Training the team, training yourself

How a mix of external workshops and internal reflection can help to accelerate your communications career

Communication is only as good as the level of know-how of its practitioners but expectations and standards are not the same all over the world.

In Europe, newcomers to the field are customarily required to have a bachelor degree in a related field and, should the position have an international outlook, a good knowledge of English besides the mastering of one’s own language. This emphasis on language proficiency, and more widely on communication as information exchange, not only reduces the practitioner to a technical role (the junior practitioner) but perpetuates t stereotypes about the profession.

Decades of research and practice have promoted the strategic, business partner role of the communication professional, but it seems that job descriptions and academic degrees still need to catch up with the reality of current practice.

8Above: a group picture at the training workshop of the Gobal Communications Leadership Team at Continental AG / Photo: Continental AG9

It is perhaps unrealistic and unfair to expect that universities around the world produce communication graduates with a uniform skillset when historically the practice, its importance, perceptions and applications have been so different around the world. It is equally unfair to criticise human relations departments for inadequate job descriptions, when these should in fact be created in collaboration with the hiring departments.

My purpose here is to provide an example of how corporations can successfully address these challenges by implementing a different candidate assessment and onboarding process and by embracing a philosophy that supports learning and development.

Scouting talents, training for needs

German technology company and tire supplier Continental has 22 tire plants around the world, all of which have a communications specialist on site. After years of candidates bringing in highly diverse qualifications and skillsets under the same academic degrees yet still being unable to confidently manage the location communication of Continental’s plants, the candidate assessment process has been reviewed to focus on strategic communication.

Therefore, as part of the interview and assessment process, all candidates have to create a communication strategy and complete one operative task, such as writing a press release, an article or completing a crisis communication exercise, depending on the specificity of the plant and its current communication needs. While most candidates satisfactorily manage the operative communication tasks, they struggle with the strategic communication plan and their leadership skills.

This is particularly the case for both practitioners with up to five years of experience and for candidates holding a masters’ degree in communication.

Upon joining the Global Locations Communications Team at Continental’s Tire Division, the onboarding process spans over six months and features exchanges with corporate functions, training in corporate tools and platforms, visits to at least two other manufacturing facilities, as well as introduction to Continental’s products and processes.

Achieving this was no easy feat, the initial assumption being that communicators do not need much training. However, after years of internal negotiation and closer collaboration with the human relations department, Continental’s assessment has been implemented as a standard and it is aimed at identifying talent while its onboarding process is focused on developing them by filling in gaps in their knowledge (in the short and medium term) and by integrating them more into the entire business and its decision making (on the long term).

So far, this process has greatly benefited the team, expanding it from a mere five in 2011 to almost 30 in 2018.

But the journey is not over. The assessment and onboarding processes have raised the bar, but an excellent communication function needs continuous training and development so that the juniors and entrants of yesterday become the confident, efficient and accountable managers of tomorrow. Leadership skills, critical thinking, reflective analysis, immersion into emerging technologies are all needed to succeed.

To achieve this, Continental’s communication professionals can chose between an expert career or a managerial career. While the first career path requires more specialised knowledge, the second one also requires leadership skills and strategic communication knowledge.

Whichever route they choose, communicators need a learning platform where they can share knowledge, challenge themselves, be inspired and safely experiment. For Continental, that platform is the Global Locations Communications Workshop which brings the entire team of 30 together every two years. It started as an internal-only event, connecting team members with one another and with other experts from within Continental.

This soon proved to be insufficient and all participants have expressed an interest to being exposed and challenged by participants outside Continental and its field of expertise, including academia. 

Internal and external insights build a stronger communicator

The 2017 edition of the Global Locations Communications Workshop featured storytelling for public relations, CSR best practices and an iPhone video editing seminar. The internal sessions focused on strategic input from the central functions, with input from our heads of corporate communications, corporate media relations, and human relations communications (A special 'thank you' goes to Professor Dr. Ana Adi, who led the Storytelling for Public Relations session at the Workshop and has greatly contributed to its success and to that of the professional development of the Continental Locations communications team.)

Our focus has shifted from internal/external target audience to stakeholder prioritisation. We’ve also moved on from fearfully discussing trends and technology to identifying ways in which we can embed them in the team’s activities, thus helping communicators meet their promise and commitment to being a business partner.

This is why storytelling was an essential part of the workshop, because it invited participants to picture the narratives and plots in which Continental’s role as a facilitator in the success of its stakeholders is shown. This is why the participants played with iPhones, challenging their creativity and their working practices.  By learning to master new techniques regarding content communication and new technologies the communication teams can increase efficiency and speed in their communication and engage stakeholders in a dialogue.

Eight steps to advancing a communications career

Continental’s assessment, onboarding and Global Locations Communications Workshop all have a positive contribution to the communication team. However, the responsibility for enabling and accelerating one’s career development should not be internalised. So, reflecting on the lessons learned from implementing this all at Continental, I recommend each communication practitioners eight easy steps to follow.

It is all about asking the right questions and having the right attitude:

  • Masterplan - How do you envision your career?
  • Platform  - Which business/organisation fits you?
  • Mentoring  - Who could advise/mentor you on your career path?
  • Development - Which education could qualify you for the envisioned leadership position?
  • Network - Which professionals / groups could support you in your growth?
  • Opportunity- Be proactive and seize the opportunity to grow!
  • Authenticity- Be yourself, you can only be good in what you are  passionate about!
  • Value - Strive always to add value to other people and to your  organisation!
  • A masterplan is your personal vision of where you see yourself professionally and which steps you could imagine for your career, as well as an honest answer to yourself of ‘what you really love to do’. It makes no sense to pursue a managerial position if you do not like or have the patience to work with people; in this case, an expert career could give you more satisfaction and opportunities.

When searching for the right platform for your professional growth, far more than the job description it is important the company’s culture, values, opportunities for development, degree of internationality and other aspects that are important for you, like for example location and benefits for employees.

It takes humility to realise that you do not know it all, but there are people who do and have already followed the career path you envision for yourself. Therefore it is good to look for a mentor, a leader in the area you would like to excel and develop professionally.

Associations, universities and certain companies offer mentorship programmes. Being aligned with the current trends in the industry and acquiring the right knowledge is essential for your development as a future leader in communication, therefore continuous learning is a must. Knowledge exchange with other professionals can bring insights which could support your work and we can all learn from each other’s experiences.

Do not wait for opportunity to come, but create it in the sense of taking responsibility for your own professional growth and addressing your employer in your employee dialogue or informing yourself on opportunities outside the company. In all you do, be yourself, be authentic and ensure that you add value to the organisation and to others, trying to serve with your talent an ever growing and larger number of people. It is this way that you increase your influence and advance in your career.

Beyond training “our own”

Continental’s approach to developing its communicators has spread outside the department, and the team’s expertise is now sought to support develop the communication and leadership skills of other functions.

This includes collaborations with the human resources community at Tire Division for HR Training Week and with the manufacturing facilities for the Global Talent Initiative for Plant Managers Successors. In the first case, we share our approaches on stakeholder engagement as well as tools to ensure the cascading of information at all levels of the organisation. In the second, the communication teams host the module for executive communication for an exposed leadership position, aimed at supporting future leaders to prepare for their role.

Job descriptions might still need revisiting, and differences in perceptions and impact of communication will continue to be different. What Continental’s case shows is that an excellent communication function can be created by focusing on the continuous development of those who cover it. Their expertise, then recognised, is what promotes them to the desirable position of a trusted business partner and advisor.