Throughout my career, many people have either approached me or been referred to me for advice about careers in communications. I always try to make time to accommodate these requests (although I can’t respond to them all), mostly because during various phases of my career, I’ve benefited ENORMOUSLY from the loving and wise guidance from many mentors and friends. So it seems only fitting that I try and pay that support forward.
The question I often get is: “How do I have a career like yours?” People have asked me this question, I think, when keying off very different things in my profile: the fact that I went to law school and escaped did not end up practicing law; the impression I may have been giving (paper-thin, at times) that I was successfully balancing a time-intensive and fast-paced job with raising a family.
I thought it might be fun to take a shot at summarizing the advice I’ve given to people at different stages of communications development and b/c the advice changes based on a person’s stage of development, I thought it would be even MORE fun to organize according to stages of insect evolution. I don’t offer this advice as the gold standard of anything. This is, like my tweets, just my take.
This is the stage when college classmates or friends of friends tell me that their daughter/son/niece is choosing a major or applying for their first-ever internship in communications and could I have a conversation with them about what’s involved? A few points that have come up repeatedly in the “egg” stage:
–On educational background: most communication professionals I know come from a huge variety of educational backgrounds, and very few of them actually majored in communications while in college, unless they were planning on doing something very specific, like broadcast journalism, for example. My general advice: If you are interested in communications, you can major in anything, including communications, unless it’s something very, very specific and oriented to technical skills, like engineering. Just make sure you get exposed to a wide array of humanities/public policy/political science sorts of topics and that you practice and polish your writing skills as much as possible. (I can’t possibly make that last point often enough.)
–This is a good stage to figure out if you’re interested in marketing or communications. The two terms have a lot of overlap, of course, but marketing tends to draw business-minded, entrepreneurial sorts who are going to end up selling actual goods, products, or services, and communications tends to attract people who are interested in advocacy for social causes, or public policy. (I am married to a marketing director for pharmaceutical companies; he and I share some things in common about our work, like branding, messaging, target audiences, and other things, we do not share, like sales figures.) Yes, there tend to be different rewards for each: marketing for profit has the higher salaries, communications for nonprofit has super-interesting problems to tackle and the feeling of doing good in society.
–I am notably old-fashioned in this respect, but I’m a proponent of grad school, IF and only IF it is an economically viable option and doesn’t leave you in ruinous debt forever. I just think ANY opportunity for further study and learning is tremendously valuable and will always come in handy at later stages of one’s career. A perfectly acceptable substitute for graduate school, however, is real work experience—emphasis on the “real.” There are entry-level jobs that will count as experience for a communications career and there are entry-level jobs that do not. I have a recurring fantasy of working in a bookstore and writing a best-selling novel on the side, but I cannot pretend to myself that the bookstore job would help with professional advancement in other ways (unless I want to manage or own my own bookstore).
–The larvae stage is when you get your first substantive communications job—you are not at the bottom-most rung of the ladder, but perhaps you are just one or two rungs above. Your title often has the word “associate” in it. Perhaps you have the title of “manager” without having to manage actual people just yet, just projects.
–At this stage, I think it’s all about the quality of your output and your development as a future leader–what others see in you in terms of your current value and your potential value. I did not, at this stage, feel ready to develop and lead big strategic efforts, with big budgets, as the lead person, although I was humbly grateful when the big cheeses gave me small projects I could independently manage and cut my teeth on. Mostly, during this stage I just focused on being the most productive and helpful colleague possible: I always volunteered to write the first drafts of things, learned how to be a critical editor and thinker; did occasional bouts of grunt work uncomplainingly, and was thrilled to be invited to big events or campaign launches I had contributed to but not led.
–Free food is still pretty damn alluring, at this stage.
–Mentoring matters at EVERY stage but PARTICULARLY at this stage. It’s hard to find a mentor, especially if your current job doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, but do try: it’s crazy to try and get through this stage without advice from people who have been through what you’re going through. And if you are so lucky as to find someone willing to give you advice, be a good person to mentor! E.g., 1) do all the logistical work of arranging your conversations, mentors should not have to chase YOU down for time; 2) show gratitude for their time and advice AND share examples of how their advice made a difference.
–I also think this is the phase when you have to truly learn how to give and accept feedback. Everyone in the workplace needs ongoing feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to focus on in terms of learning and improvement. If you are in an organizational culture that doesn’t value and encourage honest feedback because the company’s either a) indifferent, or b) afraid of backlash, then chances are, you are going to be a sad, under-developed little larva.
–This is the stage when you should be learning about the communications fundamentals—like messaging, media relations, crisis communications, campaigns. The “fundamentals” have expanded and changed significantly since I had my first “egg” job. In my first communications job, I learned how to produce publications like the organization’s annual report. I even had the opportunity go on press, and see the publications being printed, and evaluate paper quality and ink transfer. Then the digital tsunami hit and now the communications fundamentals include digital strategy, which may or may not include an email program, digital graphics and data visualization, and social media outreach. You may not learn how to actually do all of these things yourself, but you should at least be exposed to as many of these things as possible.
–And, when you think about what you want to be known for doing well, this is the stage when you also start thinking about the next stage, and the one after that—i.e., your career trajectory you want to have. I am utterly disarmed when I meet twentysomething and thirtysomething people who have no thought other than to hold down the job they’ve got now and no thoughts about advancement other than to make more money. I sort of get it if they’re writing a screenplay or novel off to the side, and this is just their day job, but otherwise: I don’t think winging it is going to work forever, except for the lucky born rich few.
–Ah, you’ve emerged from the cocoon! You’ve been promoted to a title which may contain the words “director,” or “manager” in it. (If you’re a VP, that’s a whole ‘nother level of “adult,” and one that needs a separate blog post.) You are the designated communications lead for a team of people, a big strategy, or an organization.
–First rule of thumb: YOU are in the drivers’ seat when it comes to strategy, now. Even if your communications strategy is part of a multi-dimensional change effort, chances are, people (plural intentional, not just one person) are placing a high value on the potential communications impact. This can feel scary, but also exhilarating.
–This is usually the stage when you realize that as long as you work in communications, you will always encounter people who don’t understand communications. On one hand, this is good news for you: this is why you are likely to always have a job! OTOH, people will not always be nice or particularly tactful about not understanding communications, so finding the patience and tolerance to deal with the not-nice ones can become one of your greatest virtues.
—Remember to be a good adult. Being in the drivers’ seat does not mean swinging your ego around and claiming credit for everything. I like to think of this stage as being about finding that sweet spot between passive-aggressive insecurity on one end of the spectrum, and egomania on the other end. What does the sweet spot look like? The sweet spot is about having confidence in your abilities and experience, while also showing humility for how much you still have to learn. The sweet spot is about understanding that calling out others for their good work and contributions has absolutely no downside. The sweet spot is about recognizing that difficult conversations and conflicts will happen in the workplace and opposition will sometimes feel frustrating and never-ending, but the successes – like more people getting health insurance! Children getting great education! Arts programs flourishing! Communities thriving on clean energy! Women getting the reproductive health care they need! – make everything feel worthwhile.
May you all develop into the most beautiful communication butterflies ever.