Your Career and You: “Helping Leaders Learn”

Publication1I dropped in on a tweetchat a few nights ago where the topic was helping your organization’s leaders understand the value…and the perils…of social media. Lots of lively discussion about an often downplayed aspect of today’s communication world.

This is an area that we, as the communication professionals responsible for what comes out of our organization’s “mouth,” are still sorting out.

I try to help my PR Concentration students at Curry College understand the importance of this role…its perils and pitfalls as well as its potential…and, sadly, there are more than enough examples on a daily basis to back up my words.

The first, (seemingly) logical assumption about a leader is that “he/she is responsible for running the company; he/she understands the importance of accurate, professional, intelligent communication.” As we have seen time and again, though, this isn’t necessarily so.

What’s that, Mr. Trump? Oh, yeah…sorry….

The reality is that many of these folks, brilliant leaders though they may be, don’t fully understand the power of social. And this is where we, savvy communicators that we are, add value.

As we were merrily tweeting about helping leaders learn about social media, I was reminded of a “learning opportunity” I experienced a bazillion years ago…before computers…that has served as my guide ever since (40 years and counting).

I was in the Air Force…enlisted…working the last six years of my service as an audiovisual media specialist running multimedia briefings for a couple of Air Force command groups…16mm movies, 35mm slides, vu-graph presentations…stuff you read about in “the history of communication”!

At one command, I had a multi-slide vu-graph presentation in which many of the slides had multiple overlays, each of which was “flipped” individually to “build” a story on that particular slide.

The slides were constructed for presentation in a scenario where the projector was in front of the screen; each overlay could be flipped smoothly and quickly for a visually seamless show.

BUT…I also was responsible for presentations in another location in which the projection was rear screen…projector behind the screen.

The problem? In that location, the slides had to be placed on the projector upside down, meaning that each slide was literally sitting on top of its overlays. Absolutely no way to smoothly transition each overlay for that slide. Simply. Could. Not. Be. Done.

So…we’re practicing for an upcoming major-league presentation in the rear-screen auditorium and the “slide-flipping” isn’t going smoothly for all the reasons listed.

The officer (remember, I was “enlisted,” not the “leader”!) on stage giving the briefing could not understand why the slides worked so perfectly in the other location but not here. After all, he was a professional communicator. In his mind, I was inept.

The colonel loses it and yells at the sergeant (me), “Why can’t you do this like you do it in the other auditorium?”

The sergeant (me) loses it and yells at the colonel: “You come back here and flip the slides. I’ll be you at the podium.”

(Exchange of irritated glares and mutual stomping of feet as we exchange places follows.)

And we proceed…

Two slides into the presentation…the colonel comes out of the projection room with a sheepish look on his face… “I see what you mean.”

(Now I hasten to say, for those of you who know anything about military protocol, that my seeming insubordination was for private consumption…we were alone. Neither of us would have behaved that way in public. We were professionals who respected each other’s abilities and were willing to discuss problems openly and honestly…in private.)

The takeaway here is two-fold:
> Professional Competence…The colonel was good at his job…I was good at mine. We both understood that.
> Learning Opportunity…I knew that, while the colonel didn’t understand the nuances of how our briefing physically worked…he was the face in front of the crowd, I could show him. So I did.

Finally…to answer the unasked question: “How did we resolve this problem?”

Duh…two sets of slides…one for front-screen projection, one for rear-screen. We simply had never encountered this situation before so hadn’t thought about the need for two sets!

Leaders like to be in control…that’s why they’re leaders. They don’t like surprises; they don’t like the unknown. Social media is still, for many, a huge “unknown.” Our job as their communication professional is to help them understand the unknown and how it can help…or harm…their success.

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Your Career and You: “Summer Daze”

Publication1It’s the middle of July, and so far I’ve “only” read three books and chilled on a six-week-long vacation in my “second home” of Taipei, Taiwan. If you follow me on Twitter or we’re friends on Facebook, you know this last part…and I actually read one of the books while on vacation.

Truth be told, I feel really guilty. I know that my Curry College students are working at least one job. Some are also shoehorning in an internship as part of their Public Relations Concentration. And they’re (theoretically, at least) getting some badly-needed rest and relaxation.I feel like I’m just sitting here twiddling my thumbs.

One of the things I truly enjoy about both my former life as a public relations professional and my current incarnation as a public relations professor sharing my knowledge and experience with future generation(s) of PR pros is the rush I get when I’m actively engaged in my work.

And when there’s a lull in the action, I get antsy. And when I get antsy, I start looking for ways to release that pent-up energy. Which means that I start dreaming up projects to undertake, events to stage…you name it.

My former colleagues at the Blood Bank of Hawaii, Ruth and Kim, figured this out early on. Whenever either passed by my office and saw me kind of just “sitting there,” one or the other would shortly afterwards come wandering in with a “Kirk, could you take a look at…”

Voila! I had something to do and everyone was safe…for the moment!

So what’s this all about?

I’m realizing as time passes that, at least once in a while, you have to sit back, take a deep breath, and let the creative juices rejuvenate. Then, when you head back into your workplace, your head is clear, your brain is firing on all cylinders, and ideas are bouncing about waiting to be released and made reality.

The lesson here, Young Grasshopper, is that you don’t have to be “on” 24/7. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to take some “you” time.

Work hard, but take some downtime. Don’t get caught up in a “summer daze”!

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Your Career and You: “PR…Making Friends”

Publication1One of my rising stars in the Communication Department‘s Public Relations Concentration at Curry College posed a very interesting question recently: “How do you explain public relations to a first-grader?”

Wow! There’s a challenge for you on a sunny summer day!

The temptation for some of our brethren is to launch into a “learned discourse” on the theoretical underpinnings of the profession, referring reverently to Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Bono, et al.

To which I say, “Slow down, pardner. We’re talking to a first-grader here.”

More important, though, we’re talking to someone who maybe knows what each of the words means, but is at a loss when they’re lumped together like peanut butter and jelly.

(Side note: The first time I heard the term “peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” I thought the person uttering it was insane. “How do you mush those two ingredients together and come up with anything fit for human consumption?” Then I tried it…)

So let’s ratchet back on the scholarly definition and look at what we really do in the course of our professional lives.

Let me throw this out for a starter: “Public relations is when someone introduces you to someone else who then becomes your friend.”

Or, as I tell my students from time to time, “Public relations is like a dating service. We introduce someone to a company, or another individual, or a concept with the goal of that meeting developing into a long-term relationship.”

Before you go off on the all-too-familiar (to me!) exasperated “Kirk, you idiot…,” be assured that this “introduction” is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole lot more including preparing for the inevitable misstep that causes tempers to flare (crisis management), perhaps recommending a mutually-agreeable place for the two parties to meet (counseling), providing each party with some background information on the other (media relations), and so on.

The goal, regardless of how you describe the term, is the development of a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship built on understanding…and trust.

In my mind, at least, it’s nothing simpler…or more complicated…than that.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.” – James Boswell, “Life of Johnson” [September 1777]

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Your Career and You: “Customer Service…a Promise is a Promise”

Publication1I’m on vacation in my “second home” of Taipei, Taiwan, getting some badly-needed rest and, at the same time, working myself into a frenzy of hissy-fitness thanks to the ineptitude of a team of “agents” theoretically representing Verizon.

The world’s not going to come to a screeching halt, I know, because of my problem. But I can guarantee you that Verizon is on the verge of losing a long-time customer.

If one is to believe the company’s self-serving proclamations, customer service is paramount. But…

The depth of that “service” is up for debate. Lots of scurrying around and lip service by @VerizonSupport “agents.” After a total of TEN hours spent online with FIVE “agents”…ZERO results.

Okay. Rant’s over. Now to the conversation.

Customer service is the “make-or-break” factor in almost every business relationship. A store is a store is a store. A website is a website is a website. A product is a product is a product.

The differentiator, in practically every situation, is the customer’s perception that he or she is important and that the supplier of the product or service truly cares.

Most of us are willing to accept an occasional glitch in the system. We’re wearing our “grown-up” pants. We know stuff happens.

But when that “stuff” happens day-after-day…and is repeated by more than one representative of the organization… “Houston, we have a problem.”

It’s easy to point fingers and burn a hapless victim…guilty or not…at the stake. But that rarely solves the underlying problem which is a corporate culture that encourages “stick to the rulebook” customer service.

This is what happened in my Verizon encounter. Every single “agent” with whom I spoke parroted the exact same series of responses. They stuck religiously to the rulebook. The result, predictably enough, was a brick wall past which not one “agent” dared venture.

Where am I going with this? Simple.

To the customer…end-user…service recipient…you are the company. And his or her expectation is that, as the company, you’re going to fix the problem…just like you promise in your advertising, in your marketing materials…in everything.

You can curl up comfortably in the cocoon of your “policies and procedures” manual and do exactly what the book says to do. Or you can put yourself in the place of the customer and ask yourself, “What would make me happy in this situation? The company ‘promised’…”

At the end of the day, some things don’t change. The sun will always rise in the east. And a “promise” will always be a promise.

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Your Career and You: “Because It Has To Be Done”

Publication1I was sitting in a meeting recently…a week after classes had ended at Curry College and three days after final grades had been posted…apparently because someone decided we “needed” to have a meeting.

So far…20 minutes into the affair…two people had passed on information that just as easily could have been provided via email. And, looking at the agenda, there was nothing of any greater significance coming up. Waah…waah…waah.

Meetings are the bane of most “ordinary” folks. They’re seen as an extra burden that eats into valuable work time.

Those who…for reasons that continue to elude me…actually enjoy these things see these meetings as a necessary part of the overall conduct of business.

Part of the “problem” (my designation) is that the folks sentenced to be in charge of these meetings often have no clue how to run these meetings. As a result, an enormous amount of time is wasted that would have been better spent either sleeping or eating a sandwich.

So why have them?

Apparently the prevailing thought is that meetings are a necessary part of the democratic process. And I have no problem with that…so long as the content of the meeting leads to successful resolution of a work-related problem.

These are the “lessons to be learned” as you move ahead in your career:

  • Be clear on your reason(s) for scheduling a meeting.
  • Prepare…and share…an agenda of items to be covered.
  • Plan ahead and prepare a “script” of what you are going to discuss.
  • Set a meeting time limit to accomplish what you’ve laid out.
  • Stick to the agenda…the script…and the time limit.

Effective leadership…and management…come from being aware of the impact of your action(s) on others.

How do you know whether or not you are accomplishing this with your meeting(s)

Simple. Ask! Talk to your colleagues…folks who you feel will give you honest and constructive feedback.

Effective leadership and management is a process. Some people are blessed with effective leadership traits from the start of their careers. And some are instinctively effective managers. Others are both.

But all share a crucial responsibility…to be mindful of how their actions impact others. And the answer to that unasked question should not be “because I think we need a meeting.”

Communication is, as we have learned over the years, a two-way, mutually-beneficial process. I talk; you listen and give me your feedback. You talk; I listen and respond to your insights and perceptions.

In today’s world, though, this does not require herding the masses into a room where they are condemned to remain until the instigator of the punishment decides he or she has “made a point” or “reached consensus.”

No. Today we are blessed with a multitude of avenues for communicating and “reaching consensus” including social media platforms and the good ol’ tried-and-proven email. Or, horror of horrors, face-to-face!!

Once the masses have had a chance to weigh in with their thoughts and opinions, then…and only then…could or should a meeting be arranged…to finalize the discussion and make a decision.

Not because you “think it might be a good idea.” No…because…now “It has to be done.”

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Your Career and You: “Overload…the Yellow Light at the Intersection”

Publication1“I’m exhausted.” I hear this word used time and again by a lot of people, but I’ve always said (to myself, of course), “Whiny pants. Quit complaining.”

Then I woke up this morning. Felt like someone or something had totally run over me, backed up, and had done it again.

Yep. End of the semester, and I’ve hit the proverbial wall. Too much on my plate. Too little time to accomplish every earth-moving thing I have planned.

Waah…waah…waah!

While I sneer self-righteously at many of my academic associates who feel compelled to go on sabbatical as often as they can get away with it, I do recognize the value of time away from one’s regular workplace…office, classroom, wherever…to recharge batteries and rekindle enthusiasm.

This is advice that I try to pass on to my students at Curry College, where I ride herd over our Public Relations Concentration and teach most of the PR courses. “Be mindful of overload. Don’t push yourself so hard that you’re not having ‘fun’ anymore.”

I fully recognize that no sane human student looks at the mountains of work thrown at him or her during any given semester as “fun.” But I also know that it doesn’t have to feel like a life sentence with hard labor.

So what to do?

Teachers don’t usually look at the sum of all that their students are dealing with. They’re focused on their own requirements and feel…rightfully so…that theirs is the most important of all the work sitting on a student’s shoulders. And I’m one of that herd.

I try to assure my students, particularly my advisees…who are sentenced to meet with me at least once or twice during the semester…that this is painful but valuable preparation for “real life.”

I explain that, in the working world, client-imposed deadlines are inevitable and inescapable. Work has to be done. Projects have to be completed.

“Your challenge,” I pontificate, “is to be aware of all it is that you’re taking on. If it feels like it’s too much…it might be.”

There’s no simple formula for calculating overload. It’s a trial-and-error thing. And you’re going to mess it up once in a while. But you’ll get better at judging just how much you’re capable of doing, and everyone will benefit from your new-found awareness…your friends, your family, your co-workers…your boss.

Don’t wait, though, thinking “I’ll just take on this one extra assignment…I’ll find the time somehow.”

You might. And I really hope you’ll be able to do this. But take that thought as the yellow light at the intersection…start slowing down for the immediately-following red light.

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Your Career and You: “Where Will I Go? What Will I Do?”

Publication1We’re slipping “gently” into the final weeks of spring semester at Curry College, where I head up our Public Relations Concentration and teach most of the PR courses. I, for one, can smell summer on the horizon!

Aside from the (finally) melting snow, the surest sign that the semester…. and the academic year…are staggering to a close is, as I have come to recognize, the panic-stricken looks on the faces of many of my senior advisees and students.

Reality has set in. In just a few short weeks, they will strut/prance/slink across the stage, accept their diploma from Curry president Ken Quigley, smile for the photographer, and go off into…

And here lies the dilemma…Go off where???

For some, the road is clear. They’ve completed one or more internships to help get a sense of what it is they’re pretty sure they like doing, and where they would like to be doing it.

For others, it’s like looking into a deep well at midnight. No sense of where, what, or why.

This is where I slip into my “take a deep breath and step off the ledge” counselor role with so many of my disciples.

First, I assure them that this feeling, though it looks like and smells like…to them…the absolute end of the world, is perfectly normal and is something that even I remember so well.

Second, I remind them that they had a similar feeling when they walked across the stage at their high school graduation. Sure, they had (or at least most of them had) settled on a college where they would continue their education in preparation for “real life.” But what really lay ahead?

Most of us got where we are today thanks to advice and guidance from someone who took the giant step before us. And in so many cases, the advice wasn’t “Here’s what you should do.” Rather, it was “Here are your options. Let’s take a look.”

Finally, finding a lifelong career path is like trying on clothes in a store. You see something on the rack that you really like, and it seems to be your size. Then you try it on.

Dorkville…

So you try others. If you’re lucky and you’re shopping in a store where you’re at least a familiar face, the assistant will make suggestions and show you more options…styles or colors that you’ve never considered before.

Shazam!!

You slip into something that absolutely looks, feels, and is you.

But you did this because (a) you were willing to try different things, and (b) you were willing to listen to someone else’s advice.

Where am I going with this? Simple.

Talk to your teachers, to your advisors, to others you have relied on as you’ve made your way through this briar patch called “life.”

Ask what they think of your plans as you envision them now. “Am I being realistic?” “Does it make sense based on what you know about me?” “What am I missing?”

Unlike Rhett Butler in response to Scarlett O’Hara’s tearful “But where will I go? What will I do?”, your advisor/counselor/friend isn’t going to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Onward and upward!

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