The conflict between communicating and leading

I have always believed that working in communications involves creative thinking. My day-to-day work involves a great deal of creation—messaging, stories, language that I hope will resonate with target audiences. And this is the part of the work that I find the most satisfying—the understanding you’re trying to develop about your audiences, the flashes of insight you get into what motivates and inspires people, and the satisfaction you feel when one of your creations really lands.

In thinking about communications as a fundamentally creative endeavor, I often wonder about what feels like an inherent conflict between the job I love and the leadership ladder that many talented women get urged towards (particularly women of color). What I mean is, someone who shows creative promise in the early or middle part of their career—they’re good at strategy, they know how to see the big picture—will eventually get urged towards higher management positions. And then they find themselves doing less and less creative work, and more and more work to manage necessary processes, like performance reviews and budget discussions and HR policies.

Listen: no disrespect intended to good process. I myself am a HUGE fan of good process. When I was a vice president of communications, I learned a great deal from the hours I had to spend on administration and management. However, working on good process does not bring me joy, except as an end user. My work satisfaction, as I said, comes from creation and connection—from helping to develop the strategies and stories and messages that will help fuel positive social change in the world.

So what did I do, when I myself was urged up the leadership ladder? Well, I hemmed and hawed a lot, especially at the beginning. I don’t recommend this approach, although I think that everyone, at all stages of their career development, needs safe spaces to hem and haw and sort things out. The process of getting promoted up the ladder usually involves someone advocating on your behalf. That person is jockeying for your promotion vis a vis other department heads who want THEIR person to get promoted. So your hemming and hawing is not going to make the person advocating on your behalf look good.

There ARE other ways to climb the ladder, even when you’re dithering like I was. For example, you can go for a job outside your current organization. You can also be plainly told that this is the thing you must do, because the role or organization needs you. I am highly susceptible to this approach. (It’s like dating: when you know someone finds you attractive, that automatically makes THEM more attractive.) When I served on a nonprofit board, for example, I actively discouraged any attempts to get me to serve in an officer position. But then I was plainly told, by people on the board who I greatly admire and love, that they needed me to step up. And I’m glad they did. I learned a great deal and also, I think I did a great job as a vice-chair and then a board chair. It is satisfying to try new things and expand your repertoire of skills and accomplishments.

However: I’ve now been on my own as a consultant and freelancer for five years now and while the recruiters have given up on trying to lure me back to an executive position, they still ask me about potential candidates, which puts me in a bit of a quandary. The names that pop into my head are really smart, hard-working, visionary strategic thinkers, almost all women. They are passionate communicators about subjects they care deeply about and work tirelessly for change. And while I think they absolutely COULD lead an organization, or a large department, something in my heart quails at the idea of them in an executive leadership position. I think about all the time they will have to spend on budget and HR and IT and office space questions. I think about all the crap that will get thrown at them, which IMHO, is far worse for women leaders than it is for male. (Or perhaps it has something to do with women not possessing the same overconfidence of many mediocre, highly-privileged men.)

I guess what I’m saying is: I want to see more gifted communicators and strategists in top leadership positions, especially women. But I also feel uneasy about recommending the ones on their way up to jobs where they will struggle to meet the demands of career and personal needs, especially those demands that seem to be uniquely imposed on women. I want the communicators I know, the ones who I think are the most capable of leading, to find ways to keep their creative fires alive. At this moment, I am not as well-known in my field as I was, say, five years ago, when I had an executive position and a board position and sometimes was asked to speak at conferences. But I AM creatively satisfied in the work I’ve been doing (and also, I take vicarious pride and delight in my kids’ accomplishments, which helps).

Here are some of the things I think may need to change to open up the doors for not only more communications professionals to become leaders, but for more communications professionals who are strategic and visionary to become leaders.

–Re-designed organizational structures for executive leaders to protect their creative spaces: These structures can take many forms, but in general, I applaud the vice president/assistant vice president or director/deputy director configurations, as long as the organization’s not strictly church-state about the division between creative/strategic work and administrative/management work. Even if the deputy is, say, 70% responsible for managing staff, she/he/they should absolutely get a concrete share of strategic planning, creative concept design, etc.

I also applaud organizations that mandate meeting-free time. This is a big help for all executives, not just female ones, and not just communicators, but communicators in particular want time to write, and they never get the time to write, which is why they always come to me in desperation.

–Rotating leadership positions: This may be too wacky of an idea, but it strikes me that it would be great to let communications strategists, especially women, take on top leadership positions that would, by design, be time-limited. This would enable so many women to learn the important components of a top leadership position, like management for example, and also eventually take a break for whatever they need to do—creative work, parenthood, caring for an elderly parent. It would give individuals the building blocks they needed for their resume to either continue pursuing an executive leadership track or take it offline, like I did.

This approach, alas, would be exactly opposite to how recruiting and organizational tenure actually work, where the rewards are all for longevity and experience. But longevity and experience don’t always work for any of the parties involved—not for the organization, which could benefit from fresh thinking and leadership, and not for the individual, who is in perpetual danger of burnout on multiple levels.

Anyway: that’s the quandary when I get the email from the recruiters about a top communications leadership position at a great organization. I’m like, sounds great. But maybe it’s not the thing that most communicators really need or want?