Swimmer on lane

By Anj Handa and Rebecca Bell

Choose your Swim Lane

Anj says…

The theme of being multi-skilled/portfolio careers has cropped up a lot recently, so when I saw a post by Rebecca on LinkedIn recently, I asked her if she’d write a blog to share her experiences. I’ve recently undertaken my own positioning exercise, so I was interested in what she had to say.

My personal focus is on helping women to communicate and influence effectively so that they can thrive at work and in society. A large chunk of my former career involved helping organisations to design programmes and navigate public policy in the themes of Employment, Skills, Diversity & Inclusion and Social Impact.

Communicating this in a way that was clear to potential clients and avoided corporate speak was a challenge. It took breaking my ankle this summer and finally sitting still to take stock to realise that there are three strands of my work that are in fact aligned to my areas of expertise:

  1. Speak Up for Self (Personal and Professional Development)
  2. Speak Up for Others (Diversity & Inclusion)
  3. Speak Up for Social Issues (Social Impact)

Finding Clarity

It’s a shame that it took a major injury to bring this clarity and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Rebecca’s suggested title, since my friend and housemate’s mantra since her teens has been “stay in your own lane.” She’s Elizabeth Wright, a three-time Paralympic medalwinner in swimming who most certainly understands the need to stay in your lane and focus on your desired outcome.

My biggest learning is that if you apply your purpose and passion, everything else falls into line: clients, contacts and supporters.  I used a combination of external feedback and internal reflection, using a Japanese model called Ikigai. It’s the spot where your passion, your profession, your vocation and your mission intersect.

I now love to guide others through this model, because when people see you’ve found your Ikigai and see how staying in your own lane is working for you, they want to experience it too.

Rebecca says…

A couple of weeks ago Anj asked me to write something about how you can sell yourself if your experience is pretty broad.

I suffer from this problem. After all, I spent the first ten years of my career pootling along doing PR and media relations. And then it all went a bit sideways. I got bored with doing the same type of stuff all day. I wanted to taste some variety and test myself a bit so I joined Cisco.

Over the next ten years, I started saying yes to lots of different challenges and opportunities, none of which had anything like ‘PR’ in their job title or scope.

Quite often I had almost no idea what I was doing when I took on a new opportunity. But I trusted two things:

  1. That the person who was asking me to do get the job done knew enough about me to understand my abilities and wouldn’t set me up for failure
  2. That my core skillset would act as a foundation to make a success of the new job I was being given whilst I learned more

And the second point is important, because in every case, each new challenge was basically in an adjacent function to PR or media relations. So it was a stretch, but never a hernia-inducing leap. For example, if I could do PR, surely I could turn my hand to executive communications. Or Internal Communications. Or Marketing. Or Strategic Planning. Or Sales Enablement. Or Sales Acceleration. Or Inside Sales.

I was pretty successful in navigating all these twists and turns, until about a year ago I decided to take a really giant leap off the hamster wheel and set out on my own as a consultant.

Asking the Big Questions

The first question was, where would I focus? I had done all these different jobs by now, so which would I prioritise? And where was there the most need for my skills?

I thought long and hard about this one. Should I present a groaning buffet cart of capabilities, or just serve up a limited menu?

I decided on the latter. You see, the thing is, despite all the many experiences I’d had and projects I’d completed, I realised:

  1. I’m much better at some things than others
  2. I don’t really enjoy some of the things that I now have the experience to do

I also reflected on something a former colleague had once shared with me. His advice was to know what’s at your core. Like a piece of Brighton Rock, what’s the core message that runs through your veins?

Finding my swim lane

At the core of all my skills is the ability to communicate with clarity. And though for years I had been afraid of being type-caste as the ‘PR girl’ or later the ‘comms lady’ and had run away from roles that did that, in retrospect I realised that communications is my strongest skill. And doing it well makes my heart sing. So I decided to focus on the three areas I enjoy the most in this field:

  1. Communications and marketing strategy
  2. Content and messaging
  3. Audience engagement

OK, these are still pretty broad churches, if I’m honest, but I’ve at least narrowed it down from a vast ocean to three swim-lanes.

Next I had to work out how to put this together into a narrative that might make sense if I was to describe it to someone I’d just met at a drinks party. This took ages. Call it cobbler’s shoes but it’s very hard to communicate your own communications value! Here’s what I ended up with:

Having a Purpose Sells

My purpose is making positive change happen via effective communications, marketing and stakeholder engagement.

I focus on getting things right for my clients in three areas:
1. The right communications or marketing strategy
2. Content and messaging which delivers measurable impact
3. Creating strong, enduring engagement with your audiences

All this creates business value in the form of revenue growth, as well as more meaningful relationships with customers, employees and stakeholders.

And now I’ve done this work it’s pretty easy for me to qualify in opportunities that come my way as a consultant. Does an opportunity map to what I’m good at and where I’ve said I want to focus? If yes, bring it on. If no, well maybe that’s not the right opportunity after all.

Of course I have to be prepared to be flexible and I may well decide to narrow things down further in the future, but for now this is working for me and it’s enabling me to articulate my value more clearly than ever.

So if you’re struggling to describe what you do, or what you could do, try following the process I followed. If you focus on realising what you love doing first, success will likely follow.

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She teaches women how to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues. Rebecca Bell is the owner of Good With and is a Strategic Communications, Change Management & Marketing Expert.