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Building a career as a communicator.

What with downsizing, layoffs and "involuntary separations," the pressure is definitely on within organizations ... and communicators are feeling the squeeze just as much as most professionals. Which makes it crucial that you do the right thing when dealing with coworkers, your boss and management. For some wonderful wisdom on careerism, I recently picked the minds of three IABC Fellows, recipients of the highest honor IABC bestows upon a member. The three are Lynda Stewart, ABC, director of communications and employee relations of Cox Enterprises, Inc., Atlanta, Ga.; Wilma Mathews, ABC, director of public relations at AT&T Network Systems, Morristown, N.J.; and Tom Ruddell, ABC, president of Capstar Corp, Tampa, Fla. The gut-issue questions are from IABC/Iowa members. If these questions and answers provoke others, please forward them to John Gerstner, manager of internal communications at Deere & Company, Moline, Ill. Communication World will report these comments in a future issue.

How can you effectively show your value to an organization when your boss considers it 'bragging and an inflated sense of worth' when you point out the successful conclusion of a project?

Stewart: A communication department exists for two reasons: 1) to help the organization meet business objectives, and 2) to respond to the organization's need for information. When you conclude a project, you should be tracking how it achieves 1) and/or 2). That's good management. There's a big difference in demonstrating you've successfully achieved objectives vs. "look what I did." Work with your boss to understand the objectives and then it's part of a team or department effort, not just "what I did." (But a good boss isn't going to forget your individual effort, either.) As a last resort, send thank-you notes to everyone involved in the project and copy your boss, your boss' boss, your boss' boss' boss ... .

How do you get the attention of the senior manager when all your work has to go through your supervisor who only seems interested in 'managing' you? How do you get your supervisor to help promote you?

Mathews: Forget the senior manager and work on your relationship with your supervisor. Be honest -- do you need close managing? If so, why? What do you need to do to gain your supervisor's confidence? Ask him or her. Is it just your supervisor's style to closely manage? Let him or her know you work better without constant supervision. The only cure for this is candor. Many protective supervisors aren't even aware of the way they are hindering their staff. If the supervisor is deliberately hindering you and keeping you away from senior management, you need to put the cards on the table, tell your supervisor that this isn't working and then start on a plan to either help the supervisor change the protective habit or -- at the worst -- get another position. This is where a mentor also can be of great help in either directing you through the morass of management or, perhaps, talking directly with your supervisor. Also, a mentor can get your work noticed and appreciated when your supervisor won't.

When will upper management really give credence to the need of having good communication in an organization?

Ruddell: I'd say they already do. Surveys show more than 70 percent of CEOs say good communication skills are the primary factor in achieving success. Other things I've read say upper management really does give a lot of credence to the need for communication. The difference is, how do you define communication? Upper management tends to look at communication in terms of results achieved, as opposed to communication people who too often see it in terms of the media and craft. Upper management will give more credence to the function when communication professionals develop ways to solve problems and control the bottom line.

What's the process you should go through to approach your boss (or his or her boss?) to ask for the salary, grade level and title you deserve?

Ruddell: First, make sure you deserve it. Compare your performance with others in the organization. Do some research and find out how your salary and title compare to those in similar positions in organizations with similar communication needs. Consider salary grade levels and titles throughout the organization. Is the communication function higher or lower than other departments? If you make a request at all, make sure it is congruent with your performance evaluations. If you're not getting topnotch performance reviews, you're not in a very good position to try and get raises and titles beyond what you already have. Finally, especially in these times, I wouldn't push too hard in this direction unless you have an alternative. Check the job market. Find out whether you're a hot commodity and could easily find another job. The ultimate position, of course, is to go in with another job offer in your pocket before trying to better your current position and salary.

How do you get the $100,000 corporate communication job?

Stewart: Demonstrate that you make a difference in whatever position you hold. Demonstrate you think like management, regardless of position. That means: Focus on business objectives and measure what you do by how you're helping meet them. Know your company, the issues, the trends. Do your very best at all times. Demonstrate initiative. Be proactive. Stretch. Reach for more and more responsibility. Offer solutions, not problems. Say, "Here's what I think," not "What do you want me to do?" Be trustworthy; hold confidences. Build bridges with others. Learn from them. Demonstrate your value to them. Think success. Speak up. Learn, learn, learn; grow, grow, grow. Do what it takes to get the job done. Remember you're a business person who happens to be in communication -- not a communication specialist who happens to be in business. Bottom line: You have to make a difference on behalf of your organization.

How do you get respect as a communicator when those you work for view you as a second-class worker -- someone who merely carries out their orders?

Ruddell: First, I'd make sure that's the case. The nature of communication work is such that you can feel that way, but how about other departments? You may find you're not alone among staff people who feel that way. Beyond that, I think you gain respect as a communicator when you address specific needs ... when you solve problems and aren't simply having fun practicing a craft at company expense.

What concrete steps can you take to be fully included in management decisions instead of top management turning to you only when a specific situation stumps them?

Ruddell: I think the first concrete step is to determine how management decisions are made in the organization. Is it one person or a committee, and if the latter, who's included? Would you, the communication person, fit well in that group? Is the communicator likely to be conspicuous by absence? The second consideration is, do you have a reputation as one who tends to support management decisions or are you perceived as one who, if allowed into the decision-making process, would simply become disruptive, or make it more difficult for decisions to be made? Finally -- and sometimes this can be more effective than anything -- take advantage of a situation when things unravel because a decision was not communicated effectively. Sometimes this will enable a change in policy so the communication person is regularly included in the decision-making process.

Please give me some real tactics for moving up in the organization.

Mathews: The minute you get into a position, decide what position you want next and work to attain that. This doesn't mean you neglect your duties and responsibilities; it means you'll perform your work to such a high standard and in such a way that senior management can't help but think of you when they think of filling the next critical position.

Also keep your name in front of people all the time. Send out reports of your work to management, senior management, key people in other departments. Write thank-you notes often to those people who helped you by being interviewed for a newspaper, who provided you with ideas for the employee information program, who provided you with data and research, who gave you constructive criticism. Get on the agenda for staff meetings in other departments and give a presentation on what you and your department do; too many people have a gross misunderstanding about your function.

Stewart: I repeat what I said for getting the $100,000 job. Beyond that, each organization is different. What's the structure, culture, history of promotions, financial outlook? But, accept the fact that with companies getting flatter in management, promotion frequently means adding more responsibility to a position, rather than moving "up" to another title. Be a generalist; it makes you more marketable, both within and outside your company.

Ruddell: One thing I've learned over the years is that in most organizations, strategic planning is done in a communication vacuum, and communication is practiced in a planning vacuum. One tactic is to become known as a good planner and one who would be an asset to the planning team. The literature is full of tips on becoming more of a counselor to management. Obviously, what also helps is having great people skills, learning what motivates people and paying attention to research, some of which has been recently published in Communication World. Getting noticed is important, but it's even more important to get noticed in a positive sense. If you have a presentation to make to management, rehearse and rehearse. Get friends to go over it with you and rewrite it. Other bits of advice:

* Take on tasks in the organization nobody else wants.

* Consider professional development a career-long activity.

* Take full advantage of your IABC membership. It has much to offer, especially to those in the early years of their career.

* Another tactic, I believe, above all, especially for these times, is be realistic. A lot of people expect more of an organization than it is able to provide.

* Be an actionary instead of a reactionary. It's important to take action, but it's even more important in terms of your own career advancement, to know how to work within the organization to come up with reasonable solutions, even if it doesn't mean all of what you consider are the tried and true principles of good communication.

* Finally, anybody seeking to move up in the organization should find one to three people who can become trusted advisors and whose support behind the scenes will be important to long-term career success.

How do you work with negative, paranoid people who even your boss doesn't want to deal with?

Mathews: Even negative, paranoid people have brains, experience, information, contacts. The trick is to look beyond the attitude (or find out why they feel that way) and work with them instead of focusing on their negativism and paranoia. I have found that such people often are appreciative of the attention and respect you give them and will work harder with you than many of the "Happy Harry" types.

Stewart: First, throw away the labels. The more we use them, the less we can see anything else in a person. Get to know the individual. Find out why that person comes across as negative or paranoid. Demonstrate that by working together you help each other. Too often, communicators come across as "I need (an interview ... stuff in your files, etc.)" without pointing out the "why" which both departments or individuals have a stake in. Build bridges. Take the person to lunch when you don't want something. Let him/her know you're simply interested in the important work he or she is doing. You're asking that person to share their expertise. Most people are pleased to be seen as an expert.

Usually it seems the 'highly successful' speakers we hear with communication backgrounds have been with several or many diverse organizations. Are those of us in communication who plan to stay with one firm likely to remain less successful? In other words, is a variety of employers a prerequisite to success in our field?

Ruddell: I'd answer this one a little differently today than I would have 20 years ago. My idea had been to go to work for one company and stay there for the rest of my career. Today, however, it seems that having a resume with several diverse organizations on it is probably a strength. Having said that, I think we need also to look at diverse job experience as opposed to diverse organizational experience. There are some large organizations, for example, where -- without leaving the company -- you can get some diverse experience and may be quite successful in staying with that organization. Finally, I think the larger prerequisite to success in our field is not how many diverse organizations you work for or even diverse experiences you've had in a single organization, but what is the depth and the strength of what you've accomplished in those jobs. That's really the greater stepping stone to success.

How do you earn the respect of coworkers when you are younger than they are? I'm tired of their patronizing tone of voice.

Mathews: You earn respect by doing your work professionally, sharing your expertise, recognizing your own inefficiencies (and working to correct them) and learning from those around you. As for the "patronizing tone of voice," that sometimes may signal a little bit of jealousy. Be patient with such people, for someday all your coworkers will be younger than you, and you too, may feel a pinch from the green-eyed monster.

Stewart: Reasonable people respect other people who think before they talk. Show you want to work with them -- learn from them. It's a compliment that a younger person feels there's plenty to learn from someone with more experience. Examine your own attitude: Are you coming across like, "This is not the way I learned it in communication school -- or, in my last job we did it differently and better -- therefore, your way is wrong"? (I've had someone on my staff like that.)

How can you truly be paid for the complexity and responsibility you must handle as a communicator?

Stewart: Quit being a martyr -- and quit setting yourself aside as "a communicator." There are plenty of managers around me whose positions are just as complex and responsible as mine -- and I don't understand the intricacies of their positions any more than they understand mine. If communicators don't get rid of that "them-us" attitude, they'll never get the $100,000 job, or anything close to it. We're all working to achieve the company's mission/goals/objectives -- and that's a complex and responsible venture.

Mathews: Let's get real here. The president of the United States makes far less money than the majority of corporate executives and even some of the highest paid communication giants. If your focus is on your salary, then you aren't focusing on the complexities and responsibilities connected with your position, which means you probably aren't doing a good job, which means you may not be worth what you currently are getting paid!

How do you find a mentor?

Mathews: Find the person going up the ladder, whom you personally admire and respect, and ask that person to help you. It never fails.

Stewart: I never looked for one. My attitude is: I've learned (and continue to) from everybody I work with. I've learned some good lessons from bad managers as well as from good ones. If you do a job well ... build bridges with the people you work with ... establish a solid relationship with your supervisor ... be proactive ... take advantage of the opportunities we have as communicators to be visible (whether in person or through bylines or other exposure) ... you'll have a lot of mentors. As you become comfortable with your coworkers, talk with someone you trust. Remember: The person who'll probably have the most influence over your career is your manager. Set out to make that a solid, productive relationship. And good luck.

John Gerstner is manager of internal communication, Deere & Co., Moline, Ill.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Gerstner, John
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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