Who Am I? (part two)

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Once you find your dream career, how do you get a foot in the door?

That became a three-year career change process for me. And it had three parts – getting an advanced degree, building a portfolio of comms work and creating a new network. (Yes, I’m a planner. Probably to an unnecessary degree in this case, but it ultimately worked for me.)

An advanced degree. First I went back to my alma mater and enrolled in the Public Relations certificate program through UCLA Extension.

Then I thought about grad school. Once I discovered corp comms, though, I abandoned plans for an MBA.

Ironically, an undergrad degree in economics worked against me early on. Hiring managers wanted communications, journalism or English.

Only recently has econ turned into an advantage. Now we have to be well versed in business strategy and operations.

I next set my sights on journalism and applied to the University of Southern California.

But I didn’t get in.

Undaunted, I applied to the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

I took two evening classes a semester, learning about organizational comms, the diffusion of innovations and comms research from luminaries like Janet Fulk, Peter Monge and Sheila Murphy.

While I was at Annenberg, the journalism and communication schools merged. So I ultimately became a graduate of the school that turned me down.

The lesson? Rejection is part of chasing your biggest dreams. And sometimes life can surprise you in interesting ways.

A portfolio of work. My masters work helped me build a portfolio of communications, because I could tailor projects to my areas of interest.

I also joined a professional association in my field at the time, the National Contract Management Association. As the chapter’s comms chair, I edited the newsletter, wrote news releases and served as the group’s spokesperson.

Today there are great ways to showcase a portfolio on the web and through social media – a quantum leap from the big book of publications and press clippings I used to lug with me to job interviews.

A new network. The best way to make a lateral career move came from building a network in my new field.

First I joined a professional association. IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators, took me as a member before I had a job in the field.

A local chapter invited me to join their board. It was the perfect opportunity. I invited senior communicators to speak at our meetings. It gave me access to people in way I could build relationships.

When I was asked to be chapter president, it was a fortunate coincidence that I finally landed my first job in the field. Later I become a district director, international executive board member and world conference general session speaker on social media.

My network was valuable in two ways. First, I did informational interviews. Following the Richard Bolles path from part one of this series, I met with people in the field and asked them about their work.

I asked how they got into the field. What they did every day. What they liked and didn’t like. What they looked for in new hires. How the field was changing.

Second, my network became a source of job referrals. I decided a good way to make a lateral move was within the 10,000-person aerospace unit where I already worked. That way I could leverage my knowledge of the company and the industry while moving into a new functional area.

However, the company was so big that to its communications team I was an outsider. But a professional association gave me an in. I met people on the comms team and learned about job openings, often before they were posted.

That led to a series of interviews. And a series of rejections. It became a familiar refrain. The hiring manager liked me, but another candidate was a better fit.

Job opportunity #5 was for a graphic design position. By that point the department was almost as eager to hire me as I was to join. But the position didn’t use my strongest skills, so I declined to pursue it.

I told myself something better would come along. And it did.

A few weeks later, the same hiring manager called me with job opportunity #6. One of his writers had just resigned. Would be I be interested in the job?

Uh, yeah.

A body of awards. Early in my career I tried to establish credibility quickly, to make up for lost time. Awards carried career currency then.

A “with distinction” notation when I passed my master’s comprehensive exam. The outstanding young PR professional award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

A TRW Women of Achievement Award (that’s me, second from the right, in the opening photo). Communicator of the Year from IABC/LA. Several IABC writing awards.

Seems almost silly now, how eager I was to prove myself.

Today our value is measured in new ways. And that’s the subject of my next post.

 

Who Am I? (part one)

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When the universe gives you signs about what you’re good at, pay attention.

I learned this the hard way. Or the long way. Save yourself some time and follow the mantra to do what you’re good at. What you love.

When I was five, my uncle gave me a used typewriter. It was a cherished childhood gift. I’d happily type stories, letters, calendars. Anything, really.

The same year, I started kindergarten at Crow Island School. My family had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, where my sister and I were born, to Winnetka, Illinois.

As my mom tells the story, I was ready to drop out of school after day one. Apparently I was disappointed we wouldn’t learn to read until first grade. (Yes, this was a dramatically different era in public education, especially given what came next.)

So my mom went to talk to my teacher, a 23-year-old named Miss Rabeiga. She hadn’t taught anyone to read before, but she said she’d give it a try.

She asked her 19 students who wanted to learn to read. Six of us raised our hands. She invited us into her office during lunchtimes to teach us. I still remember the thrill of sounding out the hardest two-syllable word in our book, “some-thing.”

In high school my mom signed me up for a career counseling course, full of aptitude and interest tests.

With my abilities in school and interest in business and the arts, the report recommended several entry-level positions, many of which did not require a college degree. I wonder if the recommendations would have been different if my name was Carl instead of Caroline.

To be fair, though, I didn’t explore the ideas that better combined business and the arts – advertising specialist, marketing analyst and employee development trainer.

Following in my parents’ footsteps (they met at Berkeley in the 60s), I went to the University of California, albeit a different campus. I was there about six weeks when I realized I’d made a mistake. The school was not for me.

So I transferred to UCLA. And I fell in love with it. There was something for every interest – academics, athletics, activities.

The lesson? Don’t be afraid to make a change if something isn’t working for you.

It was hard to pick a major. My dad suggested English. “You love to read and write,” he reasoned.

“But Dad,” I countered, “what kind of career could I have? How will I become financially independent?”

So I chose economics, the closest thing UCLA had to an undergraduate business major. It seemed practical.

And I kept missing signs along the way. My professor for the economics of entrepreneurialism said I got the highest grade in the class because I was the best writer. Same thing with a business writing course, which I loved.

After four fun years at UCLA, all I knew was I wanted to work in the business world. So I signed up with a temp agency. On my third assignment, with a real-estate development firm, I was offered a job in their accounting department.

After less than a year, I moved on to aerospace procurement. I bought hardware for satellites and worked with suppliers in exciting places like Paris, Heidelberg, Gainesville and Joplin.

When aerospace crashed in the 90s, it wasn’t like my parents hadn’t warned me not to go into it. Layoffs were announced for 25% of the workforce. Every day I wondered if I was going to be let go. If only I’d realized I was a bargain as an entry-level person.

There was a silver lining, though. I finally focused on what I wanted to do with the rest of the my life. (This phenomenon now has a name – a quarterlife crisis.)

I dusted off my copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles, which my parents had given me several years earlier.

And I actually did the exercises. Seven stories about solving problems. Then underlining the verbs. And plotting them by skills with people, info/data or things. Mine were all with people and data. Not very good with things (maybe that’s why I don’t like cooking).

This turned into a flower exercise of my favorite fields, people, skills, working conditions, salary and places to live, capped with my purpose in life.

From there I matched my flower petals with potential careers. And that was the first time corporate communications came across my radar.

Finally, a field that combined business and the arts, just like my career counselor suggested.

People would pay me to write all day? Nirvana.

But how to make a change? That’s the subject of my next post.

 

Figuring It Out

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What’s a great way to learn something new every day?

That’s the question I’m pursuing through this blog.

More specifically: through the practice of corporate communications, what are the best ways to delight customers, engage employees, wow shareholders and contribute to communities? And how will those approaches change and evolve over time?

One thing I’ve learned about learning is that it requires a good degree of humility. When you’ve reached a certain point in your career and your life, the expectation is that you know everything. Or that you should know everything. And be able to figure it out if you don’t.

After unsuccessfully giving something your best attempt, it takes courage and confidence to ask someone else for information, ideas or inspiration.

As advertising exec Court Crandall said in his TEDx Manhattan Beach talk in November, “as a creative person, your expertise is tied to your self concept.”

He talked about the growing gap between the world changing at an exponential rate and the human brain’s unchanging capacity (Stanford’s Carol Dweck might beg to differ with her concept of a growth mindset, but that’s the subject of a different post).

Court’s solution? Focus on learning, and turn each day into a paid internship. Hey, it worked for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in The Internship, right?

But Court is on to something. In today’s world, no one has all the answers. Everyone comes to the table with different information, different ideas and different perspectives. It’s in the melding and shaping of those ideas that diamonds are formed from the crushing pressure of the business world.

Drawing on Socrates, Court advocates being a great facilitator – asking good questions, listening to ideas and embarking on a collective quest for knowledge.

John D. Wagner described this in a humorous piece for The New York Times, Learning a Foreign Language Called Public Relations.

A writer with an M.F.A. in poetry, he was surprised to land a senior role in corporate communications at a startup. “I spent each workday in full wing-it mode,” he began.

Yet he mastered the art of corporate improv – taking what was thrown at him and pivoting toward a brilliant yet simple solution, time after time. He asked great questions and acted with common sense. And when the startup crashed, he realized he’d learned to tell meaningful stories that motivated people.

And that master storytelling is one of the important things that corporate communications is all about.

It reminded me of a recent conversation with Smooch Reynolds, a luminary I met early in my career as a communicator. She was describing the importance of being able to navigate an FIO environment.

Because that’s what we’re all doing every day – figuring it out.

Leading Communications

“Every human advancement or reversal can be understood through communication.”

These words greeted and inspired me two nights a week two decades ago as I worked on my M.A. in communications management.

They were the opening of Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg’s mission statement at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication.

And his words could not be more true today.

Without communication, has anything actually happened?

It reminds me of the brain-bending question, “if a tree falls in the forest, but no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

The corollary?

If a company or a person does something great but no one knows about it, does it really matter?

Could be a game-changing product, a life-changing customer experience or an awe-inspiring place to work. If others don’t know about it, that company or person won’t reach its full potential.

That’s the power of communication. And that’s what I’m excited to explore in this blog.

Because once we’re done with our formal education, we begin the lifelong journey of learning something new every day. (Or sometimes every moment, depending on how fast your life, industry or company moves.)

And there are three themes I’ll explore in this blog.

Leading the function. What does it mean to lead a corporate communications function today – and tomorrow? What kinds of people should you hire and how should you help them develop? How should you structure and lead your team? How should you change and grow your team and the function over time?

Leading the field. How will you contribute to the body of knowledge in corporate communications? What experiments can you conduct in your organization to improve the best practices in communications? How can you innovate with your unique challenges and opportunities?

Leading the future. What are the ways you can create a compelling future – for your organization, your team and yourself – through the creative and innovative practice of communications? How can you not just survive constant change but genuinely thrive and create a better world?

Many successful bloggers have inspired me in this journey. Who all say, in one way or another, “just start.”

And isn’t that true of any important endeavor? Just start.

A speaker at TEDx Manhattan Beach also inspired me this fall. Travel writer David Hochman shared his adventure in the Omo Valley as a metaphor for his life’s mantra, “why not me?

He described the physical manifestation of his mindset as a “thumb slam” – slamming against the “send” key in act of boldness.

So here’s my opening thumb slam!