answer these questions:

  1. How many more years will you be working? Assume you’ll be in each new job roughly 5 years, then figure out how many more jobs that is until you turn 65 (or whatever age you expect to retire).
  2. What is the last job you want? This is your dream job–the one you’ve worked your whole career to have. Write it down. If you can’t pick just one, list two or three options.
  3. What’s missing? What skills do you still need to master? What industry do you need experience in? Who do you need to connect with in your network now to make the dream job a possibility?
  4. How will you get there? Make a bulleted list of next jobs/positions (referring to #1 for how many) that could help you get there. For example, if you wanted to transition from nonprofit communications to biotech, you might target a nonprofit research organization supporting biotech research as your next job, to help you learn the industry. The job after that might be managing communications for a small biotech company, and so on, with the ultimate goal of leading global communications for a big pharmaceutical company before you retire.

Think about what you want to be known for, and look for opportunities to share your knowledge. Volunteer to speak at conferences or mentor young professionals. Chair a committee for PRSA, or your professional organization of choice.

What makes you different? Think about your unique experience and skills and what those offer to your employer (current or future). Figure out now what training you’ll need for the next step–or the last one–and learn those things as soon as you can.

Find a trusted friend who will keep you on track and give you honest feedback on your plan–maybe even do this exercise together. Meet periodically to track your progress (this is a great excuse to set standing coffee or lunch dates). Set small goals to accomplish before each meeting, maybe attend one networking event, write a blog post about a certain topic or sign up for a class. Anything that gets you closer to your goal is fair game.

It might be a good idea to talk about what success means to you as well. Not everyone wants a 50-foot-yacht and three vacation homes, so don’t assume your friends understand your ultimate goal. Talk them through it. If nothing else, talking about it will help you understand your own perspective.

And if you do happen upon an opportunity that doesn’t exactly fit your plan but sounds intriguing and pays the bills, take it. Your career plan should be flexible, if nothing else. The older I get, the more certain I am that few of us ever really figure out the answer to the question “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Maybe “what do I want to do for the next 5 years?” is the question we should ask instead.

Note: I made a career plan based on the above questions a couple years ago. (I’ve since changed my mind about the ending, and made it more of a choose-your-own adventure of possible choices. But it still helps to have a plan.) I wish I could remember where I got this excellent advice. If you happen to know where to find the original article posing these questions, please let me know so I can credit the author (and thank him/her for the tips!).

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A Perspective on Perspectives (and Sparkly Vampires)

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Railway switches and sun spots, close-up

A couple words have been stuck in my head for a while: perspective and confidence. I thought they would be separate posts, but the more I ponder, the more it seems one feeds the other.

Perspective is tricky. You almost never have all the facts and, as my boss likes to say, there are at least three sides to every story. It was easy to dismiss the wildly popular “sparkly vampire” novels as ridiculous teenage drivel. But then–possibly after a bit too much Thanksgiving revelry–I started reading one. And I couldn’t put it down. Perspective: changed.

If you’re just starting out, you probably haven’t managed others. Maybe you were a supervisor at a restaurant or pool, but managing in a professional setting is a lot more nebulous. Your boss might know things she can’t tell you. And–trust me–when you get there too, you’ll sometimes wish for the days when you didn’t know the dirty details.

Businesses exist to make money. Period. Yes, the good ones look toward the future. They are considerate of their employees, communities and the planet … because it helps the bottom line.

“Work is about business, not you” (more where that came from). Especially early in your career, when work is a huge part of your life, it’s easy to take things personally. Work issues are rarely personal. Maybe your manager said no when you asked to attend a training class. What you didn’t know is that there were (more) budget cuts, she saved your job from being eliminated, and now no one has a training budget. This is an extreme–and entirely hypothetical–example of perspective.

You have a couple options as an employee in this situation. 1) You can take it personally and complain to anyone who will listen, or 2) you can take it in stride, and find a way to learn whatever it was on your own.

If you decide to be a victim, you’ll always be a victim. Find creative solutions to your challenges instead of complaining about them. (Note: occasional venting to trusted friends is fine, and a healthy way to deal with things you can’t control. Incessant whining is not, if for no other reason than it urges others toward violent impulses when you’re around.)

I believe one difference between employees who choose option 1 and 2 is confidence. The complainers are constantly seeking validation from others. They assume the boss said no to the training because “she hates me,” “she likes Joe better,” or “I did something wrong.”

The person who chooses option 2 has confidence. She doesn’t know everything–far from it. But when presented with something new, maybe a software program or a new business problem, she has the confidence that she can (eventually) master it with creative thinking and hard work. And, maybe in the case of software, liberal use of Ctrl-Z.

If you’re a one-person shop, you have no choice; option 2 is the only way. You wouldn’t be trusted to run an organization’s communications if you couldn’t do it. It will rarely be easy, but you can meet the challenge. And, after a while, dispatching everyday business challenges will become second nature. It gets easier with time, perspective and confidence.

p.s. Please forgive the longer-than-usual pause between posts. I’ve been trying to decide between Team Edward and Team Jake. You know, as an experiment on perspective…

Who Can Inspire Me?

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White sign saying "Your Purpose Awaits" with an arrow pointing right

I saw a tweet this morning: “who can inspire me?” It stopped me in my tracks. The tweeter was looking for motivation to go to the gym, on a day when she really didn’t feel like it.*

Of course, we’ve all had those days. When the gym is less-than-appealing. When work seems like a long, slow trudge of meaningless, thankless busy work. When the family has, yet again, completely obliterated any evidence of the hours you spent cleaning.

How do you find your motivation on those days? If you’re a self-starter, you won’t ask anyone else to inspire you. You might read a few of your favorite blogs or newsletters (my new favorite: Snarketing), or make a list of what matters. Why do you do those things?

I go to the gym to stay healthy. I go to work because I believe the end result of my efforts–combined with those of my colleagues–lead to a safer world. I clean my house because my in-laws are visiting soon. (OK, maybe that last one isn’t the best example of intrinsic motivation.)

You can’t fake self-motivation. If you take a job just for the money, it will wear on you. Sometimes you don’t have a choice–I have been there, and completely understand. That’s when you have to find some other way to express your passion to keep from getting discouraged. It may not happen immediately, but keep plugging away at your passions and you’ll perk up eventually. (I had to wait a week before posting this, to make sure that was true. It is; be patient.)

I keep a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson on my bulletin board. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

What have you done today to stay true to who you are?

*Note: Sometimes, you should listen to the devil on your shoulder saying “skip the gym and stay home with this delicious novel instead.” When your body is tired, inspire your mind.

Finding your flow

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Woman on beach at sunrise doing yoga (dancer pose)

If you’re wondering more about how to be a self-starter, check out Drive by Daniel Pink. In this book, he shares some good news: you can learn intrinsic motivation. It’s not necessarily something you’re born with. (Actually, Pink says we’re all born with it, but it becomes trained out of us by outdated school and work reward systems.)

The concept that most intrigues me in this book is “flow.” If you’ve ever read What Color is Your Parachute? you might recognize it. Flow is that feeling we get when we’re working on something engaging, and really making progress. When you are so engaged or focused you lose track of time.

Solving complex problems does it for some–engineers, maybe. Writing for others. But you don’t have to be creating something monumental to find your flow. Pink asserts that flow is something we need every day to feel fulfilled.

Ever have a hectic day at the office putting out fires, and attending to the problems of others? Unless triage is your element, you probably didn’t find your flow that day. And you might have gone home feeling discouraged, like you didn’t accomplish anything that day. (If you’re a manager, these days happen more often because it becomes your job to help others find their flow, usually at the cost of your own.)

So how do you find your flow? If you want more detail, read Drive, but here’s a simple approach. When you’ve been working on something for a while and feeling in the zone, jot it down. You might notice over a few days that you are most productive at a certain time, or while doing a certain type of task. It helps if the task challenges you a bit–not something that you feel is impossible, but a little outside your comfort zone.

I write for many reasons, but the one I couldn’t quite explain until now is flow. If you’re not finding enough flow at work, find it somewhere. Writing does it for me, and I don’t get to write nearly as much as I would like as a side effect of running a small communications shop.

If you enjoy running, you most likely experience flow during those miles. I can lose hours in the kitchen cooking; that’s flow too. But I also found it in a surprising place: editing a 184-page technical document. It was tedious work, but well-matched to my skills, and the time just flew by.

When you find your flow, protect it. Days when I need to be most creative, I usually work from home, so I can focus without interruption. A closed door doesn’t help much in my office (does it anywhere?), and I find that being in a different environment spurs creativity. (I wrote this post on the train to New York.) If you don’t find flow at work, find something outside work that gives you that sense of purpose. We all need balance in our lives. I just feel a lot happier when ink meets paper, and I can organize a few of the thoughts racing around in my head.

Flow is a personal thing, but it you’ve found it and don’t mind sharing, maybe you could help someone who hasn’t quite found it yet.

Sometimes you have to do things you hate

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Lone triathlete swimming in a lake at sunrise

Sunday morning I will wake (by choice) at 4:00 a.m., and do something that scares me. Even after several triathlons, the swim and I… we’ve never been friends. At my first triathlon, my daughter asked, “Mommy, why are you going in the muddy water?” Why indeed.

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation to a small group–about 15 people. Just like the triathlon, I had volunteered for this, even applied for a speaking slot. But here’s the thing: I hate public speaking.

Why did I volunteer? Simple. I’ll never get over my fear if I don’t face it head on. And I feel passionately enough about my subject that I want to help people with it. My desire to share what I know overshadows the fear. For triathlons, I need to prove to myself that despite being a proud band geek with no hand-eye coordination, I can be an athlete too.

If you’re afraid of public speaking, chances are–like me–you could use some practice. Yes, you’ll hate it. But you’ll be glad you did it.

Long ago, one of my first bosses required me to attend Toastmasters meetings every Wednesday morning at 7:30 a.m. I was 22, and did not yet appreciate the possibility and opportunity found in those quiet, early hours. And I was terrified. The thought of talking to groups of people made me break into a cold sweat. But a funny thing happened. I went to those meetings, where you basically practice being put on the spot. I never got completely comfortable with it, but I improved.

I don’t think out loud. Like many writers, I prefer to ponder on the page before sharing my opinion. But to succeed in communications, you have to be reasonably competent at both written and verbal communication. To succeed in business, you have to speak up sometimes. Chances are, if you’re wondering about something during a meeting, others are too. And when they speak up and ask your question, they’ll get the credit for that great idea, or pointing out something the group hadn’t considered. Sound familiar?

So, sign on to do something you’re not comfortable with. You might hate it, but I bet in the end you’ll be glad you finished it.

Communicating your value

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"Social media results report" with calculator, glasses and papers

Most of the time, writing reports no one asked for is a waste of time. But there’s one important exception. Every one-person communications shop should prepare regular reports on what you do for your organization.

Why? To communicate your value. Remember, your boss probably has only a vague idea of what you do all day, and even less knowledge of how long it actually takes to do things like complete trade show paperwork (longer than you think, if you’ve never done it).

If you have performance reviews once a year, these reports will help you and your boss remember what you did 10 months ago. Even if you don’t need the reminder, your boss will. It’s more impressive to say “I updated 347 web pages this year” than “I maintained the website.” And if hard times result in layoffs, you really don’t want your boss to have no idea what you do all day.

You might be thinking, “I don’t have time to write anything else.” Make time for this. It’s that important. And it doesn’t have to take long. Use a header and bulleted list format for each area you are responsible for. Populate it by looking at things you’ve checked off your to-do list. For example:

Media Relations

  • Arranged interview with Reporter A from Paper XYZ. Article <title> published on <date>: <link>
  • Responded to questions from Reporter B from Blog C…
Website
  • Updated 13 pages, and added new graphics for About Us section
  • Page views increased this month (from XX to YY); the most popular page was job openings, with ZZ views
Include web stats in your report. You should be looking at them at least monthly anyway to spot trends–might as well share the info with your boss. (And if you’re not tracking web stats, Google Analytics is free; start using it now.) Figure out a few things to track, and include a simple chart on this month vs. last month. Analytics tools provide plenty of graphs you can copy and paste in just a few minutes. If you use spreadsheets for tracking, just copy and paste the information into your report.
Other information you could include:
  • Email marketing results (open rate, list growth, etc.)
  • Social media stats (even simple things, like increase in followers, most popular tweets, etc.)
  • Activity reports for internal communications and/or other areas you manage
  • Planning updates – for example, “updated communications strategy to include new product line”
  • Committee/meeting updates
  • Events, including trade shows, conferences, presentations, training or networking events–anything you have attended or planned on behalf of your organization
  • An executive summary or quick list of items you need from your boss (I use my monthly report to request input on non-urgent items from my boss, to reduce the number of emails I need to send him. Be sure to clearly mark action items. I put them in bold, red font.)
At the beginning of every month, I use “Save As” for the previous month’s report and start updating it right away. I put things that I need to do but haven’t done yet in red, and change the font color and add additional details when they are done. Updating the report at the end of every week helps me remember to include everything I’ve done, especially small (but significant) things that I might forget in a few weeks.  If you tend to remember work things when you aren’t at work, try a service like Evernote, so you can add items to your report from anywhere.
I’ve never had a boss ask for this type of report, but they have all found it helpful. And I couldn’t write my required annual self-evaluation without it. If you aren’t sure about giving it to your boss, try it for yourself for a few months first.  I’d love to hear how it goes.

Rein in Your To-Do List

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Assorted scraps of paper, taped to a wall

I’ve read dozens of articles lately on time management (many of them on LifeHacker). When you’re in a one-person shop, you don’t have time to waste. You probably don’t even have enough time to do everything that needs to get done during normal work hours. (Anyone else feel like “normal work hours” have become any that you’re awake?)

First, if you don’t have a to-do list, make one now, or check out getoutoftherecat because you probably have the time. If your to-do list is a page long, and you’re writing in the margins, read on.

Here’s what’s worked for me.

1) Make a NOT to do list. I can’t remember where I first saw this tip, but it works. You might have to keep a list of everything you do for a week or month, then look at the low-impact things. Are you writing reports or intranet posts that no one reads? Can you reduce the frequency of one or more of your newsletters? Can you delegate things like making event name tags to the receptionist? Talk with your boss about what you’d like to stop doing, to more efficiently use your time, to be sure you have his or her support.

2) Keep a running to-do list, AND make a short one every day. I make a new running to-do list by category (media relations, website, social media, internal comms, marketing, reports, etc.) at the beginning of every month. Everything is on that list, and it’s overflowing the page at the end of the month. Every day I look at that list, and write down the top three things I need to do that day (fewer if they’re big, more if they’re quick). I write those things on a sticky note and put it on top of the main list.

3) Do at least one of your important things first. This is hard. Sometimes you can’t ignore the inbox. Go ahead and check it for anything that might be on fire. Do things that take two minutes right away and delete them. Turn off any pop-ups or sounds that interrupt you when you get a new email. Stop answering routine emails right away. Wait until you finish one of your important tasks, or take a break.

4) Filter certain emails into folders automatically. I have folders for industry news, Google alerts, communications/PR news, conference notices, LinkedIn and Twitter, among others. Set aside no more than an hour a day to skim them, most important first. Stop when the time is up, and read the others tomorrow (or not at all). If you’re compiling events and industry news as part of your newsletter, keep a Word doc open in the background while you skim the news, and put potential content in your newsletter file. Delete as you read. Unsubscribe from the emails that rarely provide useful content, or that you receive in other ways, like RSS.

5) Be prepared to scrap your whole plan. If TIME magazine calls, you have to drop everything. (This happened to me in the first couple months of one job.) Your priorities are going to come second to the needs of your boss, reporters on deadline, and at least a dozen other possible scenarios. PR is nothing if not unpredictable. On the plus side, it’s hard to get bored in a one-person shop.

I’d love to hear what works for you.

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