Self-Employed? Ask Peers for Feedback

In March I will turn 50. That does some things to my psyche, as I’m sure it does for most anyone facing the half-century mark in their lives.

It causes me to be a little sad that in the rearview mirror of my life, youth appears farther and farther away. It also makes me more determined to make the most of every day because, in many ways, these are the best years of my life — I’m more experienced, still learning, but hopefully wiser than I was at 20 or 30.

Facing down 50 also has led me to reflect on some questions, one of which is how I will spend the remainder of my career. I feel strongly that there is much more I can do, and should be doing, and that I need to broaden my thinking about what I have to offer a client, an employer, my profession, or perhaps an entirely different one.

One of the shortcomings of being self-employed for nearly 13 years is that I miss out on annual performance reviews. I believe I respond well to feedback; I try to use it as an opportunity to improve myself and my work. I do ask for, and sometimes receive, feedback from clients, but it is not the same as a formal performance evaluation like most corporations have.

So I recently asked a small group of friends and colleagues who know me and my work well to provide me with some insights based on that knowledge. I asked them to tell me what they believe to be my strengths and my shortcomings, and to think about other professions or occupations for which they believe I’m well-suited. The latter question is intended to open my thinking about what is possible, given my strengths and shortcomings.

The feedback has been exceedingly helpful and more interesting than I expected it would be. There were some themes among the responses that surprised me. The thing I appreciate the most is that the people on my little assessment board were honest and candid. They did not hold back, and in some cases they gave me some feedback that was difficult to hear but also specific and helpful. That is the best kind of feedback.

I encourage you — especially if you are self-employed — to conduct your own assessment exercise. You will benefit greatly from it. But if you do conduct one, keep these things in mind:

  • Ask for feedback from people you know will be candid and not just those who will sing your praises. This might include asking people who are among your toughest critics or with whom you find yourself frequently disagreeing in conversations, Facebook discussions, etc.
  • Ask for feedback from people who represent various aspects of your life — personal and professional.
  • Be ready to accept the feedback as valid even if you don’t agree with it and even if it makes you a bit angry or uncomfortable. You are asking people for their perceptions and assessments. If you trust them enough to ask for their feedback, then trust that they speak their truth.
  • Even if you don’t apply every specific piece of feedback you receive, open yourself to using it to help think differently. My assessors gave me some surprising ideas about professions and occupations in which they think I would thrive. While I might not pursue some of the specific ones they mentioned, it has caused me to think differently about what I do.
  • Resist the temptation to defend yourself. I found myself getting a little defensive about some of my feedback, but upon reflection realized that my assessors were being true to my request. I dumped the defensiveness in order to experience growth.

 

3 Reasons Why Good Writing Matters

I teach public relations courses as a university adjunct faculty member. Right now I’m grading papers written by students in Employee Communications. The good news is that the principles of effective employee communications seem to have sunk in. Sadly, I’m taking points off for poorly written sentences, spelling and punctuation errors and grammatical mistakes.

It pains me to see how few students — especially those in their third and fourth years of university studies — have mastered the most fundamental skill to our profession. Here are three simple reasons good writing matters:

  • Writing is essential to any job in the communication professions. A communicator not knowing how to write well is like an accountant not understanding the most basic mathematical functions or a carpenter not knowing what tool to use for the job.
  • Writing well requires discipline, and discipline is important in any job. I’m dating myself with this story, but when I was a mass communications student, word processors and computers were just coming into wide use. If we turned in a story in class and the professor found an error — any error, no matter how small — we were sent back to type it all over again on the typewriter. That kind of rigid discipline has made me a better writer and communicator.
  • Poor writing is often the result of carelessness. As an instructor, many of the mistakes I find could have been caught if the student had only proofread their work before sending it to me. As a communicator, if my client gets work riddled with errors, it calls into question the quality of the rest of my work.

I have heard the arguments that language is constantly evolving. I get that. However, the basic rules are there for good reasons. Grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax are necessary for a writer’s words to be clearly understood by the reader. I understand there are times when we can bend or even break the rules. For effect. Like this. However, most of the time — when writing a recommended communication response to an issue, for example, or when writing a press release — we must follow the rules. Doing so demonstrates a command of the language and makes our writing clear and crisp.

Some of my students might not like how many points I take off their otherwise fine papers, but I’ll bet they’re less likely to make those mistakes again.

Feelin’ the Love

I’ve spent more time in the last 10 years going on dates than I care to admit. Let’s just say that it’s not easy to find that perfect match, and being a self-employed single dad in your 40s doesn’t make it any easier.

Although I’m happily matched with the right person now, dating is a brutal experience. Meeting someone to whom you’re attracted is just the beginning. Connecting with someone who shares your interests, values, aspirations and priorities is difficult. It’s even harder finding someone with a certain degree of shared life experiences and backgrounds. Even after all that, the other person might look great on paper, as they say, but then there’s that elusive, intangible quality that seals the deal: chemistry.

If you don’t have the right chemistry with the person you’re dating — or the person you’re married to — everything else is going to be an uphill struggle.

The same is true with jobs. Finding the right job is a lot like finding the right mate. You might be attracted to it, you might discover shared values, priorities and backgrounds. But if the chemistry isn’t there, it’s just not going to work in the long run.

Such is the case with a job I took in January. I left behind my 12-year-old consulting practice because I was lured by a position with a great company that I felt would put all my skills, talents and experience to work. It looked great on paper. It looked like the perfect match.

But the chemistry just wasn’t there.

I’ve spent hours agonizing over the reasons it didn’t work out, and there are many. I won’t go into them here, of course. But I can’t minimize the role of chemistry — that intangible quality which, when present, can lead to all sorts of successes and endorphin highs. And, when lacking, can leave you heartsick.

Mismatches happen to people in all types of businesses and at all levels. I worked at AT&T when the company spun off its manufacturing businesses to create Lucent Technologies. The woman at the helm of that spin-off was Carly Fiorina, a well-respected and successful executive. Later, she was hired as CEO of Hewlett Packard. It didn’t work out. Looked good on paper — a successful, driven executive from the technology industry who was used to working in tumultuous situations. I’m sure there were many reasons it didn’t work, but I’ll bet lack of chemistry was one of them. When the chemistry is lacking, there’s just not a lot you can do about it.

So I leave that brief return to corporate life behind. Like any failed relationship, I contemplate what I could have done differently, I think about what I can learn from the experience and I figure out what I can do to make sure the next endeavor is more successful.

And I’m returning to what might be my true love: independent consulting. I’m lining up projects, rebuilding my business, taking the lessons from the past and applying them toward a better future. My next match, whether that is a new client or, perhaps down the road, another employer, will certainly benefit from a more evolved me.

 

Glamour for Grammarians

We writers are such dorks sometimes.

We fret over using just the right word and we agonize over proper grammar usage. We become obsessed with making sure the fruits of our labor are not only widely understood but universally adored.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a good sense of humor about what we do. Enter Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl,” who has nearly made grammarians cool again (if they ever were cool to begin with). Through her books and her website, she brings the fun back to writing well.

While in the supermarket checkout recently, perusing the trashy mags with their screaming headlines and seductive images, she wondered what such a magazine for grammarians would look like. This is what she imagined:

Who said grammar wasn’t Glamour-ous?

Thanks to Ragan.com, which originally printed it.

Warren Buffett Rescues Local Journalism

Warren Buffett has come to rescue local journalism in Richmond, Va.

In what can only be considered an act of charity, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is paying $142 million in cash for all the newspaper properties of Media General Inc. except for the Tampa, Fla., group. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the only daily newspaper in our city, is part of Media General.

I say it’s an act of charity because Berkshire Hathaway is unlikely to make much money off of its investment. Like most newspapers these days, the Times-Dispatch is bleeding money. Media General’s print revenues last quarter were down 8.3 percent from a year ago. Broadcast revenues, however, were up 12 percent, which is why Media General has decided to focus on that part of their business.

Apparently, Buffett believes some newspapers are too important to fail. “In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper,” he said.

As someone who was educated and started out in the newspaper business, I agree. While the significance of the Times-Dispatch’s voice in Richmond has waned in recent years — thanks primarily to staff and resource cuts right down to the bone — it is still a place where Richmonders go to get informed, make their views public and argue with each other.

I started my career for what was, at the time, one of the best weekly newspapers in Virginia. The Herald-Progress also served a market that had a strong sense of community. In its coverage of town council, the board of supervisors, school board, local politics, religion, high school sports and even in its feature stories about local events and colorful characters, the Herald-Progress was the community’s conscience and voice of reason. It served the most noble roles of the Fourth Estate, acting as a public record, objective observer and shaper of public opinion.

We need newspapers.

In fact, I took my appreciation for the significant role of local journalism into the corporate world with me. My first job in employee communications was that of newsletter editor in a manufacturing plant of 2,100 people. I shaped that newsletter in the mold of a community newspaper. Every community, even a corporate one, needs good journalism.

So, while Buffett’s investment might not make a lot of financial sense, I’m thinking one of the world’s richest men is in it for more than making a buck. It must be nice to have the kind of money that allows you to do something just because you think it’s right.

 

6 Not-So-Guilty Pleasures for Maintaining Balance

Today on Facebook I was bemoaning the fact that I had destroyed a week’s worth of running and working out with the slice of pizza I had for lunch. Several friends, bless their hearts, encouraged me by saying that all things should be done in moderation and a little self-indulgence now and then is a good thing.

It got me thinking about the importance of balance in life. Public relations executive is the 7th most stressful job in America this year, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Communication work of any kind fits in that category, if you ask me. We work to maintain relationships, to craft high-profile messages, to meet the needs of both our clients and our audiences, and we’re often called upon to smooth over the damage others do.

Recently I decided I need to get more regular exercise, not only for my physical health but also for my mental health. I’ve found that a good cardio workout is a great stress reliever, so I’m making the time for it several times a week.

But then I started thinking about other not-so-guilty pleasures that help me maintain balance in my life. (OK, one could argue that I’m not really so great at maintaining balance, but I’m trying to get better at it.) Here are the other things I do for myself fairly regularly. I share them to get you thinking about what you do, or could do, to balance out the stress of your job.

  • A glass of wine. Or maybe two. I’m a late-comer to the wine party. I didn’t drink any alcohol until I was in my mid-30s. But I’m so glad I learned to enjoy wine! In moderation, it can be good for you and it sure is fun to pair a good wine with dinner. I also enjoy a beer from time to time – on a hot summer day, at the beach, at a baseball game – but wine is my go-to adult beverage.
  • A cup of tea in the morning. Or maybe two. I’m not a coffee drinker, but nothing gets my morning started like a strongly brewed cup of English or Irish breakfast tea. It’s the only caffeine I get during the day, so I don’t feel too guilty about what it’s doing to my heart rate.
  • Dining at great restaurants. I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than taking someone to dinner, especially someplace with really good food. I’m fortunate to live in Richmond, Va., which has an unusually large number of great restaurants for a city of its size. The food, the setting, the atmosphere, the company – I enjoy it all and find myself a little sad when it’s time to leave.
  • Old TV shows. I don’t watch much network TV. Instead, I surf the channels looking for blasts from the past. I get transported back in time to New Rochelle in the 1960s (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Chicago in the 1970s (The Bob Newhart Show), or  Dodge City in the late 1800s (Gunsmoke). Before long, whatever was troubling my mind is gone, at least for a while.
  • Baseball games. Watching baseball actually helps me process things. It doesn’t require a lot of concentration, so my mind is free to review, analyze and resolve whatever is occupying it. I’m a New York Yankees fan since childhood, but I also enjoy going out to the park to see the Richmond Flying Squirrels play their brand of the game.
  • Bill Gaither. He’s a legend in gospel music, especially Southern gospel music. He’s also made a fortune by assembling multiple generations of gospel singers and musicians for “homecoming” videos. When I’m home on Saturday night, I catch one or two hours of these videos on one of those high-number cable networks. The music soothes my soul and often touches me deeply. And we all need our souls soothed from time to time.

Those are my not-so-guilty pleasures. What are yours?

 

Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.