Two years into my first crisis communications job, I felt salty. I had my “trial by fire” case in the first month, and came out of it unscathed. I had been interviewed by reporters hundreds of times for dozens of emergencies. Given the facts of a case, I could whip out a serviceable, well-constructed news release in minutes. One week out of every five, I was my organization’s primary media contact for a large region of the country, on-call 24/7.
During this time, I took a coffee break with a senior colleague to listen to his plans for an upcoming trip to his alma mater, where he’d been asked to give a talk to students about our profession. While my co-worker talked about the levels of knowledge we use to measure expertise in our trade – apprentice, journeyman and master – I nodded, not really listening (somebody, somewhere, once called this move “the negaffirmative”), while giving myself a huge pat on the back for being at the “journeyman” level so early in my career. I was jarred back to reality when he motioned my way and said something like, “… and you’re still an apprentice, so you know what I’m talking about.”
I felt diminished and couldn’t understand how he could categorize my station in the organization that way. It took some time for me to realize that he was, of course, correct. While I had some exposure to that next level at that point, true knowledge only came with time and more experience. By anointing myself a journeyman so early in my career, I risked tuning out important lessons I had yet to learn.
As a “noob” to your organization and the communication profession, you will face similar challenges to your ego and your professional pride, but know that everyone must go through an apprentice phase – you cannot skip it – so now is the time to embrace it. Do yourself a solid and take advantage of your position to move up the knowledge ladder productively.
If I could go back in time to the beginning of that first job, I’d tell my former self, “embrace your apprenticeship – it’s going to be the most important part of your career, and it’s going to last a few years: act accordingly.” Here’s what I would tell fresh-faced, right off the turnip truck brando, if I could:
1) Know your role. Your motivation can be as simple as striving to get to your first performance review with no surprises. If your organization uses a standardized performance review document, get a copy, study it and understand the performance objectives you need to attain. If your organization doesn’t have this paperwork, it’s up to you to query the boss about the keys to success.
2) Understand what your formal education is and what it is not. People don’t typically complete an undergrad degree and immediately jump to the top of their chosen profession. Alternatively, be wary of anyone who says, “Forget what you learned in school.” Use your education as your base, but stay open to new learning opportunities that deviate from that education and take advantage of them. Your formal education may begin your apprenticeship but obtaining a degree does not complete it.
3) Adopt the right attitude. Go into each day seeking knowledge and looking for opportunities to sharpen your skills. Don’t roll into a new position with the idea of trying to impress anyone with your knowledge, background or skills. You won’t succeed. Instead, impress them with your attitude. Don’t try to tell anyone what you know – ask about and be open to the things you want to learn. This goes hand in hand with the next tip:
4) Band together with your peers. Have the courage to tell people you’re just starting out, and others will flock to you. You’ll get moral support and tips, and you’ll develop life-long bonds that will help you down the road. Look for meet-ups of young professionals in your field and attend. If there’s a hack and flack group in your area, get on their list; go to their events and network. Social media is your friend with this. Join a Facebook group or one of the many professional communicator communities on Google+, LinkedIn, or whatever the next platform is.
5) Look for “extracurricular” activities. Join toastmasters, volunteer to do outreach for a local charity or non-profit, start a peer group of your own, moderate a Facebook or Google+ community. Don’t be afraid to let your boss know that you’re doing it: it’ll earn you some trust points and will look good at review time.
6) Find a mentor. Ideally, you want someone who has more experience than you, is in a similar job and is not in your “chain of command.” Those extracurricular activities and networking events are the perfect place to find mentors. This should be someone who is willing and able to teach you the ins-and-outs of the career field and provide a sounding board for your ideas. Keep it professional: if you need a shoulder to cry on, there are other people in your life for that.
7) Find role models. Your mentor isn’t the only person you’ll learn from. Co-workers and peers will provide an amalgamated model for you to follow every day. Pick out the people who are “doing it right,” and learn from them. Find out what they’re doing to put check marks in the success column for assignments and give it a try. Constant growth should be one of your guiding principles: know that it will require work on your part.
8) As you climb the ladder, reach down. People may join the organization a few months or a year after you. Help that person, even though you are still in the apprentice phase. Only when I began to help the “newer guy” did I begin to understand how much I was learning and how far I had come. It was encouraging and served to solidify the foundation I was building, and it was an excellent precursor to the leadership roles I would assume later in my career.
How do you know when you’ve graduated from apprentice to journeyman? You probably won’t know it until after the fact, but be ready. When people start coming to you for advice, you’re probably there. When the boss breezes through a positive performance review with a, “… we both know you’re doing a great job, so this is just a formality” you’re probably there. It takes time. Be patient, and work towards it. When you get there, work towards the next phase!
Let’s share the knowledge. Tell us your tips for embracing apprenticeships in the comments below.
Image courtesy Ryan McGuire of Gratisography, used under Creative Commons license. Original image: http://www.gratisography.com, License: http://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/ The image has not been altered.