To celebrate her 20th anniversary as a PR professional and mark Thanksgiving, Louisa Bartoszek gives thanks to her mentors, colleagues and friends and shares 20 pieces of advice she has received over the last two decades of her global communications career.
This month marks my 20th anniversary as a communications professional. Wow. How did this happen? I should probably bake a cake, or rather someone should bake me a cake (red velvet please!).
The last two decades have flown by in a heartbeat. During this time, I have traveled to 50 countries and worked on some incredible projects all over the world. I have a lot of stories. I have also learnt a lot of lessons along the way. Some the hard way. Some through the guidance of business mentors and colleagues.
Maybe one day I will write a book. But this week, to mark both my anniversary and Thanksgiving in the United States, I would like to give thanks to my mentors and share 20 pieces of career advice I have been given over the last two decades.
1 Don’t fear failure, learn from it:
When we think of failure, we think of unbearable embarrassment and pain of losing everything. But fear of failure is often rooted in pride. If we fail, we believe that all those who doubted us will have been right. I’ve recently joined the tech sector and here, failure is just part of the innovation process. Every failure is a learning exercise. So, face your fears. Treat mistakes as data for improvement. You just had the courage to try something hard. Don’t be ashamed; feel proud! And see how you can improve.
2 Stay curious; question old ways of working and thinking:
At the start of my career, I just followed instructions and did what was asked of me. But I was constantly puzzled why something was done a certain way. A mentor pushed me to overcome my reluctance to question people with substantially more experience or power than me. But why? has become something of a personal mantra. I’m sure I’ve frustrated a lot of people over the years as I can be quite provocative at times. But challenging the establishment is what drives innovation and advances industries. I love this TED Talk from organisational psychologist Adam Grant.
3 Perfection is your enemy:
Striving for excellence is a good thing. But striving for perfection can have painful drawbacks. Take Steve Jobs, his drive towards perfection helped create some of the world’s most beautiful products. It also caused significant friction with colleagues. Only once he managed to rein in his acute perfectionism, was he able to transform Apple into one of the world’s most valuable brands. You don’t need to accept mediocrity, but excellence does not require perfection. And in the entrepreneurial world I am in now, there simply isn’t time. You need to build a prototype car, slam your foot on the accelerator and upgrade while driving.
4 Be radically open-minded and consider alternative ideas:
One of my mentors always challenges me to see things from a different perspective. Listen to the opinions of others and embrace thoughtful disagreements. Ask questions. Your way might be the right way, but what if you’re wrong? Try and understand why someone has the opinion they hold and the steps that led them to that conclusion. Open your mind to alternative possibilities. Assess the options, then decide. I recommend reading Ray Dalio’s excellent book Principles which explores this approach in detail.
5 Never assume:
Assuming is a dangerous habit and a common mistake. Never assume you are right – validate your perspective. Never assume you have all the information available – ask questions. Never assume others instinctively know what to do – particularly less experienced members of your team. And never assume people know what you mean. Assumptions are the source of the most common communications problems. “Oh, I thought you meant…” As the saying goes, never assume because it makes an ass of u and me.
6 Never stop learning:
It’s a cliché but a fact. Our industry is constantly evolving. Be radically open-minded to new ideas and keep learning. When you are learning, you are growing. From technical skills to new perspectives. Apart from making life richer and more interesting, an agile mind lends itself to rapid response thinking. It amazes me how many times I hear people say I could never do that, or I’m too old to learn how to do that. Oh, my goodness. No. Nothing is impossible, and age is completely irrelevant. Young or old. And constant learning could lead to a door opening for you that you never dreamed possible.
7 Be decisive and accountable:
You’re never going to have all the information you want to make important decisions. Great leaders are decisive even when they are uncertain. The picture is never clear. Particularly in crisis communications and reputational risk work. Step back, prioritise, and execute fast. And constantly monitor the situation, analysing the variables. If a decision needs to change, regardless of the reasons why, own it and change it. Leaders can’t obsess about making mistakes nor can they afford to get derailed by the mistakes from the past. Learn from them and move on.
8 Trust and hone your instincts:
In today’s digital age, data-driven communication is powerful. But true power comes from combining logical analysis with intuition. Instincts are a big part of media relations as we know. Spotting a news angle. When to be reactive. When to be proactive. What cards to deal or save for later? Who to speak to? Who to trust? What tactics to deploy, and so on. Master your skills. Become an expert in what you do, assess the data you have available and lead with your instincts. Fast, successful, decisions depend on it.
9 Move fast, but pay attention:
I think quickly and type quickly. A colleague once said listening to me type was like listening to a herd of elephants thundering across an African plain. He’s not wrong. When something needs to be done, I have a laser-like focus on delivery. But it pays to lift your head up from time to time to take a temperature check. Is it still the right thing to do? Has anything changed? Pause, assess and pivot if needed. And for young comms pros remember, fast delivery is great, but keep a close eye on quality. Spelling errors, poor fact-checking, missing information; equals low quality work and an unhappy client.
10 Keep it Simple:
One of the hardest tasks of any comms pro is take a large volume of complex information and simplify it into a clear and concise story, or key messages. It’s much harder to do than writing a 2,000-word article. Yet, this skill is vital. A former manager once commented on the length of my emails, calling them informative but novellas. I was sharing all the information I thought people needed. Proving my knowledge. But the more senior your client, the less time they have to read your note. Key takeaways, bullet points, are your friend. And share the more detailed information in addition to this, if really needed, for those that need a deeper dive into the detail.
11 Always deliver on your promises:
If you have said you are going to do something, do it. And deliver on time too. Your reputation depends on it. Always meet expectations and deadlines. Every time you follow through on a commitment and deliver it well, however small or large, you build trust. And if you go above and beyond, add a little star dust, you make an even stronger impression. Always be true to your word. If you can’t do something, say as soon as possible. And never say you can do something which you know, or doubt, you can.
12 Be diligent with the detail:
Do your homework. Your ability to think critically and to analyse situations quickly, comes through thorough research and understanding. The maxim, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is particularly pertinent in corporate communications. World class comms advisers are armed with information to handle any scenario, question or problem that may come their way. Put in those few extra hours. Thoroughness leads to trust and confidence. Furthermore, if you can predict and deliver what your client or manager wants before they even ask for it, your value will skyrocket.
13 Know what you don’t know:
“Fake it ‘til you make it,” is a saying we hear all the time. This is what psychologists call a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe it, and it shall be so. And there is plenty evidence proving it to be a successful strategy. But many people lose their authenticity when faking it. And being caught faking it, loses trust (and pitches). A mentor once said it takes great strength to admit not knowing something. “I don’t know, but I know someone who does or, I can learn fast,” is much preferred to false bravado. Then when you say you do know something your opinion is much more powerful and credible.
14 Control the controllable:
A friend recently gave me a fascinating book, How to be a Stoic, which teaches about the philosophy of Stoicism. It effectively can be thought of as an operating system for thriving in high stress environments by teaching how to separate what you can control, from what you cannot. Change is constant, and it’s not possible to control everything. Ask yourself, what can you control? A helpful exercise is taking a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, write ‘in my control’ at the top of one column, and ‘not in control’ on the other. Jot down everything on your wall of worries. Assess your strengths and weakness for the control column and determine achievable solutions. Acknowledge those in the can’t control column, but don’t waste any energy on them.
15 It’s ok to not be ok:
Stress is having a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. Often amplified by the “always on” culture of PR and not helped by the fact that we often discount the value of feelings in the workplace. It’s important we realise that suppressing negative feelings can cause an emotional burden that causes you to burn out faster, give up more easily and ultimately react badly to stressful situations, leading to a decline in performance. We need to look after ourselves, and each other – mind, body and spirit. Seek help if you need it and raise your hand. And be there for your colleagues if they have the courage to ask you for help. Or you think they need support.
16 Do you need to know or want to know?:
There are many iterations of the phrase, knowledge is power. Generally, most people like to be in the know. It can help some people to feel connected, to feel secure; for some it helps them to feel valued. While being transparent is a good thing, mentors have taught me that great leaders need to curate information so that colleagues are not inundated with unnecessary noise. It is a fine balancing act. Ask yourself, do I need to know something, or do I want to know something? If you need to know, seek out the answers you need. If you just want to know, try not to spend time thinking about it.
17 Step outside your comfort zone:
It can be scary, but it is needed if you want to keep progressing. Dr Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect, says people who regularly seek out fresh experiences tend to be more creative and emotionally resilient than those who remain stuck in routine. In order to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, you need to step out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. The more comfortable you get with trying new things, the less you’re going to avoid it and the more you’re going to say yes to new challenges.
18 Build diverse teams and actively champion diverse thinking:
Although important, I’m not talking about equality here. I’m talking about the need for diversity of thought. Creating a culture of innovation, of growth, demands diverse thinking. Homogeneous teams lead to homogeneous thinking. Echo chambers. All saying the same thing with no-one to challenge and initiate a healthy debate to assess if there might be a better way. The more diverse the participants, the broader the viewpoints and perspectives. The more creative the problem-solving, the more innovation and in turn, success.
19 Be impatiently patient:
One of my mentors argues that patience and impatience are both virtues. Just different. Patience is needed to allow processes to unfold as they are meant to. Some things simply cannot be sped up or removed. But a dash of impatience can make you work harder, leading to more action and achieving something which you thought could not be done. It can make the ordinary, extraordinary. We live in a fast-changing world. Opportunities are not handed to you on a plate. They need to be grabbed by an impatiently patient you. Stay hungry.
20 Develop strong global acumen:
Finally, if you want to be successful in a global role, you need to understand international cultures and recognise how you conduct communications and how you behave country to country is different. The landscape, your audience and business etiquette. This can be how you handle a meeting, exchange a business card, write an email. To how the media behave and what they, as well as your clients or team members, expect from you. To make international communications decisions, manage global teams or client accounts, you need to understand how the business world works on a global scale and embrace it. Grab every opportunity which comes your way to travel and live it, not just read about it.
Louisa Bartoszek is Head of Communications at 20|30 Group and Editorial Board Member of Influence magazine.