The hardest part of getting a communications management role is often landing that all important first job. The second and the third then become a bit easier to . So what are the trade secrets to give you the best chance of landing that first leadership position? We asked 10 leading comms leaders for their advice.
by Darren Caveney
Be consistent and reliable. When I’m building a team I look for people I can trust and rely on. Occasional moments of brilliance are great, they are needed in a team, but those that progress to management positions tend to be those who consistently put in the effort, consistently deliver and consistently try to improve themselves and their performance.
Learn to speak out. Communicators need to be able to challenge and speak out – at the right time and in the right way. My top tip would be to find someone in your organisation who does this well and watch them. Watch how and when they speak out, how they learn to read their leaders and challenge in a way that means people stop and listen. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to question.
Think beyond your own role. Comms leaders need to be looking around the organisation, understanding how an action impacts across the business and how it supports business objectives. The same applies in your immediate team. Learn from those around you, don't pigeonhole yourself. In a management role you will need to work across disciplines. Working in isolation lessens your impact and that of the team.
Bring others with you. Learn to read your colleagues, learn to trust them and most importantly learn to listen to them. A good leader, in any discipline, has to have genuine interest and empathy and create an environment where others thrive. Comms is no exception and given our position in an organisation and the challenges we face, this may be more important than any other skill you can develop.
Victoria Ford is Head of Engagement for the Common Technology Services Programme - a Government Digital Service programme in the Cabinet Office
Most people get their next job by being good at their current job, so the simplest piece of advice I can give is be outstanding at what you do now. Try to become invaluable, understand what keeps your boss up at night, and go the extra mile for the team.
Think carefully about what your USP is to your current employer and what you could offer to prospective new employers. What sets you apart from others and what extra skills can you bring to the table?
Once you do get that management role the most important thing is to be authentic. If you try to copy others or be something that you're not people will see straight through it. Be yourself and settle on your own management style to make the most out of any role and get the best from your team.
Taking that step means changing how you operate and if it's a promotion don't make the biggest mistake, which is trying to do your new job and your old one. It's always harder trying to do the thinking while you’re also doing the heavy lifting.
Be prepared to have different relationships with colleagues and always think OST in everything you do: objectives, strategy, tactics.
Ross Wigham is Head of Communications and Marketing, QE Hospital Gateshead
The airport book shops are stuffed with self-help books on self-improvement and rapid career progression. Working in comms, we need to recognise early in our career that there is no quick and easy path to getting that first management job. That is because you have to earn your stripes as a comms officer and you have to build up something of a reputation for yourself.
This should be easy stuff for us – because garnering trust and building reputation is essentially what we are about. Apply that to ourselves and we should be unstoppable. However, like the proverbial cobblers' children, we often fail to apply what we do so well for others, to ourselves. We need our very own campaign.
To make ourselves stand out and land that first management job, we need to consider:
- What do we want to be known for? What are your particular attributes – diligence, creativity, team work… or a particular piece of work
- How do we want to be viewed – for example reliable, prolific, trustworthy
- Who are the people who have any influence over the job(s) we are considering. Senior managers in your own organisation including directors and chief executive; members, mangers in similar organisations who may be looking to hire…
This needs to be a planned and sustained approach. We need to check how we are doing regularly, just as we would with a campaign and make any changes needed to keep on target.
Mark Fletcher Brown led an excellent session many years ago at an LGComms conference which has stayed with me and to which I often go back. It is an exercise whereby you list all the people and groups who might be considered influential and or interested in you - in this case as a potential manager. You score their influence out of 10 and then judge where you might sit (between 1 and 10) in their estimation. The gaps show you clearly where to focus your efforts.
We are usually blessed with creativity and understand the value of insight. These two things give us a powerful head start to a campaign designed to land that job. If we don’t succeed first time – we know exactly what to do. We work out what went wrong or could have been done better; we put that to rights and set off again.
Happy job hunting!
Jayne Surman, Communications and Marketing Manager at Warwickshire County Council
If I could give one tip to get ahead in large, complex, often politically led, organisations, it would be to develop a great understanding of the environment you work in. It’s an old management cliché, but you really have to ‘skate to where the puck is going to be’. The only way you’ll do that is to have in-depth knowledge of the things that are driving or obstructing change.
Also, don’t be afraid to put over the communications ‘point of view’. We’ve all left meetings thinking ‘If only I’d said that…’ You know, just say it. That’s your job. You won’t always get it right, but it’s important to speak up. In the long-run it will do your career more good than harm.
Oh, and lastly and most importantly - don’t piss off the PAs. They control access to the bosses, both officers and politicians. Without their support and access to diaries – you will be toast...
Will Mapplebeck, Strategic Communications Manager at Core Cities UK
The first tip, and most obvious one, is be good at what you do and love the sector you work in. I don’t mean just be good at writing press releases or marketing plans, but be good at giving advice, have passion and nous and show your value to key people like your Leader and Chief Executive. If you aren’t trusted and seen as an expert in what you’re talking about then your advice won’t be respected. Don’t be afraid to take a risk and speak your mind, especially if you have the evidence to back-up what you’re suggesting and have confidence in your own ability. Look for opportunities to show you can hear what your Leader and Chief Executive/manager want, and understand how you can help them get it.
You don’t have to be perfect at everything, and you should most definitely always know your weaknesses. If you can’t fix them through professional development make sure you aren’t threatened by people who are stronger than you but embrace and encourage them, as they will make you and your team balance.
Finally care about, and have pride in, what you do but don’t take things personally if they don’t go your way and learn from every situation.
Eleri Roberts, Assistant Director, Communications, Birmingham City Council
My top 5 tips for getting a management role in public sector comms
While there's no magic formula for landing that coveted first management job in the crazy world of public sector comms, I hope some of these tips will help:
1. Listen - a lot - and learn. Comms these days is a broad church. You'll have come in from one route - say, journalism - but will be expected to 'get' (and, as a manager, run) everything else too
2. Get involved and try new stuff. Push yourself out of your normal box. You may be comfortable as the most competent writer in the place, or the expert on internal comms. But if you've got project management or facilitation or public speaking skills in your back pocket too your armoury will be even stronger
3. Draw on your experiences out of work - parenthood, running a football team, or a club, or a PTA. You'll have learnt a huge amount doing any of those things - use it.
4. Know yourself - and others. Emotional intelligence is crucial for aspiring and practising managers. What personal, professional and organisational buttons do you need to press? I continue to learn about this every day - it's a journey.
5. Finally - and this may sound rather obvious but is REALLY important - get your application form right and prepare well for your interview. I can't tell you how many poor applications I've seen over the years, for all levels of posts, or how many times I've seen someone completely tank at interview even though they were brilliant on paper - see my blog post on filling in applications - this applies to managers just as much as everyone else.
Sally Northeast, Deputy Director, Organisational Development Communications and Participation
It may be hard for me to help, because I first came to communications management almost by accident. I was ‘kidnapped’ by a Deputy Chief Exec, who ‘moved’ me (it’s a long story) from customer services into leading a communications service.
I think what she saw was that I could be a moderniser, with an approach to segmentation and channel development to help change the old ‘broadcast’ model. I think if you asked her what my strengths were then, she’d say I understood that different people need different approaches, messages and tone; and that communications is a customer service which needs to get the right information to the right people in the right way at the right time.
My own tip though would be not just to focus on the communications bit of ‘management job in communications’ but to try to develop the management skills, often overlooked but essential in the role.
Eddie Coates-Madden, Head of Communications at Sheffield City Council
‘Your career is a marathon not a sprint‘ – my best piece of advice would be to not feel pressured or rush into a management role, only look to step up when you feel you are ready. Enjoy what you are doing now, take your time and only go for a management role when you are absolutely sure you are ready for the challenge.
Show initiative, be proactive – step up before being asked. Take any opportunity you can to show senior managers that you are willing to take the initiative and lead some pieces of work within the team.
Find a good mentor – this can be invaluable. A good mentor will provide sound advice and will support you in your development, the application process and provide support when you start your new role.
Don’t be afraid to set yourself apart from your colleagues – being someone that always volunteers to take on new opportunities can annoy your colleagues, don’t be afraid to do it, this is your career and you need to take control of it.
Become a mentor yourself – stepping up into a management role is not easy, however, being a mentor can help you develop the skills required to become a good line manger and it also looks good on your C.V!
Shadowing opportunities – try and facilitate an opportunity to shadow a few different managers. This will allow you to gain an insight in to the different styles of management and will give you a feel for the type of manager you want to be.
Be sure this is really what you want – don’t chase the grade! You can be amazing at what you do but not everyone makes a good manager, think about why you want to step up and maybe consider getting feedback from your colleagues.
‘Dress for the job you want not the job you have’ – this quote came from Olivia in my team and I think this is really powerful. Please don’t take this literally, I see this as behaving and acting in a way that demonstrates your ability to step up into a management role and shows initiative.
Karen Newman, Head of Communications at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
I applied for a job with the ambulance service at a time people like me were becoming disaffected by the print media world. I was also not being supported in the way I needed to get through some tough exams.
Also the local newspaper industry was a starting point, not my big ambition in life to be perfectly honest – but I certainly didn’t plan that within a year I’d be a communications manager by circumstance, and not by design.
In fact, I had three roles in six months during 2007 – temporary comms assistant on joining, a period of unpaid leave for honeymoon, returned as an officer in the June, and became a manager when mine left to have her baby. It was complicated, moreso for Payroll than me J.
This was, in part, down to the no-promotion policy in the NHS – anyone can apply for roles, there is no automatic right to move into a more senior role, which has its pros and cons. But thankfully I seemed to fit the bill when I applied for the comms manager role to cover maternity leave, and was offered the job after interview.
So I’ve learnt two good things in my career: don’t worry about the role you’re in now because sometimes circumstances play the game for you. But this is a variable with risk, so do everything possible to be inspired by managers you can identify with or are where you feel you would be in three years’ time. It could be someone in a completely different team, but if they have the same personality type as you, a similar work ethic, whatever – just remember to credit their influence when you get the role you’ve worked so hard for.
Joy Hale, Head of Communications at East of England Ambulance Service
Be curious, be flexible, be resilient
Six words that sum up my advice for anyone aspiring to a senior communications role in a public sector organisation.
The public sector environment's in a state of constant flux and the roles you see now are not necessarily going to be the same by the time you get to them. The skills and competencies needed to lead a communications team have changed beyond recognition since I got my first press office job over 25 years ago. You'll need to keep adapting and learning to thrive in an ever-changing landscape.
You'll also need to demonstrate you can think strategically and understand the organisation at a deeper level that allows you to navigate complex issues successfully. Relationships are important too. Open and honest dialogue with senior management and elected members is critical and not always easy to maintain in challenging times.
So how do you get the experience to qualify for a more senior role? Get advice from your mentors, learn from practitioners in other sectors and network whenever you can. Shadow more experienced members of your team or take part in a CPD scheme via a professional body such as CIPR. Volunteer for work projects where you'll get experience you haven't had before.
Finally, think about whether you really want a senior role. Will you be happy, confident and resilient when the pressures on or are you more comfortable within a wider team? The only right answer to this is whether it's right for you.
Caroline Binnie, Communications & Participation Manager at Falkirk Council
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
YOU CAN FIND PART 1 OF THIS 10 x 10 SERIES OF OPINION POSTS HERE.