The Fine Line Between Proficient and Poser

I don’t like being the new guy in the office. After 12 years of self-employment, I recently rejoined the corporate workforce. While I like my new job, my co-workers and the company I work for, I can’t stand not knowing all the particulars about how to do my new work, where I can go for the information and expertise I need and how things are done around here.

That will come with time, of course — it’s only been three weeks — but I am impatient when it comes to these things. After nearly 25 years in this profession, I had gotten used to knowing how to get things done — or, at least, acting as if I do.

There is a fine line between proficient and poser and I have walked it successfully for many years now. Allow me to explain.

I know how to do certain things very well. I can write and edit other people’s writing. I know how to form strong relationships. I know how to analyze communication problems and suggest effective solutions. I know how to think strategically, to build a plan and to measure my work. I know how to teach others about my craft.

But when it comes to certain specifics, I know nothing. As a consultant, when I began working with a new client, I knew little to nothing about them. I didn’t know the culture of their organization. I didn’t know their processes and their internal politics. Often I didn’t know their industry or the products they made or the services they provided. I had to learn all of that fairly quickly.

This lack of knowledge used to rattle me. But early in my self-employment, a more experienced consultant advised me: “Never tell a client you don’t know how to do something. If they ask you to do something and you can’t do it or have never done it before, just say ‘Sure, I can do that,’ and find someone who can.”

That’s called “faking it ’til you make it.” Well, not really. It’s called providing total solutions for your client by assembling the right talent for the job and managing the project to successful completion.

Sometimes, the trick is to understand the real problem and apply your skills to it. One of my last clients, a large non-profit association, initially called about performing a communication audit. What they really wanted was for me and my partner to conduct in-depth interviews with staff regarding a difficult personnel situation involving one of their managers, to assess the problem and to recommend a range of solutions. Neither my partner nor I had ever performed this kind of human-resources work before, but we had the interviewing and analysis skills necessary to do it. So we did, and the client was pleased.

One of my new co-workers, herself a relative newcomer to the company, gave me some good advice. She encouraged me not to feel bad about not knowing anything. “Your job right now isn’t to produce, it’s to watch and learn.” I just need to get comfortable with that fact until I can start producing.



5 Traits of a Successful Independent Practitioner

I’m in the third week of my new job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company based in my hometown of Richmond, Va. It’s going about as well as I could hope. I wish the first few awkward weeks were behind me and that I was able to be more useful and productive than I am at this point.

As the length of time between my current situation and my self-employment widens, I gain greater perspective about those 12 years of my life. When I talk with friends, especially those who work in communication, the discussion often comes around to the adjustment I’m making to a new way of life. Yes, I miss the two-minute commute down the hall to my home-based office. Yes, I miss the flexibility with my time — being able to run to the grocery store during lunch, being there when my son gets home from school, the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments almost anytime during the day. But, of course, the benefits — and I mean that in the healthcare sense as well as more generally — help to balance things out.

A few people have asked me if I would recommend self-employment to someone considering it. So, with the benefit of said perspective, I thought I’d write about some of the traits of a successful independent practitioner. My work is PR and communications, so bear that in mind as you read on.

You must be comfortable with uncertainty. This is probably the greatest single trait necessary to succeed in self-employment. I mean uncertainty about everything, beginning with where your next paycheck will come from. Nothing is guaranteed except uncertainty itself. When I started my consulting practice in 2000, I (perhaps naïvely) was completely confident that I could succeed. That blind faith probably helped me more than it hurt because I simply proceeded as if I knew what I was doing and that there was no question I would make it. Even when I had to borrow money from my parents and take withdrawals from my 401k to pay a few bills in the early going. Fortunately, the clients grew and the income became more regular as I landed contract work, but there was always the chance that they would go away as quickly as they came. If you don’t have the stomach for uncertainty, don’t be self-employed.

You must be self-motivated. The first thing I did when I unexpectedly lost my job and, the next day, decided to start my business was to consult with my mentor and friend, Les Potter. He gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. “Get up in the morning, shave, shower, get dressed, go into your office and get to work,” he said. Doing what? “Anything. Make phone calls. Send emails. Read professional journals. Set up lunch meetings. The work will come.” He was right. To be successful as an independent practitioner, you must be able to motivate yourself to do those things and a lot more. It will be tempting to watch the afternoon baseball game on TV or do laundry or be distracted by any number of things. It’s fine to take time off now and then (but remember, you don’t get paid for it), but 95% of the time you must motivate yourself to work. Alone.

You must be able to work alone. I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from being around people. This was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. The majority of my work was performed in my home office by myself. It was a gift that I eventually was part of a team of contractors working for one client because I got to be with them for a few hours a week. When Facebook came along, that became my water cooler. If you need to be around people to be productive, don’t work for yourself.

You must be willing to maintain networks of friends and colleagues. It’s more difficult to do this when you work on your own. I tried to regularly schedule lunch dates and attended PRSA meetings to maintain my professional network. It’s also important to work harder at keeping up your friendships and social life. It’s surprising how much of my social life revolved around work. I’m divorced and have dated quite a bit in the last 10 years. That was important to me, not only personally, but also because it energized me for work. That might seem weird, but it was true for me. My dad recently said that being a full-time employee with a great company that pays well and provides benefits will make me more attractive in the dating arena. I’m not sure how much more attractive I am, but he is right that what we do has a big impact on the people we’re with.

You must assess the real cost of being self-employed. Not only is your income less stable, but you incur much greater costs. You must pay quarterly taxes, buy your own health insurance, provide your own 401k, maintain your own equipment (computers, printers, software, telecommunications, etc.) and buy a lot of little things that might not be apparent. Sit down and formulate a budget — not just for your business but a personal budget as well — and determine the real cost of working for yourself. It might surprise you.

Those are five of the traits you must possess to be a successful independent practitioner. If you’ve been down this road before, please add your own in the comments below. One thing I’ve also learned is that everyone’s experience is unique.

Things I’ll Miss — and Some I Won’t

As I shared in my previous post, I’ve accepted a full-time job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company, so I’m giving up my independent consulting practice after nearly 12 years.

In the interview process, we talked quite a bit about my experiences as a consultant — what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, the good aspects of self-employment and the bad. As the reality of giving up my business and joining a company has begun to sink in, I’ve had even more time to reflect. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ll miss and some I won’t.

What I’ll Miss

Flexibility with time. One of the great lures of self-employment is that you work on your own schedule. That’s not entirely true; you work when your clients need you, which sometimes can be at odd hours. Still, self-employment does provide some degree of flexibility with your time. I started my business when my sons were 8 and 4; I became a single parent when they were 10 and 6. I’m so grateful that I worked in an office in my home during those years and had more hands-on time with them than a corporate job would have allowed.

Working with a variety of clients. I have had so many wonderful experiences working with so many different people and organizations — some of which I never knew existed. (Who knew there was an entire industry of equipment-leasing brokers and that they had their own trade association?) I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best organizations and some of the best-known brands. But it’s the people and the myriad projects that I’ll really miss.

Growing a business. It’s exciting to start a business from scratch and watch it grow. There’s a different sense of personal fulfillment that is just not the same as you get with a corporate job. You know the success — or the failure — of the enterprise is largely up to you, which can be both a tremendously motivating factor and scary as hell.

Partnering with the best communicators. I’ve been fortunate to team up with some of the most talented people in my industry: Les Potter, Steve and Cindy Crescenzo, Shel Holtz and others. And I loved assembling great teams of people with skills complementary to my own: Katrina Gill of Gill Research, Katie Casler of Casler Design and others. I’ll greatly miss working with one of the best teams of independent contractors joined together for one client: Michele and Jonathan Rhudy of Rhudy & Co. Communications and Marketing, Jennifer Pounders of J. Pounders & Partners, and Wendy Martin of W Communications and Marketing.

What I Won’t Miss

Estimated taxes. Self-employed workers get hammered with taxes, which come due every three months. I am happy to pay my taxes because even with all the government waste this is still a safe country filled with opportunity. But that doesn’t make writing those checks much easier.

Lack of benefits. The cost of my health insurance has skyrocketed over the 12 years I’ve been self-employed. Whenever I took a day or (rarely) a week off, that was a day or week with no income. It will be nice to work for a company that provides great benefits.

The cost of doing business. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted when you work for a company. Copier paper. Toner. IT support. Communication devices. Travel expenses paid up front. They all add up, even if you’re thrifty like I am, and I won’t miss them coming out of my pocket.

Unpredictable income. You can plan and market and work hard, but ultimately your monthly income depends on whether you have clients and how much work they give you. I look back in amazement that I made it sometimes, especially in the early days of my venture. Having a regular paycheck is a luxury I’ll never take for granted.

Loneliness. I am an extrovert, a “people person.” I draw energy from being around others. Although I have done my share of work in the offices of my clients, a great majority of my days were spent in this little office over my garage. The silence can be deafening. I can’t wait to have regular human contact again.

On the whole, I wouldn’t trade the last 12 years for anything. This time has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. But the time is right to leave it behind for the next great adventure. And I can’t wait!

Rearranging the Furniture

Every six months or so, my dad rearranges the furniture in his house. He has always done this. He did the same thing to his office when he was still working. He declared that a change in perspective is good for the soul.

The same is true in other aspects of our lives. I guess that’s why people change hair styles, eyeglasses, cars, houses and, unfortunately, sometimes spouses. (I’m not advocating the latter; in fact, healthy changes within a marriage can make it exciting again.)

I’m about to rearrange the furniture of my career. After nearly 12 years as an independent consultant, I’m rejoining the ranks of full-time corporate employment. I’ve accepted a job as employee communications manager with a Fortune 500 company based here in Richmond, Va. I’m not mentioning the name of the company in this blog because I don’t yet know what the company’s social media policy says about such things. But it’s a global business and a strong company with great people, as far as I can tell.

I’m excited about this new chapter in my life. Yet, it is bittersweet. Anyone who has poured their heart and soul into a business they’ve built from scratch knows what I’m talking about. It’s like saying goodbye to one of your kids.

I’ll write more about this change in the days ahead. That will help me process what is happening and, hopefully, will give you some things to think about, too. I don’t blog now nearly as often as I’d like, but I hope to continue even after my start date of January 3, 2012.

For now, I’m going to sit in the rearranged furniture and try to get used to it. I’m sure I’ll see some things that I haven’t seen before.


Remembering a Communicator’s Dream Boss

Today I learned of the death — seven months ago — of a woman who had a profound impact on my career in employee communications.

Dory Yochum was an extraordinary woman and a communicator’s dream boss. An odd experience 19 years ago cemented that impression of her in my mind.

First, some background on Dory: She was a single mother in her early 40s who had climbed the executive ladder in a variety of assignments at AT&T when she came to Richmond to become chief operating officer of the company’s printed circuit board factory here. (The plant no longer exists; it became part of Lucent Technologies, then was sold to a group of investors who finally closed it. A shopping center stands in its place today.)

She came to Richmond, she didn’t move here. Rather than uproot her kids from New Jersey, she spent three or four days a week here. In a story I wrote for the employee newsletter, she said, “My difficult schedule and time away are, of course, hard for me and my family. I deal with the practical side of this problem, the care of my children, by having a live-in housekeeper who is there to be sure they are safe and have adult supervision.” The children’s father also stayed with them while she was away. “The emotional side of being there is harder to handle,” she added, “and I try to manage this by spending individual time with each child to talk and relate. All of my time out of work is devoted to them.”

Her ascension into the executive levels of AT&T — a traditional company with mostly men at the helm in the early ’90s — drew the attention of Life magazine, which ran a pictorial essay on her in its August 1990 issue.

Dory believed in communication, and as a result, she gave this young communicator a lot of room to be creative and to try new things. She valued my perspective and my role, which greatly boosted my self-confidence at a crucial time in my career, just a few years after leaving news journalism for the corporate world.

Dory Yochum, 1991

In the summer of 1992, the plant was preparing for a downsizing — not an unusual occurrence in the world of manufacturing, and especially in the printed circuit board industry. A group of employees at the plant took sport in speculating who might be let go and created a “hit list” of likely layoff victims. When Dory heard about this, she hit the roof. She had worked hard to establish an open and supportive culture at the plant and she viewed this activity as antithetical to the company’s values.

So she fired off a memo to employees and asked me to review it and give her some feedback. The language she used was uncharacteristically strong and I told her it would likely cause a ruckus when employees read it. That’s exactly what she wanted, she said. And she sent it out.

Two sentences about the “hit list” stirred people up: “I consider this act of speculation to be as repulsive as watching buzzards attack a weakened prey. When we feed on the misfortune of others, we are no different than buzzards.”

The newsletter I edited had a regular letters-to-the-editor feature that was remarkably candid, thanks to the freedom Dory gave me in running it. When the memo went out, I received numerous angry letters from employees — some of which couldn’t be published due to the language, but some of which were quite well written. “We do not appreciate being called a bunch of buzzards,” said one. “In the future, Ms. Yochum should choose a more business-like manner in which to convey her message,” said another.

I asked Dory what I should do with the letters. “Print them,” she said. So I did. She opened the door to a debate that lasted another month or two. Dory met with employees and talked openly about the list and about her reaction to it, about whether or not she had gone too far in her memo, about the values that guided the company and about the culture she wanted for the plant community. She never apologized or backed down from the language she used in her memo, but she got the desired effect. People were talking about things that never were seriously discussed before: how we treat one another, how we work together even when we don’t agree.

It taught me a lot of lessons that I have carried with me through my communications career. Mostly I learned that there are leaders out there who understand the vital role communication can play in an organization and who are willing to do the hard work of fostering that communication.

A year before the “buzzard memo,” Dory said in an interview in my newsletter: “If you tell people you want to hear what they think, you have to be willing to listen to things you don’t like to hear. Then you must try to act to correct things that need to be better, and decide if there are things that people want that you just can’t change.”

It’s never easy being a leader, and especially one who is brave enough to promote a culture of open communication. Dory Yochum was the bravest leader I’ve ever known.

She died in December of breast cancer at the age of 62. Sadly, I had lost touch with her in recent years, but a few years ago I tracked her down and wrote her a note to let her know that working for her was one of the highlights of my career.

A Wild Ride in the Communication Business

Today marks the 11th birthday of my consulting business, Holland Communication Solutions LLC. The Virginia State Corporation Commission document is dated June 21, 2000.

Being in a bit of a sentimental mood, I’ve been thinking back on what a wild ride the last 11 years have been. I’ve learned so much and I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding clients.

Invoice #0001 was billed to Ragan Communications, the publisher of resources and producer of conferences for communication professionals. Actually, I owe a lot to the folks at Ragan. Not only were they my first client, but in my previous corporate life, I learned an awful lot about this business by reading their newsletters and attending their conferences. They’ve also published a lot of my writing and allowed me to take the podium at many of their productions.

I’ve done hundreds of jobs for scores of other clients, too. And I’ve done some things I never dreamed I would do:

  • I learned the ins and outs of a machine that packages poultry products so I could write the script for a training video about the equipment.
  • I wrote a booklet for an obscure trade association about how to succeed in their business after interviewing a dozen of their most successful members.
  • I spoke about effective communication to a roomful of engineers for a defense contractor in the desert outside Las Vegas.
  • I helped a multinational company in the nuclear power industry figure out how to overcome their communication barriers.
  • I produced a brochure explaining the dangers of radon gas for a one-man business that helps homeowners get rid of it.
  • I helped a church market its Sunday evening coffeehouse program.
  • I’ve consulted with some of the best-known brands as well as one-person shops just getting off the ground.
  • I’ve spoken about communication in some interesting places — Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Charleston, S.C., the Tuskeegee Institute, a U.S. Naval Base, beautiful mountain resorts and bland corporate conference rooms.

The purpose of all this is not to boast, but to reflect on just how fortunate I have been to do such a variety of things — some of them fascinating, some exasperating and others utterly fulfilling — all with the goal of improving communication among people in the workplace. I can’t think of many careers I’d rather pursue.

If you’ve been one of my clients over the years, thank you. I don’t take a single one for granted and I always learn something from each.

VCU Football: Undefeated Since 1968

I’m ecstatic about VCU’s run to the NCAA Final Four. As a graduate of VCU’s School of Mass Communications — which right now is the university’s third-largest undergraduate degree program — I’ve never been so proud of my alma mater.

A lot has been written about VCU in the last week as a curious sports-watching nation has discovered this Richmond, Va. gem. The fact that VCU doesn’t have a football team has largely kept it off the map. What kind of school is VCU? What kind of people study there? What kind of culture does it have? What’s it known for?

A banner spotted by a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter at the team’s send-off to Houston just about says it all: “VCU Arts is proud of the Rams. Good luck in the Super Bowl.”