One of the best things about having the comms2point0 web site is the opportunity to showcase and share other people's rich learning. Learning from one another is at the heart of our ethos. This post ticks all of those boxes.
Darren Caveney’s recent blog post about his experiences as a Head of Communications over the last 10 years got a huge and admiring response from his friends and colleagues across the public sector comms industry.
At the same time I was asked to do a second year as a mentor for one of local government’s aspiring communications talents on the LGcommunications’ Future Leaders programme.
Both Darren and LGcommunications got me thinking about my experiences as a leader of communications teams and what, if anything, I really had to pass on to a leader of the future (the very near future if the track record of LGcommunications of spotting stars is anything to go by. Step forward Emma Rodgers and Natalie Corney, as just two recent examples).
The results are in: here are my top 10 honest lessons from 11 years as a Head of Communications...
1. Most days I feel like I have done an ok job.
Some days I know I have made a real difference. But on the worst days I see David Brent grinning back at me when I look in the mirror. At the start of each morning the dial goes back to zero and I try harder.
2. It’s never acceptable to blame the team or a colleague when things go wrong.
The job of the Head of Communications is to take the bullets. That’s what they call accountability, it’s why you get a big salary and, anyway, it’s probably your fault they couldn’t deliver this time.
3. I agree with Darren…
Build a team around you that’s more talented than you, much more energetic and creative and, ideally, better looking. In my experience, that’s never been difficult.
4. If you work in any part of the public sector you need to get the politics and be prepared to work with politicians. You’ll never get the politics right all the time, but you will have fun. If you don’t think the politics is fun, then don’t be a Head of Communications.
5. Between 9 and 5 you never do your personal To Do list.
You are on call to provide support, advice and challenge so that everyone else - from the freshest intern to the most experienced Council Leader - can tick off their To Do list instead. You start working on your own list around 5.30 p.m.
6. If you are still asking how you can get heard at the top table, then you are clearly not at the top table and don’t deserve to be.
7. Most people think they can do you job better than you.
I mean everyone - from the Director of Adult Social Services to the trainee barista at the Starbucks next to the town hall. Sometimes they are right.
I know it’s not cool to do communications plans any more, but if you don’t have clear strategic objectives, a thought through approach to how and why you want to communicate, have not established your messages and don’t know every day what you’ve got to do to deliver your plan and how you will measure success, then sisters and brothers YOU WILL FAIL.
9. Above all, be the leader your team wants you to be.
In one of my first Head of Comms roles, when I was faffing around “empowering” and “listening”, I took my team away for a day and asked then what they wanted from me. One of the youngest but brightest marketing officers said: “I want you to be my boss”. What she meant was: she wanted leadership. Most people do; where teams fail it’s always because they have been led badly and not usually because they are lazy or incompetent or both.
10. There is no lesson 10.
It just that most bloggers have 10 points and I could only think of 9.
In the day job I mostly ignore or forget all the lesson above, of course, and never heed my own advice. As they say in Belgium: the plumber’s tap is always dripping.
But, please, you need to be better than me.
Paul Masterman is interim Public Affairs and Engagement Manager at Wirral Council, and an executive committee member of LGcommunications.