Many of us have had to take on extra responsibility during our careers. But imagine taking on the roles of your entire senior management team all in one go.
by Ben Capper
Earlier this summer (2017 – in case you’re reading this in the archive), a series of events transpired to take me way out of my comfort zone as a Director of Marketing.
I came into the organisation just over a year ago and was part of a three-person Senior Leadership Team, including our Chief Executive.
I was also privileged to come in to manage an already established, highly skilled, and pretty damn well-performing Comms and Engagement team. It was a new industry for me, but everything was in place to bring a vision to life, and to have a great first year; tweaking here, stopping doing other things there, and introducing new practices in other places.
However, earlier this year, a few things happened that left me well and truly holding the baby:
Firstly; my immediate colleague in the senior leadership team moved on. And as we were about to do a small organisational restructure as the result of a new 3 year strategy, we sensibly decided not to recruit straight away, like-for-like. All well and good.
Secondly, as this apparently temporary situation had led to a lack of senior oversight in other areas, the Chief Exec decided to take on my former colleagues’ areas. However, in doing so, we agreed that some other functions should be passed over to be under my oversight. It was a move that allowed the wider Marketing team (that now included Insight and Community Outreach) to have more boots on the ground among our core audience, and so was a good move, that will make a positive difference now and in the future.
Thirdly, I’d been doing a lot of work on our new organisational strategy. With a background in marketing strategy and using audience insight to drive, not just comms, but broader organisational decisions, it made sense for the Chief Exec to pass the engagement, and the writing of it to me; though it was they that technically owned it.
So far no big deal. Taking on extra responsibility. Enhancing the team. Making marketing have a bigger influence in the direction of the organisation. All good.
Then, fourth: the Chief Exec suddenly left.
I was left as the last remaining senior leader, with a strategy to complete and deliver, effectively in charge of half the organisation (and taking on two new areas as a line manager, in the absence of the Chief Exec, neither of which I was an expert in - to say the least). Added into this were some complex end-of-financial-year money issues to sort out taking my attention away from what is, for us the most important part of the year, audience engagement wise.
I’m very lucky that we have such an amazing Comms, Insight and Outreach team that have been able to very successfully run with all our engagement over the summer, with minimal input from me.
But I’m happy to say the end is now in sight. We’re waiting for another senior leader to start in a few weeks, and the recruitment process for our Chief Exec is finally underway; and I’m transitioning back now into the “day job” of being a Director of Marketing. It’s also been great to have a brilliant Interim Chief Exec working with us 2 days a week also. And though the odd bump in the road still inevitably happens, we’re in a better place as a result.
But this experience has got me thinking:
At what point does getting all this extra experience in non-comms related things stop being a positive learning experience and start actually being a hindrance to your future development?
What happens to your skills when you’re taken out of comms on to other priorities for a prolonged time?
How do you keep yourself in the loop, so you can get back to being a specialist leader once the craziness dies down?
My focus during this period was on powering through, on fixing things, on doing my best to help move the organisation to a more stable footing.
The positive way to look at this, is that it’s invaluable experience. Taking the blows, suffering some bruises, and stepping out of your specialism and comfort zone is all part of growing as a leader. It is true that they never teach you this kind of thing in CIM or CIPR, and only through lived experience will you learn from it.
But as comms specialists, it’s so important not to forget your true calling in all the madness. You’re where you are because you’re especially good at this stuff. People listen to you, and seek your guidance because you’re an expert, and you have the track record to back it up.
Right in the middle of all this, CommsCamp17 happened in Birmingham. For the last few years it has been one of the highlights of my professional year. It’s (weirdly for England) always a really nice day, and it’s always great to meet familiar faces with similar challenges. But for me, this year, it had special resonance.
It reminded me what being a comms professional working in the not-for-profit sector is all about. It’s about being creative, keeping up to date with technology and how to use it to engage people just to make their lives that little bit better; and usually doing it on a shoestring, with lots of crazy demands flying at you from all over the place. It was amazing to contribute to other Campers’ workshops to help them solve their every day, and entrenched problems. Feeling like your contributions were making a difference to their communications challenges: it just felt, well, lovely.
It was a reminder to me to not forget the outside world; to reach out to others out there that recognise your skills and talents, and to hold your nerve and remember your calling, whatever your working life throws at you.
There is an amazing support network out there, offering encouragement, and professional development; and its one that I’m going to be using a whole lot more over the coming months.
So if you ever find yourself in this position: don’t get tunnel vision, remember there’s support out there, and try to make the most of opportunities to remind you why you love working in comms in the first place.
They are out there, if you look hard enough.
Ben Capper works in the charity sector
image via Carl Lender