It’s said that some people are born leaders. For the rest of us, there’s a lot of hard work and learning that goes into becoming an effective leader of others, regardless of the field we work in. To learn about what helps new comms leaders grow into their elevated roles, we spoke to several seasoned comms leaders about their paths to leadership, the lessons they learned along the way and the advice they have for those following in their footsteps.
Nailing the transition to leadership
With any significant change in one’s career, there’s bound to be a period of acclimation. One way to maximize that time frame is to adopt an open-minded willingness to learn. According to Dr. Sana Shaikh, Ph.D., a major part of her transition involved learning the lingo of her new leadership role.
“The biggest shift in my going to a mainly leadership role centered on the language used,” she said of her move to academic administration from a mostly teaching-focused role. “Because of this, it’s critical to be very intentional about the words and meaning of what you’re trying to get across to others.”
She added that even when the scope of your role changes, authenticity to who you are as a communicator and person remains paramount.
“When you’re defining your own communication style as a leader, be true to who you are,” Shaikh said. “There’s no universal way to do things — what works for you might not work for someone else. Have a clear strategy and be succinct in what you get across.”
While it’s great and necessary to learn the best tenets of leadership on the job, according to Heather Brinckerhoff, head of brand social media at QVC, the groundwork is best done well before moving into a leadership role. Early in her comms career, she turned to leaders she wanted to emulate and observed how they handled the challenges that came their way.
“When I was at the beginning of my career, I found leaders that I looked to model my own work off of,” Brinckerhoff said. “How did they run meetings? How did they face challenges? How did they celebrate wins with their team? If you start early and emulate a leader you trust and admire, it’ll positively impact your leadership journey going forward.”
Holistic representation and giving yourself grace
In comms, or any field for that matter, the way leaders interact with and represent the individuals in their organization will go a long way in terms of defining the culture and morale of a team or department. According to Samantha Hillstrom, head of internal communications and employee experience at Blue Apron, a new comms leader should look to speak with employees of all levels within the organization to form their perspective and messaging.
“I realized how important this was when it was my turn to step up as a leader — it was my job to represent every level of the company, no matter the message,” Hillstrom said. “We talk about it a lot in comms, but it’s really important for us to be a voice at the decision-making table, and good leaders, and particularly communicators, need to represent everyone.”
A sense of impostor syndrome can creep in for new leaders, but Ali Rubin, co-founder and partner at Velocity Partners, emphasized that new leaders shouldn’t be afraid or anxious if they don’t feel like they’re adapting to their new role right away, as not everything will click overnight.
“Understand that it’ll take time to find your footing,” she said. “Be humble, open, honest, but also confident that you were selected to a leadership role for a reason. Talk to people who have made the journey themselves in the beginning to learn as much as you can about how they did it.”
Empathy is paramount for new leaders
As communicators, we throw around the phrase “know your audience” until we’re blue in the face. But as a new leader, it’s critical, and doubly so in today’s work environment that often connects people to their leadership virtually. According to Danielle Veira, founder and CEO of Minerva’s Legacy Coaching and Consulting, empathy and understanding should underpin the basis of how a new leader approaches their role.
“As a new leader, I think it behooves you not to create narratives for those on your team, especially when you’re in a situation where you’re communicating mostly remotely,” Veira said. “Provide them space to tell you how you can best support them and manage their projects, but also how you can understand their work styles to help them grow.”
Veira added that if new leaders approach challenges with empathy, they’ll increase their ability to solve problems that arise.
“If you figure out the best ways to communicate with a person, you won’t just motivate them, but you’ll make them feel heard and understood,” she said. “That’ll help you work through almost any issue that arises as a new leader, whether that’s performance or ownership. Being empathetic will help you really connect with someone and create much-needed clarity.”
Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.