Sharing the excitement

For the communications profession to remain sustainable, leaders and other senior figures need to inspire the next generation of communicators. Isn’t it time you lent a helping hand?

Perhaps when you started working in communications, you had a degree in communications or media and journalism in your pocket, and your first job was for a company with offices where every employee had a laptop and screen, your email address was already set up before you got your entry badge, and you had to sign a personal social media use policy.

Soon after you received your first promotion, you joined a professional association, were assigned a mentor from within the communications team, or invited to support high-profile projects, and gained valuable experience and skills through these opportunities.

But perhaps that wasn’t your experience? Perhaps your experience was similar to mine? In that case, maybe you approached public relations and the growing discipline of corporate communications by learning whenever you could – you were eager to hear from others with far more experience in the field about strategy and tactics.

Inspirational role models

When I started working in public relations 20 years ago, my weapons were a simple computer, a black and white printer, a list of key media contacts with their phone and fax numbers gleaned from my predecessor’s records, and a degree that was mostly irrelevant to my job. Admittedly we connected to the internet shortly after, but the majority of our business was conducted in person, often over lunch, by phone, by fax or by post – in that order. I had only three stakeholders to communicate with (the media, clients and staff) as the others (government, the industry, suppliers) were handled as individual relationships rather than as a group, using common-sense plus an analytical approach gained from university, learned on the job. I learned any way I could, from my boss, from professionals in the industry who shared their advice over after-work drinks, from any books I could find on public relations practice and directly from journalists.

I received so many excellent words of advice and encouragement, as well as practical help with contacts or feedback on projects, from leaders and from communications professionals along the way; I cannot overstate their impact. Throughout my career, I have been guided and inspired by several leaders who are each, in their own way, a visionary leader whose intellect I admire.

My first boss, Debbie Moore OBE, founder of the British dance wear and fashion firm Pineapple Dance Studios, was the first woman to take a company public on the London Stock Exchange in 1982. She inspired me with how well she took care of her staff as well as of her suppliers, often travelling to tour the production facilities unannounced, at a time when these activities and relationships were not seen as crucial to business success in the way they are today, working to understand diverse needs and how these could be aligned to the company’s needs. And she showed me that a woman could be an entrepreneur, lead a company and still find time to share knowledge and advice with others.

Markus Semer, deputy chief executive officer of my current employer, Switzerland-based Kempinski Hotels, (Europe’s oldest luxury hotel management group), has shown me that inspiring your team with a clear vision and strategy on which all business decisions are based, and giving employees latitude in precisely how these are achieved, is far more effective than if all actions are dictated. His questions, challenges, insights and comments, which can be very critical indeed, ensure that I continue to learn and work hard to deliver.

Thanks to a Kempinski Hotels programme for culture management, which we began in 2008 and worked on the research, design and implementation with St Gallen University’s Institute for Media and Communications Management, I met Professor Dr Miriam Meckel and Professor Dr Christian Fieseler. Professor Dr Meckel is now also editor in chief of Wirtschaftswoche, Germany’s largest weekly business magazine, while Professor Dr Fieseler is now also an associate professor at the Norwegian Business School’s Department of Communication and Culture. Both inspired me to reflect more and think beyond the specifics of the programme, about wider issues in communications, trends and technology, and what might be ahead.

Encouraging a new generation

Communications today is professionalised, certified and increasingly broad yet also specialised, requiring communicators to understand a range of external and internal stakeholders, disciplines and methods. All of this while acting with professional integrity according to a code of conduct – in a landscape which is constantly changing under the influence of new technologies and globalisation. The professionalisation of communications has been made possible thanks to the hard work of countless national and international corporate communications, business communications and public relations associations, which have not only sought recognition but also acted as advocates for the profession.

For these efforts to be sustainable, we each have a role to play in ensuring the next generation is interested in studying the communications field, whether it is a wide-ranging or a specialised qualification, and then actually entering the workplace for a career in communications. To do this, we need to present communications as an excellent career choice, in a way that appeals to them.

Meaningful mentorships

According to Mind the Gaps, the 2015 Deloitte millennial survey which questioned 7,800 of tomorrow’s leaders from 29 countries, millennials value an organisation’s impact on society, financial performance, record for creating innovative products or services, and whether it has a well-defined and meaningful purpose to which it is true. Yet according to an Oxford Economics survey sponsored by SAP on Workforce 2020, of 2,700 executives in 27 countries in the second quarter of 2014, the distinction between millennials and nonmillenials is not so clear; millenials care more about compensation (68 per cent versus 64 per cent of nonmillenials) than work-life balance (29 per cent versus 31 per cent of nonmillenials) – and they care as much as nonmillenials (20 per cent) about making a positive difference in the world.

For our profession to continue to attract the next generation of communicators, whether millenials or nonmillenials, organisations need to inspire future employees by having a vision which they can identify with, by contributing to society in some way, by offering attractive compensations and the possibility to find personal meaning in their professional lives.

As communication leaders, we need not only to inspire others but to play an active role in recruiting new communicators. Mentoring can be personally rewarding as well as ensuring the continuity of our profession. And while it doesn’t have to be time-consuming, it is an investment in and commitment to an individual and requires follow up.

Mentoring can be understood as sharing professional knowledge and advice with a less experienced or younger communicator, encouraging their efforts and learning, acting as a catalyst for change and growth, or simply helping them to understand what a new experience means.

Informal mentoring by leaders can happen organically according to natural affinity in an organisation where the culture is one of sharing and where time spent on cultivating professional relationships within the company is seen as having value. A formal and explicit value can be given to mentoring within an organisation, with a programme or a description of the mentoring relationship to help define expectations of the mentor and the mentee. Mentees might be new-hires or high potential employees, with mentors selected according to the needs of the mentee, and not necessarily from their functional department or indeed business unit.

I was lucky to be mentored quite informally by some inspirational leaders, and as a result, I value informal mentoring as one way of igniting excitement for communications in the next generation.

So when I have the opportunity to address soon-to-be graduates from a range of disciplines, or speak with specialised master’s in communications graduate students, I might spend a moment on the theory but more on discussing what working in communications actually means for them. What might your working day be like? What kinds of issues might you face in my or another industry? What kinds of jobs exist in communications? In which organisations, public or private sector? What opportunities exist or can they create to gain experience in communications? What kinds of questions should they be asking in an interview? Have they thought about what matters to them in an employer?

And then I encourage them to contact me once they’ve had the opportunity to consider whether communications could be a career choice for them, so we can continue the discussion. In the days and weeks after a presentation about communications, I spend time answering participants’ questions by email and will often meet them in person to discuss communications as a career choice in greater detail, to give advice on career entry points and how to start building a professional network, or even to simply review a CV. I feel greatly rewarded when months or sometimes even years later I’m contacted again and asked for further advice – for the next step in their career in communications.

For informal mentoring to be successful, I believe there needs to be an initial chemistry on both sides. There are two other young women I am pleased to be mentoring informally, whom I met through work; in each case, we had a positive professional contact initially and each contacted me afterwards to ask for advice on their next career steps. This has resulted in conversations, meetings and emails over the course of several years, and discussions that go beyond just their careers and our profession, resulting in conversations about balancing work and family life as well.

A helping hand

Formal mentoring is also extremely valuable, and organisations which take care to consider the respective profiles and match mentor with mentee can be rewarded when these relationships work well and add value to the organisation. Indicators that a mentoring programme is working can include engagement, diversity and increased managerial competency across the organisation, satisfaction among participants, or promotion rates.

Recently, Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin invited me to participate in their official international mentoring programme as part of their MBA in Communication and Leadership, alongside communicators representing a range of industries, from banking to manufacturing.

As my first experience in formal mentoring, it has been extremely positive. The university’s study advisor contacted me with the CV of a graduate student for whom they thought I could be a good fit, and I agreed entirely; I thought I could also learn a lot from my mentee! I started mentoring Ekaterina (Kate) Arkhipova in March 2014. We had an initial phone conversation and it was clear in the first minute that we would get along extremely well. Since then we’ve spoken and emailed regularly to discuss her studies and most recently her thesis in preparation for her graduation this July.

As head of communications for a restaurant group which operates Coffeemania throughout Russia, Kate is already a senior in her profession so I’ve really enjoyed discussing theory versus practice in Russia versus other international markets. Our exchanges have taught me a lot about how business is done in Russia and how communications is practiced, which is valuable to my professional understanding and my current role. So this formal mentoring experience is beneficial for both of us, and has resulted in a real sharing of knowledge.

To me, that’s what is most important to remember: mentoring is about sharing. Sharing excitement about communications as a career choice, sharing knowledge about the profession, sharing a mentee’s setbacks and successes, supporting their understanding of their experience, and encouragement. Whether you choose to mentor one or two people or more, informally or formally, I hope you will take the time to share your passion for communications and inspire the next generation of communicators! 

Mia Norcaro

Mia Norcaro has over 15 years’ experience in public relations, marketing and communications in industries as diverse as fashion, telecommunications, consulting and investment management. Mia joined Kempinski Hotels in 2003, where she is currently director of corporate communications.