How can communicators redefine success throughout their careers? Cath Anderson, Head of Communications at Cityblock Health, reflects on the moment she realized that success can be defined by her own terms instead of what society or the industry expects. Cath also talks about what PR professionals need to know in order to build their skills.
>> More episodes here
About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: CATH ANDERSON
DOUG: I’m really excited about this conversation with Cath Anderson. She’s had leadership roles at both tech startups, in the health industry, and with some of the major brand name tech companies and after you watch this, I’m confident you’re going to be better at the job that you do and have a lot of new things to think about. Thanks so much for joining us, Cath.
CATH: Thanks, Doug. Great to be here.
DOUG: You’ve talked about how you go about things being just as important as what you do. Can you explain?
CATH: Yes, I think that’s actually one of the learnings that I’ve had over the course of my career is that it’s important to deliver results, absolutely, but the behind-the-scenes comms work that goes into that final, long form story that you land or the big announcement moment where you amplify a message across a bunch of different audiences, the internal work around building coalition, bringing people together around an idea, ensuring you have cross-functional support, building out all the assets, the approvals, identifying how to optimize the strategy, and then landing and executing on your plan, that is the work that really determines how impactful your result is. And when you go about that in a really smart and insightful manner and also just a kind matter, when you’re a partner who is a pleasure to collaborate with, I think that goes a long way to determining your success as a leader and as somebody who people can get behind. And so, those things sort of have an inverse relationship, the how you go about something and then the message that you share, the content itself.
DOUG: What’s some advice, some guidance you have maybe from your own journey of how people can continue to build on their skill set to increase not only their successful journey, but the impact they have on their organization in a positive way?
CATH: The commonality across kind of all skill sets is that it’s folks that really enjoy writing. They lean into storytelling in their lives, and so, it’s kind of a natural tendency when it comes to their career. So, writing chops is a no brainer, and then I also think over the past decade, it’s become super clear that the ability to kind of quickly analyze and decipher sort of pull out the most important points amidst a pretty noisy world and noisy news cycle is pretty key. So, kind of condensing simplifying information and then pulling out the headline is probably one of the most important things.
DOUG: And those are key skills that you can be developing, when you were talking about the skill set, that takes practice to do and takes a mindset to how you approach it.
CATH: Yeah, 100%, and for me, at least, it has been learned and refined and built upon over time in the doing part to my earlier point, Doug. It’s not something you sort of take a class on and you know how to do it. You have to just put it into practice day to day. And funnily enough, I actually think one of the early tasks that comms folks get as they enter the career world is to pull together media coverage or clips and share those within an organization. And although at times it can be tedious, it’s actually a really great writing exercise. Not only does it inform you and kind of give you the opportunity to do that on the job analysis, it’s just sort of ask yourselves every day, where does my company fit into the broader landscape? What are our competitors doing? What is our value proposition? Where’s our differentiation? But then the actual act of writing it up gives you the opportunity to show that you know how to pull value out of a noisy space. So, that’s just one example of a way that you could put it into practice.
DOUG: That’s a really great example and being a culture builder has become more important of late, seems to be becoming more important like a rocket fuel propelled rate. How do you go about doing that successfully?
CATH: If you had asked me this like 10-15 years ago, I might not have identified culture building as an important thing for a PR professional. It might be something that an internal comms leader or even more sort of people ops, HR, would focus on. But I actually think that culture building is everyone’s job and that over the past even several years, we’ve all kind of come to understand that it’s up to us to come together and to create the community that we want to live in in the world that we want to live in. And it sounds very cliché, but it has so much more meaning now, for me at least personally, when it comes to some of these really important, we’ve bucketed as kind of social justice issues, but things like thinking about anti-racism, thinking about climate change. All of these things are tied to a company’s mission, and a lot of companies are looking to be more vocal about the responsibility that they feel in the world. And I actually think that’s the lens through which we, as comms professionals, need to be thinking about our storytelling.
DOUG: Companies have less of a choice these days, whether to engage because it’s so prominent and so present, and I think likely they’ve become more so. You’ve told an interesting story about how after you left one of the major brands that you’d worked with and worked with the smaller startup, people and were questioning, and you started to maybe question yourself until you learned the power of being able to really redefine and define for yourself what success looks like, because it’s not the same for everyone.
CATH: Yes, that was a huge kind of wake-up moment for me, and also a moment where I really, truly realized, I’d been told before that your career is not linear, but it didn’t really resonate to me until that moment. In taking a job at any major company, any big tech company or Fortune 500 company, I think a lot of times it sort of feels like you’ve made it or you’ve got your dream job, right? But pretty quickly after taking a job, regardless of how much you enjoy and love it, you sort of have this empty feeling like, well, then what’s next like if this was my dream job? And that’s where I think I again, I sort of had this epiphany around kind of what it actually looks like to be always learning. And the fact that the career that I’m building is not always defined by the company I work at, but that I am continuing to build on my skill set and will do so for the rest of my life. And at times, I’ll work at bigger companies. At times, I’ll work at smaller companies, and I’ll learn different things, because the scope and the scale of the comms and the PR that you’re doing will be different. I think the reason it was such a wake up call for me was that I just didn’t even understand that this was something that was within my purview to define. I thought it was sort of driven by external factors and the industry, and that there was sort of a set definition of this is what success is, and this is what it is not. And I’ve come, at least in my own career, in my own life, I’ve come to see success as something that is helping to propel me forward and to grow and learn and become a better person, become a better PR professional, a better executive, a better leader, a better mentor. And that it could mean a new company on my resume, or it could mean a new volunteer opportunity.
DOUG: Your point is really well-taken about the need to find different challenges for yourself, even if it’s within the same organization or looking elsewhere. How can PR mitigate some of the challenges being faced by the tech industry?
CATH: Strategic PR and comms is closely tied to the business, more so than sometimes people realize. And so, in that respect, communications has a huge role to play in mitigating issues. I have a slew of things that come to mind. I think the two biggest ones would be, first to help the business be more strategic around their timeline, whether it’s in regard to product launches or commenting publicly on a new piece of legislation on the policy side, whether it’s announcing new leadership or a new board member. All of these things have a huge impact on the business narrative, and oftentimes the folks leading those efforts are so hyper focused on the work that they’re doing, they’re not always talking to each other. And the power of comms, strategic comms is to say, oh wow, look, we have these three things happening within a several week timeframe window and wouldn’t it be all the more powerful to do them all together to decrease the delta and then what can we do to amplify this moment? So, instead of having three or four small things go out, you have one big moment where you land a message with impact and sometimes it’s across multiple audiences. Now, there is value to having sort of more of a breadcrumb narrative and story, and sometimes the goal there is to show just sort of a steady drumbeat. So, there are a number of ways to approach, but the most important thing is that you’re having the conversation and deciding proactively to move forward with one approach versus letting it happen to you and being more reactive. So, be strategic is the first thing, that’s sort of the first value add that comms can have, if you if you give comms a seat at the table with your executive team. The second thing I would say is, one of our primary focus areas is to look around corners. So, with mitigating risk, we want to be bringing up the top red flag items, asking tough questions, and poking holes in things in a closed-door environment in the room with leadership, working through how we’re going to mitigate what our response is, building out an FAQ, so that when we do speak about something more publicly and when we get to sort of that prime time moment, we aren’t surprised.
DOUG: Looking to 2022, any changes that you expect in PR and for our industry?
CATH: For me, when it comes to strategic comms is leading with vulnerability. Because I think vulnerability is kind of the glue that connects us all and actually helps to build trust, and most companies in the stories that they’re looking to tell, or indirectly or directly looking to establish trust in their brand. And so, by being vulnerable, they’re going to be able to do that and I actually think is going to sort of allow us to address some of these tough issues that are on the table today.
DOUG: It’s really powerful stuff, thanks so much for participating in the show. Hope lots of people get to see this because they’ll really get value, definitely made good on my opening statement that you’ll be better prepared for success in career and even in life, because a lot of it’s all related. Thanks again for your time.
CATH: Oh, thanks so much, Doug.