Working without a safety net

You’re young, perhaps fresh out of school and you’ve landed a job as a communicator for a smaller company just starting their journey to improve communications. You’re a department of one with big expectations on your shoulders.

You’re excited, because, after all, you’re running the show. You’ve taken a big leap. You stand to learn tons and gain experience much faster than your peers.

Many would call this a huge opportunity. And it is. But it is also a challenging path.

You can rely on your wits and your gifts to get though many day-to-day challenges.

You can climb the ladder of success and know that no one really is climbing ahead of you.

But with such opportunity comes risk and knowing that there is really no one below you to catch you when you fall. You’re working without a safety net.

While it is good news that many companies are waking to the new opportunities and need to have a communications function to help shape organizational messaging and engagement, many organizations may not be investing enough in the resource. How do you know?

Your manager doesn’t have experience in the discipline they’ve asked you to establish at the company, and worse yet, doesn’t know how to manage the function.

The task of charting the organization’s communications path rests on your shoulders. You make the call whether to turn left, right or continue straight-ahead. You also have to take the responsibility of making sure your manager understands the path, your decisions and why the direction, strategies and tactics are completely aligned to your company’s success.

The communications environment in today’s workplace is faster, technology-laden and connected to a world well past the walls of your organization’s headquarters (if it even has walls). The world that our parents worked in is far different from the world today.

Communications in today’s corporate world is far more complex and expensive.

The bulletin board in the lunchroom has long been replaced by digital hangouts and social media. It’s not about just crafting the right messages anymore. It’s about making sure key messages don’t get lost in an increasingly cluttered messaging environment. With the prolific increase in new technology and communication platforms, keeping up with these technology platforms, whether your organization uses them or not, is becoming a critical skill.

Leaders at the small company, home of the “huge opportunity,” are increasingly aware of the need to invest in communications. That’s good news. While investing is the solution, they may not know what investments will uniquely suit their organizations.

So they gamble.

They create a job description and start recruiting for a role that they really don’t understand. They develop a set of expectations about the scope and expected minimum contributions of a role without really understanding the professional landscape.

The question is, do you want to work for a company that is gambling on you? If you’re new or relatively new to an industry or role, you may not yet know just how much work you can accomplish for the organization. If the hiring leader has unreasonable expectations to start with, how will you ever be successful?

An alternative question to consider is do you want to work for a company that is investing in you and clearly understands where you stand in your career journey?

Many of the best jobs I’ve had in my past have been when I’ve been the only one of my discipline at the table. In these roles, I’ve achieved amazing growth and learned countless lessons and skills. But I’ve also experienced the downside of these so-called “huge opportunities.”

With a naive eye, I’ve readily accepted roles where the job description is simply not realistic. Optimistically, I’ve signed on at an organization and agreed to drive a long list of results, without fully understanding the time, resources and skills required for the job.

I’ve agreed to roles where the hiring manager simply doesn’t understand the discipline for which I was hired. Don’t get me wrong. These individuals were smart. They simply didn’t know how to help and guide me as a young professional.

Ultimately, I did prove successful in some of these roles, but at a great cost.

  • I worked incredibly long hours – so my personal life suffered.

  • When I didn’t know how to do a task, I spent a lot of time learning when I didn’t really have the time to do so. A guide or mentor-manager could have made this much more efficient – and rewarding.

  • I had some lousy managers (not all were this way). Admittedly, I probably wasn’t the best judge of what makes a great manager. Seduced by the “huge opportunity” I likely looked as these would-be bosses with rose-colored glasses. I later learned how managers who are not knowledgeable in their space aren’t good for a young employee. They can make promises and commitments that are simply not realistic.

  • Some managers were adept at taking credit for my work, and strangely absent when there was blame to be dispatched. Don’t get me wrong, I always have believed that my job was to make my boss look good. But, I did so with the belief that they would support me. To be used as a scapegoat and not a champion and valued team member can be disheartening.

If I could do it over again, I’d temper the ambition to climb with the ambition to learn. I would look for an environment where I could soak up as much knowledge, experience and industry insight as possible.

So, what should you do? Look for a good company – but also look for a good boss, one that can help you learn and grow. Someone who wants to teach and is good at it. If you end up with a boss who isn’t strong in the discipline of your role, look for a boss who is open about that and willing to help you gain that discipline from other places.

You want a manager that encourages and invests in your professional development. Paying for your membership in a professional organization such as IABC or PRSA is a great first step. Knowing that they will regularly foot the bill for conferences, webinars and other learning opportunities indicates an understanding that you will want to expand your skills and contributions to the organizations.

Having a continuing-education benefit that pays for college classes or discipline-specific professional certifications helps grow your innate talents and strengths into the skills and of an experienced contributor.

Coaches, mentors and job-shadowing are timely and targeted ways of getting the insight you need to work through challenges. Look at other organizations that do similar things but who are not competitors. Find the industry leader and suggest to your manager that you’d like to deepen your skills and abilities by job shadowing a seasoned pro.

Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop growing. Know that I’ve been there. Hang in there.