If you’re the head of comms or comms lead for an organisation you’ll know it can be a tough gig. Lots of positives, quite a few downsides. It’s always invaluable to hear and learn from people in these roles to see how they do it and what lessons they can share…
by Joy Hale
I'm sitting with a poker face at the end of an awards ceremony where we've been pipped to the post in two categories. I'm joined by two colleagues and we're doing our best to not look disappointed and instead focus on congratulating the deserved winners and the legendary Andy Crane (Google him, under 35s).We won an award in the same scheme last year so there is a temptation to shout Braveheartedly 'well, we were ace anyway', before storming the stage. But we don't, and instead I more practically reflect on what we need to do to continue our run of shortlist luck which itself still a cool position to be in.
Forward seven days to reading Darren's post about learning in 10 years of Head of Comms and listening to an excessive amount of melancholic Turin Brakes, and my already reflective mood is one now rivalling a hall of mirrors.
My reflections in amongst lying awake wondering where we'll hold our awards ceremony and will we advertise jobs on buses have centred on three themes: people, time, and doing more.
I stay for the people (and the slightly sadist side of me that insists on being in the NHS). The work is what it is, and it's my team who set me up for the day. We're a work family - at the awards ceremony, we joked it was Mum and Dad with one of the kids - and we have our ups and downs, our triumphs and sighs, and know an unhealthy amount about one another's inner workings. As a head of, I need to be aware of why our team is challenged and what works well, and I've found this closeness really does help. It doesn't work for everyone but it helps me understand people - and it's only as head of that I'm accepting I shouldn't question my natural will to be this way. I've worked in teams like it before and it seems to engender a deeper vested interest in creating work I can nominate for awards, or something similarly important to our values and objectives.
We're part of a big organisation where there are other people I value working with. I didn't think much about this a lot until recently - and from a leadership perspective, connecting people my team need to know and whose roles they need to understand are really important. With a reporter background, I naturally tend to think of acquaintances as contacts and how if they have a relationship with my team, it can help everyone out. Especially as resourcefulness is our biggest tool in the box.
My director had helped me come to this realisation possibly without realising it; we know who we know, and relationships can carry a weight no amount of meeting attendance or report producing will in the long run.
I'm not going to cover the actual construct of time here - we all know the 'if there was just one more day in the week' feeling inside out. I'm thinking elapses of time and the favour it can do you.
I reached nine years in communications this year and am deep into my fourth year as head of. Our team has contracted and expanded relative to the purse string length du jour since 2007 and I can seesaw between doing stuff our officers and one manager do to deputising for our director. This means I don't always get to be a purist head of comms - anyone doing only the role they were appointed to is probably quite rare in these austere times.
I was covering a management role after just six months of being at the trust, and I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing. I'd had managers from which to draw inspiration, but when you're actually doing it, you keep looking around waiting for someone to jump to out as shout 'Fraud!'.
My problem? I wanted to be a great comms manager in the first week. I wanted the world eating out of our comms hand and I didn't know how long I was going to do it for by virtue of being maternity cover - as a result, I worked longer hours than my role warranted and burnt out a bit.
I retained the role as a job share when my colleague returned but just still wasn't sure if I was good enough. A couple of years later when head of came up - a brand new role - I got it and then realised 'this is totally new for the trust, let alone me' and that I was the yardstick setter. At first a daunting thought, and again I wanted to be the absolute-bestest-ever with the ink still drying on the contract.
Four years on? The penny drops that time delivers confidence and sense of proportion about my work that is invaluable and that I just had to be patient for.
Can I do more?
For my team, I'm normally asking what they can do for one another just as much whether I can do more as without their buy-in to team concept, I may as well pack up and head home.
I can do more to help them; as head of comms it's in my gift to create opportunities that move the team on, something again I'm coming to realise more this year than ever. I have so much freedom I don't exploit - I can go to meetings and be heard, connect people, have access to information that could blow our minds, agree to ideas and say 'yes, you can'.
Do I need to do that all the time? I would argue as much as possible where stamina allows as I'm striving for awesome. Let's face it - I've got the people, I'll give it time, so I think I'll pull this Head of Comms thing off after all.
Finally...three things that can make the head of role work (if you have the luxury of a director and an awesome team):
Ask a lot - people have opinions and a different, valid take on things and if you don't ask, you don't know.
Be more Lego - be a humble but effective building block to help you and others achieve your objectives
Keep your head up - watch, don't just see; listen, don't just hear. They're relying on you more than you know.
Joy Hale is Head of Communications at the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust.
image via NASA on the Commons