No doubt about it: Climbing the career ladder in communications takes hard work and talent. But it also requires a strategic mindset.
Here are five tips from senior communicators to help you align your career growth goals with the goals of your organization. This hard-won advice is sure to give your career trajectory a boost, whether in your current role — or that job you just applied for:
- Polish your eight ball—and business acumen. The surest path to becoming more valued at work is to become more of a strategic consultant to your execs.
Strategic thinkers tend to focus on “what’s next,” according to Catherine Anderson, senior vice president of communications at Cityblock Health.
“Your mission should be to advise execs on what’s coming—and to put the right team structure in place to meet those future threats or opportunities,” she explains. “This allows you to guide strategy, work to unblock obstacles for your directs, maintain alignment and pivot when needed. That’s how you get a seat at the table.”
“You can only do that if you focus on business goals—and how you can generate the most impactful activities to help achieve those goals,” agrees Therese van Ryne, the senior director of external communications at Zebra Technologies.
Victoria Baxter, the senior client partner overseeing ESG and sustainability at Korn Ferry, agrees. “Show how comms advances business strategy,” she says. “Show value by measuring what you can—and tie outputs directly to business priorities.”
Gina Michnowicz, CEO and chief creative officer at The Craftsman Agency, takes it further. “Whenever reporting results to execs, highlight what’s important to the business and their priorities using language that the C-Suite is using,” she says. “For example, I offered assistance with board decks and investment rounds to help with our CEO’s narrative when I was at a startup,” Michnowicz shares. “This was hugely impactful to the company and a great experience for me.”
Want more career advice for moving from tactician to becoming a respected strategist at work? Read this.
- Become an SME on one topic. Multitasking and being a “jack of all trades” can seem like a calling card for anyone eying the corner office. But it’s actually the opposite.
“Instead, be the go-to person on a specific topic,” says Fit Body App CMO Lia Haberman. “Read about it obsessively. Form your own opinions and share your knowledge whenever the topic comes up.”
For example, she didn’t know much about running a business when she first started joining executive meetings.
“However, I was extremely online, followed every platform update and was aware of how others were using social media to communicate news,” Haberman shares. “It gave me the confidence to sit at the table, since I knew that I had the knowledge to respond if called on. It also made me more valuable, since I became the person they asked when there were questions around social media trends and updates.”
ESG (environmental, social and governance) is another key area of expertise.
“ESG communicators absolutely must have a seat at the table,” Baxter agrees. “These are complex issues with shifting terminology and very different audience segments—from employees who want to understand what the company stands for and how they contribute to investors who want clear metrics.”
Her advice: “Own an area like ESG where you’re vital to clarify complexity, drive engagement and demonstrate transparency and authenticity for all audiences.”
- Hone your listening skills. Despite her advice about speaking out as an expert, Haberman also recommends “learning to talk less and listen more.”
“Unless you’ve got some valuable perspective to add, you don’t need to comment on everything or have an opinion on every issue,” she explains. “While you’re busy thinking of a response and trying to get yourself heard, you can be missing important information other people are sharing or actionable opportunities to follow up on after the board meeting. Listen, look for genuine opportunities to speak and insert yourself into the conversation when you can provide value.”
- Reject that imposter syndrome! One problem with stretch goals is that they can leave you feeling like you’re “faking it until you make it.”
Don’t fall for it, warns Cheryl Waide, chief communications officer for Vote Run Lead.
“You made it here because you’re dope, you know your stuff and you earned your stripes,” Waide says. “Speak with confidence, be conversational and never forget where you came from. You will quickly find yourself well-like and—even better—well-respected when you show up this way.”
Michnowicz adds this caveat: “You don’t want to take stretch goals too far and try too early,” she says. “You cannot replace experience. You can be a strategic thinker and make an impact, but true strategists have seen it all, including failures and shifts in the market. This helps build stronger strategy and makes you ready to be at the table where the expectations are greater.”
- Embrace inclusivity—for yourself and others. “Getting a seat at the table” is not enough—not when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion.
“True representation isn’t just about being in the room,’” says Sheila Fortson, director of social media and comms at the National Council on Compensation Insurance. “It’s about being listened to—so we offer diversified perspectives.”
But that’s just the beginning, according to Fortson.
“Inclusive communicators also inspire others to share honest feedback and pioneering concepts,” she adds. “Embracing inclusivity can also help brands avoid pitfalls like distributing insensitive or tone-deaf communications.”
Her parting tips for climbing the strategic communications ladder:
- See the big picture. “Think holistically, with consideration for the present and the future.”
- Be a lifelong learner. “Ask questions of others and yourself. Be open to new ideas and OK with not having all the answers—but willing to learn.”
- Become a data scientist. “Leverage the insights gained from analytics for communications strategy and planning.”
- Be adaptable. “Don’t get locked into one mode of thinking. Be a proactive leader who is capable of handling issues as they arise.”