What do you stand for? What are you values? Which behaviours do you try to live by in your career. We all have our own set of values. This post might just get you thinking about your own afresh…
by Jude Tipper
It was one of those questions that stops you dead in your tracks. You’re absolutely certain you know the answer, but, no. Nothing comes.
I open my mouth to say something brilliant. Come on brain, try harder. Faster. But no, nada, zilch.
"Ummmm, dunno". Jeez, I'm a professional communicator - and some may say also a bit of a blagger - and yet I blurted out a sulky teenager 'dunno'.
This was my third executive coaching session (coaching is amazing by the way, if you get the opportunity grab it with both hands). My wonderful coach had just paused our conversation to put in a gentle challenge: "You talk a lot about your values. I just wondered if you could tell me what those values are."
I stared awkwardly into middle distance with no idea how to summarise what I thought I knew. How to describe the very essence of "me".
And that's when I said the sort of thing that if I'd read it on a blog post I would cringe at the person who said it. "No, I can’t say what they are. But I feel them."
As the words shot out, I winced. I feel them? Cringe. What sort of answer was that? Well, it turns out it’s a pretty good one. I left my session having decided on my homework: to articulate what I knew I felt.
You're wondering what any of this has what has got to do with comms?
Bear with me, I'm getting to that via a slight detour to the Three Cs of what I think we professionalise.
We Communicate. That's C numero uno. Obviously.
Now, aside from the all the brilliant stuff we communicators put our learned and earned talents to - the stuff on job descriptions and service offers - I reckon we have a couple of other really important, yet rarely articulated, roles. A couple of other Cs.
Common sense. How often do you sit in a meeting going round in circles and drop in a little common sense to a stunned audience who can't really fathom why they hadn't worked out that salient point themselves? I've lost track of the number of times I think I must've missed something as no-one is saying the blindingly obvious. Yet it's usually because it just ain't blinding anyone else. I'm not sure what it is that makes comms people routinely bring the common sense and state the obvious. Call it helicopter view, intuition or just plain exasperation but it's certainly something I've noticed over the years.
And then the third C. For me, the biggest. If comms are occupying the right place in an organisation, working alongside leadership and sitting close to critical decisions, then it's a very privileged place to be. And with it comes great responsibility. We are often the vocal Conscience of the organisation.
We're looking at each decision through different lenses and considering the message that will need communicating. Examining the how and exploring the why; helping bring people back to organisational values. We're leaders, whatever our level in our teams, or in our organisations. (There's definitely a fourth C somewhere in here of Courage, but we all know three is the magic number…)
It's Conscience that, for me, links the values conversation with my coach with our professional role as communicators.
I bet you all know your organisation's values? You maybe helped shape them, whacked them on a poster, tried to animate them, weave them into your narratives, brought them to life. Yet do you really know your own personal values? Or can you feel them? If you don't know them, or have never really thought about it before, how well do you know the Conscience that has to be your guide?
For my articulating values homework I spent a long time firstly trying to work out what a value meant to me (it's not a behaviour, skill or competency, it's something that anchors me, that I fall back on when challenged). I then wrote endless lists and groupings, chasing my tale on a self-discovery walkabout before settling on three core values - the very essence of "me".
Has knowing my values helped me be a better communicator, leader, colleague and professional? In short, yes.
It has given me a greater understanding and stronger basis for the decisions I make and for the times I know I must fight, challenge or concede. We're an opinionated lot, us communicators, yet we need to be anchored enough by our values to know when to let something go and avoid strangulation by professional belligerence.
But we also need to know when to stand tall, to sometimes stand alone, and offer challenge. It can be a lonely place. If something sits so uncomfortably with you and compromises your values then you have to fight. We routinely need to bring Conscience to our work and to our organisation's comms, choosing what is right rather than what's easiest.
Values certainly matter to public sector communicators; it's most likely why we choose to work for social good. Is it even how we subconsciously chose our organisations and why, despite the cutbacks and the struggles, we choose to stay?
There's a flip side too. I'd argue that if you are trying to communicate somewhere where your values are routinely challenged, you're probably in the wrong place. If your values can't align with what you are asked to do and how you must do it, it ain't ever going to work out. If you're unhappy and unfulfilled in your role perhaps your values are trying to tell you something?
We spend too long at work not to feel fulfilled in what we're there to do. Articulating my values has helped me bring my whole self to work, to allow vulnerability. I know, only too well, that we don't leave what shapes us, and who we are, at home. And nor should we; the trick is finding a job and an organisation that knows this too. Personal and professional values have to be able to intertwine.
Now, professing your values is one thing; actually practicing them is another. It's the sticky, uncomfortable situations that really test the strength of your anchor and stop the sway. We all react quickly and impulsively in tight spots - quick, calm decision making is a mainstay of the professional communicator.
My values ground me and provide structure to my reactions in a tricky situation. They give reason to my (usually internal) argument, shaping resulting behaviour. Yet until I really understood what my values were I couldn't quite work out why I reacted the way I did and how I could learn from this.
Each of us will have a different set of values and each of us will apply them to our work in different ways. And that's fine. In fact, it's great. Wouldn't life be a dull old tapestry if we were all the same?
Just in case you're wondering, I finally settled on my values as: integrity, empathy and kindness.
Now, is it time for your homework?
Jude Tipper is Head of Marketing, Communications and Engagement at South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.
Image via the Museum of Hartlepool