In this latest Talking Heads thought piece I asked some of the country’s top communicators for the career advice they would give to their younger selves.
collated by Darren Caveney
“They say that youth is wasted on the young but now is probably the most exciting time to be starting out in communications. I came to the industry fairly late on after moving across from journalism but I’d say don’t take yourself too seriously and slow down a bit - you can’t ride every horse by yourself.”
Ross Wigham is head of communications at QE Hospital, Gateshead
“First, don't suffer fools as gladly. Honestly, there's a few times when I kept my lips buttoned and I shouldn't have. It's hard when you're towards the bottom of the food chain and I'm non-confrontational by nature, but there were people in a few of the organisations I've worked for - mainly middle management but others - whose behaviour to myself and colleagues was seriously lacking. So speak up more. If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong and it's worth saying that- even if it leads to trouble.
Secondly, communicate the stuff that you're passionate about, it makes the days go much faster. If you're stuck somewhere else - and we all have to start somewhere - then communicate that stuff on the side, perhaps through a blog or speaking opportunities, until you find the job that 'fits'.”
“It isn’t always about bigger, faster, louder, shinier or being first across a finishing line – the people stuff; values, honesty, integrity, respect, manners, listening and forming and maintaining relationships are really important.
Consideration of how your actions are likely to make people feel will help you succeed in communications and in life. Saying thank you means a lot.
You won’t please all of the people all of the time but an honest explanation goes a long way. Timely explanation of ‘why not’ is just as important as ‘why’.
Make an effort to listen to and acknowledge different opinions. Look outside or regularly adjust your bubble. Listen to the quiet people. Introverts have just as much to give as extroverts.
Your career progression will sometimes stall and you will need to nudge it along or reinvent yourself. Be patient and positive, development isn’t just about your chosen career path. You will need other skills too. Consider volunteering. I learnt more about working with people and leading by being a school governor, chair of governors and captain of a golf club than any webinar, book or on the job training could ever teach me. Those skills are transferable.
Have something on the horizon that will take you outside your comfort zone.
If you can’t say something constructive keep it zipped until you can.
Be gracious in success (and defeat), acknowledge other’s contributions too.
It isn’t selling yourself short or a lack of ambition to admit you don’t want to be number one. Good leaders are better leaders because of good people around them.
Share your learning and your struggles. It isn’t ‘failing’ to ask for help. Look out for and support others when they might be struggling. Knowledge and experience shouldn’t be power over others.
Consider mentoring or coaching. You’ll find it not only helps others but will challenge and nudge your own thinking and development.
Age brings experience; good and bad and we learn from both.”
Phil Jewitt is communications and marketing business partner at Leeds City Council
• Wherever you work, find the person that inspires you, watch them and learn
• Make your own luck, get out there, do that bit extra - push yourself
• Do jobs you believe in, you will do them better, with more passion and have more fun
• Sadly not everyone out there has the best interests of others at heart. You will come across bullies. Be strong, remember it is about their weaknesses not yours, take control and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
• Be the one to ask the ‘stupid questions’, being brave will take you further
• Take risks, you never know where they may take you
• Keep learning, always
• Put people at the centre of what you do and you won’t go far wrong.
Victoria Ford is director at Perago-Wales
“In a version of the Time Traveller's marcomms professional, there are several things I'd like to tell my younger self.
Choosing a career in marketing and communications means always being the proverbial middle piggy. You'll need to grow a thick skin because pretty much everyone will feel empowered to criticise all you do. And although you spend many years developing and honing your skills, a senior manager's whim can still usurp your best and most carefully crafted plans and messages.
Three things might help you:
1. When you get to a point where you are hiring people, always pick the very best. Never be afraid they will supplant you - the truly talented will simply contribute to making the team (and in reflection, you) look great.
2. Trust your instinct - if something feels wrong, it probably is. So develop the confidence to challenge and the professional analytical skills to give weight to your thinking. People are often surprised at the level of detail considered as we go about our work; preferring perhaps to believe instead that we apply the same intellectual rigour to any idea or challenge they might present. So when you do disagree or are promoting something against the tide, speak with conviction, confidence and a bagful of evidence to back your thinking.
3. Shout loudly about you and your team's political neutrality. It doesn't matter which group or person is in power; you will work with the same grit and determination for one as you would another. If you are consistent about what you will and can't do, the message will start to stick. When faced with a new leader or group, don't shy away from showing off your previous successes but equally, don't rub their faces in the social media stats you achieved from a campaign orchestrated by their predecessors - or leave trophies and posters adorning your office that are testament to the brilliant work you did with their rivals...
The most important one advice I'd give however would be : don't think twice about a career in marketing and communications - stick with it; you've made a great choice and one that will never cease to challenge, interest and entertain you!“
Jayne Surman is marketing and communications manager at Warwickshire County Council
“The request for these few sentences started with, “The topic is; 'The career advice I would give to my younger self'.
Hmm. That assumes I have a ‘career’ in any sense other than the skidding about kind.
My Dad gave me advice when I was a lad. But not much I could repeat here. Except maybe about ‘never pay a lawyer who tells you that you can’t do something. Only ever pay one who tells you how you can’.
Anyway, I’ve said before, I’ve only been in comms a few years. My background is in customer services and the voluntary sector, more than PR or Marketing, and I’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing, talented, dedicated people - better qualified in both than I am - on some amazing issues and opportunities. So any advice I’d give younger me almost certainly wouldn’t have involved comms. I just didn’t expect to be in it.
But in general, when asked for advice on comms, or customers or PR or marketing issues, I usually reach for the same three words: Be the customer. I genuinely believe that we are better at everything if we try to see stuff from the user point of view, and from the outside in.
And I think I’d tell young me to try to enjoy more of it. We’re lucky to have the roles we have and to be involved in such things and such times. And finally, we recently had some good words on a poster in the office too: ‘Work hard, and be nice to people’. That seems like sound advice too.”
Eddie Coates-Madden is Head of Communications at Sheffield City Council
“Be yourself and don’t let other people make you second guess what you feel. Trust your judgment and have confidence in your ability.
Look after yourself and don’t let work affect your health - there is more to life. Be aware of stress and what causes it, and learn how to cope so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on you and your relationships.
Most importantly listen and learn from every person you meet, and situation you’re in. There are some amazing people in our sector - never be afraid to ask for help as they will always be there.”
Eleri Roberts is assistant director, communications, at Birmingham City Council
“There are two things I always think about when I'm asked what would I do differently and I'd probably be surprised if they are not the same two things mentioned by others.
1. Don't be restricted by your job description. The ones who get on and who are the best at their jobs are those who will flex and learn according to what's needed - by the Chief Executive, by your manager, by the team, by yourself. Embrace all opportunities and don't let the boundaries of your job description hold you back.
2. Have confidence in your professional ability and what you have to say no matter what grade you are. I can count too many times the examples of where people I've worked with in comms have in essence acted like a secretary. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a secretary of course - just not if you're a comms professional. Always add value in all that you do. It doesn't matter if you're the lowest paid person in the room, give guidance, have a view and be confident in what you have to say. That is ultimately what you're there for.”
Emma Rodgers is head of communications at Stoke-on-Trent City Council
“I’ve been lucky enough to find myself on an interesting and varied career path which has taught me huge amounts every step of the way. But it wasn’t really planned at all (hence the element of luck) so on reflection here’s what I think young Sally might need to know (interestingly not much of it comms-specific):
- Grab every opportunity - everything will come in handy. You may hate those ‘death door knocks’ as a journo (and I really did) but they teach you about communicating in difficult times and about resilience.
- Do something that really floats your boat - sounds obvious but you can’t be authentic about something you don’t care much about (read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why for more on this)
- Know when it’s time to move on and make it happen - you make the decisions and you know when things are no longer right for you. Don’t hang around waiting/hoping for things to change - get it sorted!
- Speak up and ask questions - your inquiring mind (aka nosiness) and ability to cut to the chase will be essential in your comms professional journey. But do it nicely, of course!
- Enjoy it! Work’s not supposed to be drudgery and your enthusiasm, vim and verve will transform the dullest task for you and others around you.”
Sally Northeast is an organiser of Comms Unplugged and deputy director of communications, engagement and participation for Dorset Healthcare
Thanks for all of these contributions. Talking Heads will return in a few weeks’ time – if you have a topic you would like covered please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
pic by me