How can you go from being inundated with others’ tasks to delegating, deciding and dictating the terms?
The dreaded “order-taker” status might be the gripe of all gripes for communicators across the land. Does this sound familiar?
“I need you to write a press release. The world cares about this.”
“We fired our social media person. Can you just add that stuff to your to-do list?”
“Hey, you, communicator person: Make this into a flyer, and print out 500 of them.”
“Just make this crisis go away. Also, please order lunch for the team.”
“We definitely need a video to go with this.”
Communicators often get lumped and bundled into larger, more respected departments, whether that’s in marketing, in HR or, heaven help you, in IT or sales. Regardless of where you sit, there’s a tendency to treat communicators as a back-of-house, downstairs service department.
This unfortunate power dynamic places you directly under a cascade of tasks, updates, collateral, busy work and the whims of fickle execs—unless you can shift the balance of power.
How to command more respect
This notion of rising above “order-taker” status comes up at every Ragan Senior Communicators Roundtable event. It’s something nearly every communicator must tackle at some point—and it’s often a career-long struggle to earn an influential seat at the table. Of course, every organization is different, but there are common threads that should help you on your way.
Leona Long, who manages news and content for The University of Alaska (let’s go Nanooks!), confirms there is no “magic bullet” for earning respect, but you must be able to highlight the quality of your work and demonstrates results. She points to a PRSA award as her workplace “gamechanger,” which caught the eyes of colleagues and college admins alike. (Perhaps there’s a campaign you feel is award-worthy?)
Ayesha Gallion, a comms pro at a manufacturing company, suggests being more proactive about listening—and facilitating projects.
She says: “Your respectful ability to listen is always an asset, because when you must speak, usually your colleagues will listen to you as well.
“When there is a project from upper management that has the potential to become ambiguous, take it upon yourself to set objectives and clarify for the team, who will be doing what. You then become more of a facilitator, versus a person who is simply waiting to be told what to do.”
“This means understanding your industry—key trends and competition,” she says, adding that you should keep a finger on the pulse of company financials, as well as on quality, productivity and stakeholder satisfaction levels.
She adds: “Have a strong understanding of your company vision, strategy, goals and challenges.”
She offers three more tips for gaining clout:
- Prioritize work based on where you can solve business problems and add the most value. This may require some client education on the comms function, or it may simply mean pushing back.
- Improve planning and measurement. Connect the dots by linking measurable communication objectives to key performance indicators such as productivity, innovation, safety, customer service, recruitment and retention, and brand reputation.
- Communicate results, not activities. How has communication improved key performance indicators such as productivity, safety or retention?
More ways to boost authority
If you feel like a plastic bag blown about by the breeze, try these suggestions:
Create a filtering and/or intake system. Forcing people to fill out a “job request” form will filter out at least some of the static. Include questions and instructions that will educate colleagues and point them in the right direction, such as:
- “How does this project tie to a crucial business KPI?”
- “What, specifically, are you hoping to achieve with this piece?”
- “What would happen if we didn’t do this?”
- “What would success look like for this project?”
You must educate people about why something’s not needed. If you just reject jobs without explanation, no one will learn for next time. The more you educate people, the more you empower them to make smarter decisions (such as, maybe not requesting that terrible video idea).
Stand up for yourself (and your team). Sometimes, you just have to say “no.” This is tough for people pleasers—and for those who might feel like they’re on unsure career footing.
However, you must show some spine to prevent getting run over with endless requests. Don’t be afraid to delegate, and be prepared to defend your decision to deny an unreasonable job request.
Consistently win that buy-in. Consistently work to secure buy-in from execs, and make them aware of your chief objectives, initiatives and projects. Try these four ideas:
- As you plan content, mirror the company’s strategic priorities, and make your initiatives jibe with big objectives.
- Create timelines, templates (for colleagues to just fill in) and a clear vision for tangible objectives.
- Set healthy boundaries and expectations with colleagues and execs, or you’ll be smothered by ancillary stuff and never get beyond stressed-out order-taker status.
- You must “earn the right to be heard.” Lead with empathy, and continually earn the right to be heard (and trusted).
How about you, communicators? How have you gained more gravitas on the job? Share your guidance in the comments below.