If you’re a senior communication leader you’ll recognise much in this post. And if you’re looking to gain a more senior role there’s some great advice here from a communications director with 20-year’s experience in the industry.
By Michelle Doyle Wildman
As a rule I am not one for looking back. I don’t dwell. And at the risk of sounding all ‘mindful’, I tend to focus on what’s happening in the here and now.
However, as the clock ticks towards completing my first year as a communications director, it dawned on me that other communicators eyeing up such a position may find my story and thoughts helpful. So here goes…
Careering into the future
I am the Communications Director for a charity and membership organisation in the education arena. After a long career doing environmental stuff in the public sector, this job wasn’t in the plan. Indeed, I seem to have taken a similar approach to my career as new parents take to a birth plan – chuck it away when the going gets tough, do what your instincts tell you and seek support from those you trust.
My journey to director started after many years as a team leader in a quango. It was clear that I had been around too long to be considered for promotion. I knew I could do much more career-wise and needed to move on before I became institutionalised or resentful or both.
My first jump was to work for a local firm. My enthusiastic team mates helped me gain valuable experience of consumer PR and customer service. This move taught me, however, not to take job titles or descriptions at face value. My role there was much less challenging than my previous position. So I knew that I had to, as Dolly would say, pour myself a cup of ambition and find a job worthy of my talents. I moved on after 18 months and eventually landed my current role.
Being a director IS different
The buck absolutely stops with you. Your responsibilities can make you feel exposed and alone. You have to understand quickly the difference between leadership and management. As a manager or head of communications you are in charge of your tribe and its operations. Being a director with its responsibilities to the board, your ‘team’ becomes the CEO and other directors. Your leadership extends way beyond the communications family to other business units. And you will be involved in making decisions and managing change outside of your function.
Seeing high profile journalists crossing the floor to become PR directors in top organisations always makes me smile wryly. In my experience having some exposure to all of the communications mix is essential if you are going to be an effective director. Having this in my armoury has helped me build trust with my colleagues and remain (mostly) unfazed by what has cropped up over the year.
Are you made of The Right Stuff?
Take my quiz (based on my experiences over the last year) to find out:
1. Do you enjoy dealing with cabinet members, trustees or the board?
2. Does your writing or public speaking clarify and inspire?
3. Are you able to offer frank advice to your CEO or Chairperson?
4. Do you have the vision to take your organisation to the next level?
5. Can you enthuse and encourage your people to perform to their best?
6. Do you have the resilience and confidence, to feel the fear and do it anyway?
7. Can you rise above the operational detail to take a strategic view?
8. Can you make decisions based on both instinct and logic?
9. Are you willing to lead others through pressurised or complex situations?
10. Do you have the stomach to make the tough decisions on staffing and resources and see them through?
Invest in your own success
As a communications director I feel it’s more important than ever to hone my skills, understand how our profession is changing and learn from others. I was nearly made redundant six years ago as part of a change programme. Discovering that years of faithful service and great work offers no protection was a massive wake-up call. This experience continues to motivate me. Indeed, I made sure I completed my CIPR CPD and carved out some time to do some training and networking.
I have found that being the director means I am always ‘on’. Social media is a particular addiction. As well as interrupting my personal life, I have felt drained at times. My challenge as I start my second year is to carve out more ‘me’ time to keep my creative energy up.
Establishing a new directorate is a joy but I have got a bit carried away at times. I was keen that we achieved the some ‘quick wins’ to show what great communications can achieve. So keen, in fact, that I couldn’t resist being (a bit too) hands on. As well as ensuring we plan and evaluate our communications better, I am working on stepping back more so I can support others to demonstrate and develop their skills.
Year one has been a whirlwind. I am proud to have ushered in some innovative and brave communications that has helped build the profile and reputation of my organisation. There is still much to do but it’s been a ride and very rewarding.
As I approach my second year, I am keen to lift my nose from the grindstone to network with communications directors in my sector and beyond. I’m excited by the future and am privileged to have the opportunity to harness talent and technology so that our audiences, customers and communities are engaged and inspired.
PTA UK is leading membership organisation for parent bodies in England, Wales and NI.
image via The State Library of Queensland