The line between freedom and chaos is astonishingly thin, I’ve recently discovered. Handed the mandate to set up a communications function for The Social Innovation Partnership, I’ve occasionally struggled to stay the right side of that divide. Now a year into this endeavour, I’ve been reflecting on how I’m learning to find my own version of calm.
- Holding myself accountable. My role bridges marketing, media, events and editorial; how I activate these discrete activities, and when, is left more or less up to me. A panoramic remit has infinite creative possibility, but there is also the danger of what Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice”, where – in a consumer setting – too many choices can paralyse your ability to make decisions. I’ve found two ways to make the road ahead less bewildering.
- On starting the job, my line manager got me thinking about the scope of my role, the people who care about it, “unappreciated problems” and potential obstacles in the way, and how I planned to enact our organisational values. From here, I began to narrow and sharpen my focus.
- In my previous job, I took for granted that the rest of the organisation understood how comms enhanced their work. I now know that if this has never been brought to life in front of your eyes, it remains mysterious. And so I’ve learnt to self-report – to describe and sell what I want to do, why it’s important, and then report back on how it all turned out – at team meetings, in conversation and whenever I get the chance. There were times when this was exposing and sometimes bruising, facing questions that required careful explanation, and hesitations that called for persuasion – but the positives were encouraging the more I did it. This face-to-face explanation now serves as a constant check on how my work lines up with the goals of the whole group.
- Creating a comms-ready culture. Even where there’s considerable willingness to engage, making people comfortable with communications if they’ve had no exposure to it before is a more in-depth process than I ever could have imagined, especially given the cultural predisposition (a team of evaluators and consultants!) towards analytical precision and care. I led discussions with colleagues to demystify what “brand” means and stimulate reflection on our own. I gave writing and social media training, created “talking points” ahead of events and guidance on preparing client publications, shared my communications strategy and reported our monthly digital statistics. Through of all of this I’ve learnt that there’s no better way to engage your colleagues than to listen in on as many conversations as you can, so that your interruption is expected – and even anticipated. (One of my most thrilling moments came when a colleague consistently pipped me to the post in flagging potential comms opportunities during an all team meeting!).
- Picking the low hanging fruit. In the first month or so, I focused on unobtrusive activities to smooth and polish what already existed – updating the Twitter handle and email signatures, creating Word and Powerpoint templates, consolidating the “house style”, reviving LinkedIn and setting up Google Analytics. I wanted to build the trust of colleagues in what I do, while laying ground-work for more ambitious projects in the future.
- Focusing on purpose. For a social impact organisation that also has a commercial imperative, the word “purpose” is understood in a particular way. Communications is critical to achieving our social mission: if we are to create a society where the most effective social organisations are able to flourish, it won’t be enough to work with individual charities or funders. We need to cast our net wider. But taking time away from billable work to focus on thought-leadership will always be a challenge. And so I’ve learnt to attach these ambitions to existing projects, whereby sharing the results or the learning from our work together helps to build and strengthen the client relationship while also seeking to influence their peers in the sector.
- Enjoying my peculiarity. It’s surprising to me how much I’ve liked being the odd one out in certain settings. Don’t get me wrong, it can be hard to sit alone with your comms thoughts, but there’s also power in this separation – especially in matters of internal concern. I act naive when something’s unclear to the whole team because it costs less for me to do so; I become the critical friend who’s seeking to understand so that I can communicate what’s happening to the outside world.
- Seeking champions and role models. I’ve been lucky to join a hugely supportive team – one that wants to see every individual thrive – and to find comms champions in my CEO and line manager. None of my colleagues come from a communications background, so it’s also been important to look outside the organisation to experienced comms people who can help enliven my ideas.
- Balancing blue-sky-thinking with in-the-weeds-working. I’ve put this last because I’m still not fully in control of being both strategic and taking care of everyday tasks. I can say though that keeping a close eye on how I’m spending my time has helped (I measure it on a weekly basis against priorities set out in the comms strategy), and that the feeling of dizziness diminishes over time!
There will always be an element of chaos in a role like mine; so rather than trying to eliminate it completely, by not hiding from that or pretending it’s not there, you can find the source of its power.