Career Planning for Communicators – Our Time is Now

Last week I presented a webinar on career planning to a national group of communications professionals. The topic seemed to strike a chord, and with good reason – after all, we’re in the midst of the largest disruption to the work world since the Industrial Revolution, and the balance of power is shifting from employers to employees. As we wind down 2021 and look toward the year ahead, the timing is right to explore career planning, including being intentional about future-proofing your career and taking the time to ensure that you’re set up for success (in whatever definition of success fits your situation).

I felt a real energy from the group as we explored big, fundamental questions such as:

  • What does work mean?
  • What matters to me?
  • How do I want to make an impact?

It was a refreshing interruption to the perpetual Groundhog Day experience the pandemic has created for many in their jobs, in which hours turn into days, days turn into months and soon months turn into years of sameness. Clearly the only way to snap out of that feeling of sleepwalking is to have the courage and insight to wake up, take stock of what’s working and what’s not, then take the necessary steps to make changes.

The “Great Resignation” phenomenon is certainly evident in the communications community – I have never seen so much mobility and career change among communications professionals in my 25 years in the industry.

The pattern I see among the hundreds of communicators I work with in workshops and retreats is that extraordinarily, communicators are at once both overwhelmed and underwhelmed. They are overwhelmed with the burdens of work, the frustration of broken approval and governance models and the lack of boundaries between personal and professional time. On the flip side, they are profoundly underwhelmed by the level of meaning, satisfaction, recognition and impact in their work. They are craving a sense of deeper connection to their work and colleagues, and are definitely starving for fun.

My best counsel to communicators is to accept the invitation for radical reflection that the pandemic has offered us, to take stock in your work and carve a path forward of your own making. To set yourself up for success on your own terms, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Get out of your own way. This is a tough one, but it’s important – if you’re frustrated that you’re treated like a short order cook, that you have ridiculous approval processes to navigate and that you get zero recognition for your contributions, you’re in excellent company. I hear these complaints from communicators virtually every day, and they are very real. That said, the first step to unlocking these frustration traps is to consider whether it’s possible that you may be playing a role in creating or perpetuating the very cycle that is driving you nuts. Maybe you show up to meetings in a passive role, rather than driving the process through strong questions and consultative skills. Perhaps you’re too nice, and you ask everyone for their input on your deliverables even if they have no functional authority over communications. And just possibly, you are too humble and time-starved to take the time to track your success and shine a light on the results you’ve achieved. If this sounds familiar, I encourage you to deliberately unlearn habits, assumptions and behaviours that are holding you back. Your future self will thank you!
  1. Slow down in order to speed up. Take a step back from the deadlines and pressures of your job and assess whether the fundamentals are in place for you to have a fulfilling experience and work to the full scope of your abilities. Given the turbulence and dust up of the pandemic, even the basics are often fuzzy.  Is your organization’s business intent or North Star clear? Are communications objectives defined? Are roles/accountabilities/expectations established? Is the definition of success clear and consistently understood? These fundamentals are often very gauzy when we’re working in disruption and change – remember, there are no stupid questions, and often the most elementary are the most revelatory. If you’re looking for inspiration, these Top 10 Questions in Strategic Communications and Top 10 Questions in Change can help.
  1. Raise your level of altitude. When we’re anxious and busy (like, say, during a 20-month long pandemic), the tendency is to look down and focus on the weeds. This is a trap, and it does us no favours. Try to cultivate the habit of looking up – waaay up! Consider how the thing you’re working on ladders up to the broader communications context, how it connects to your organization’s objectives, and ultimately how it fits within your sector or industry. If you’re looking for a shot in the arm of fresh insight, the easiest most reliable trick is to elevate your perspective.
  1. Go beyond what you do and focus on the how. I am struck that in my experience, the single biggest predictor of career success or failure in the communications profession consistently comes down to consultative skills. When people skyrocket to senior plum roles, or crash and burn in a hot mess, it’s almost always tied to the critical space between the communicator and the internal clients/stakeholders they work with – how the practitioner works in this area as opposed to what they produce. If you want to be an indispensable practitioner who operates at the transformational, rather than the transactional level, be deliberate about honing your consultative craft. This special section on consultative skills on our blog can help, in addition to our Results Map® System resources.
  1. Invest in learning. Your career superpower is your ability and commitment to life-long learning. Communications is a fast-moving, evolving business, and in order to thrive it’s imperative that you commit to growing your practice and nourishing yourself with new perspectives, tools knowledge and skills. I notice a concerning pattern especially among mid-level and senior communicators (and particularly from the public sector I’m afraid) who have the view that they have been working in the field for years and as such have no time/interest/energy/mental space to invest in learning. This is worrisome on several levels, including career growth and impact. I strongly encourage communicators at all levels to take learning seriously and to consider the enormous potential for informal learning that we’re afforded in today’s digital world. While courses, certification programs (including our own) and degrees are great investments, you can also sharpen the saw and learn a ton by integrating newsletters, blogs, podcasts and YouTube videos into your day-to-day online content consumption. One of the best things you can do is to invest in building fluency in fields related to communications – for example in change management, project management, stakeholder engagement, issue management, evaluation and behavioural economics. Investing in building and nurturing your network, including formal and informal mentorship opportunities can also be very enriching.

As the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. COVID has been the most significant disruptor to the workplace we’re likely to see in our lifetimes.  If the chaos and misinformation surrounding it has taught us anything, it’s that the world has never needed savvy communicators more than we do today.  I hope the pandemic will serve as a catalyst for you to reimagine what work means to you, and how you want to make a dent in the universe.