I’d run my own business before. In fact, it was the first thing I did when I finished University. I started the UK’s first city-to-city car pool agency for students in 1992. Crazy actually. No concept awareness, no funding, no experience, no internet (but we did get a fax machine – woo!) I loved the novelty and the challenge of it. But after 4 years, 17,000 members, EU funding, 7 voluntary staff and sponsorship from Vauxhall Motors – at 10 pounds membership a year, it just wasn’t viable. I was exhausted and oh so disappointed.
After that, I went from small-business marketing in Australia, to a general management position in Scotland, and then someone said, “Hey, I need someone for a communications consultancy job in the Netherlands and you could be that person!” So off I went to start work at Shell in 2001. As I set out on what was to be a fascinating whole new life, I started discovering what large organizations were really about.
Over the following 8 years, I worked in various projects across Shell, then spent 3 years in IT communications, and another 3 with an international mobile operator. Let’s fast-forward to 2015. I had become a pretty good Internal Communicator but a disillusioned one too – or was I just wizened? Here’s my view: for an organization to benefit from internal communications, these factors need to be in place.
- The general understanding that a) communicating is a leadership responsibility, b) communicators are there to advise and support, and c) communication proposals need guidance, decisions and involvement
- Communication team access to people, plans, and information on news and developments
- A planning / document management system that enables widespread co-ordination on all fronts (messaging, timing, events, campaigns, feedback etc.) between comms, brand, strategy and other related disciplines
- Behaviours and capabilities of leaders, line managers and other influencers that enable them to participate effectively in communications activities and processes
- Sufficient time, skills and resources among communications teams to allow them to support and measure the outcomes properly.
I’ve never seen these exist together, or even much at all, separately. Success as an internal communicator seems to be more about showing enough respect under any circumstances to justify a continued belonging, and perpetuating the status quo without too much challenge. All this felt squashing to me and deceitful to employees, like we were constantly trying to cover up a mess that we couldn’t tidy up ourselves.
As I couldn’t find a different role improving an internal communications environment, and I didn’t want to keep working as a practitioner, I was DONE with it. That’s when I took up the small business role closer to home that hadn’t worked out for me now either. However, it had fired up my entrepreneurial spirit. Now that I didn’t have an employment contract to hold me down, I felt alive again. I DIDN’T HAVE AN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT!!
And so followed 3 days of panic: freefall stomach, 3 nights of sleeplessness, and a constant fear, labelled ‘I HAVE A MORTGAGE AND KIDS – WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO NOW?!!!!’ Dismay: “How did I end up in a situation where I am available to run a business but I don’t actually have one?” Desperation: “I could borrow money from my brother if things don’t work out…” Discomfort: one, two, then seven business ideas sprang up in my mind.
Ah – and in those ideas was hope. Although I was running away from an impossible career, I was running towards a huge, bright light called opportunity. It felt inevitable.
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