What got you here won’t get you there. How to set the direction for your own career

Written by Annalie Brown, PRINZ member

Having made the successful leap across the chasm that appears to reside between being an organisational senior leader and being a senior comms practitioner in New Zealand, Helen Morgan-Banda had some sage advice for Central Region members. Now the CEO of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, Helen cut her teeth in significant comms roles in central government and the corporate world.

From my own experience, having worked in the UK in my early career, I obtained the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Diploma (equivalent to PRINZ APR), followed by a Masters in Corporate Communications. My observation is that the PR and comms industry there is a lot more mature. Comms sits at the top table of most organisations, having the ear of the CEO and seen as a trusted advisor. But that’s not the case in New Zealand. We’re flavour of the month when there’s a crisis and the media are banging down the door. But we’re not here to keep the media “at bay” any more. And in fact that’s the worst thing we could do.

While Helen didn’t attempt to solve this “wicked problem”, she said, in light of reputational crises such as the Russell McVeagh saga, the time is now ripe for comms professionals to take ownership and demonstrate leadership. Things that will help us be taken seriously and demonstrate our value extends way beyond media gatekeeper and into the game of relationships, stakeholder connections, environmental scanning and reaching our audiences.

Firstly she says that wherever you are in your career, what got you to that place won’t get you to the next rung. There are always new skills we need to develop, whether that’s in the ever changing world of comms, or thinking more broadly about business.

Money matters. Just ask any CEO what their number one priority is and the likely response is going to be a financial one. Even if they say something like customer service, the main reason for that is that happy customers keep the books buoyant and the board happy. So the more we comms people understand about the financial process, the more valued we’ll be. Many comms teams are involved in the creation of a company’s annual report. So why not offer your services? Even if you’re not writing it, being involved in the project means you have the chance to ask questions and better understand the detail. And no one ever volunteers for that job! Earn yourself a few brownie points in the process.

Helen went on to talk more broadly about the soft skills that leaders need to gain. Being authentic is key. Understand who you are as a person, what makes you who you are. Then be yourself and only yourself. If you’re not trying to be someone else, you can’t be found out! So don’t try to be someone you think you should be.

One comment that rang true with me was about having confidence in your abilities, your expertise and your opinion. If you act like you have something to bring to the table, people will listen to you. Given that comms people tend to have their ear to the ground and understand what’s going on in the wider environment, we usually have value to add to any conversation. Don’t be afraid to speak up. I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve had a thought in a meeting but chose to keep quiet for fear of being made to look foolish. Only for someone else to pipe up with the exact same thought later in the meeting. And get all the credit for it.

For some people, gaining these soft skills can be hard. But it’s these skills that will take you beyond the comms boundaries. So if you need help, get a coach. Helen revealed she’s had a coach for over ten years, even before she became a CEO. Helen’s coach has helped her plan out her career by getting her to be proactive. She asked questions like: What do I want my next job to be? And what about the one after that? What skills do I need to pick up if I want that type of job? And how do I go about gaining those skills? What kind of organisation do I want to work for?

But lastly she warned that no matter how well you plan, the unexpected will come your way and derail you. Life. Illness. Children. Redundancy. The better equipped you are in your career, the more able you’ll be to adapt to these situations. She also pointed to the fact that what can seem like times of adversity can actually be our biggest opportunities. She took the leap to the “Executive Table” after being made redundant. She took stock of where she was and where she wanted to be and positioned herself for a change of direction.

So while you’re keeping one eye on the prize, know there’s potentially several different ways to get it.