Monday, January 24, 2011

COMM 675 Capstone

This program started out being one of the harder things I’ve done in my life.  I entered the program confident in my prior work skills and in my overall abilities, yet in my classes the first semester I felt as if I’d been dropped into an alien world where my normal abilities were useless.  Reflection brings perspective to my memories and points to something less terrible...I just didn’t know it all!  As I look back over the past two years, I find that this program has both increased my knowledge and profoundly impacted and changed me: I am better able to embrace the unknown and deal with change, and am now a more humble life-long learner.

I learned the value of research, of the discipline of reading about a subject, analyzing it, synthesizing it, writing it, and my Capstone project will give me an idea of how to actually conduct research.  It is the research, grounded in thought and theory, that looks at application and real-life impacts of communication practices.  I began my course of study having little interest in theory, but now see that theory informs practice and can actually lend credibility to communicative actions.  My critical thinking skills have developed beyond “prove it”, and include interest in the underpinnings of an argument or position - I want to understand  the “why” and “why not”, and have a framework that transcends particular issues which provides me with a broader way to evaluate things.

My favorite course subjects were Persuasion, Coaching, Crisis Communications, and Leadership.  I gained context in my Organizational and Employee Identity course, and was pleased with the social media knowledge and skills I learned from my Strategic Communications course.  I am grateful for the push to explore alternate communications mediums - I value that I can now create podcasts and video shorts as a result of my Masters program.

My goal is to use my learnings from this program and craft them into a personal consulting business.   I want to help businesses adapt to changes in the workplace and to rethink how their organization communicates; I see an opportunity in bringing social media to small business and would also like to incorporate some one-on-one professional business coaching.

Social media consulting:  The world is changing and small business needs to innovate in order to thrive in the new environment. Given the impacts of globalization, the widespread use of technology, the importance of two-way dialog and communities, shifting demographics in the workforce, and social change, effective communication is more important than ever for organizations and for individuals. 

Small businesses can benefit by incorporating the strategic use of social media into the way they connect with clients and customers, employees and affiliates.  Why social media?  Because it is one of the tools that can be used today to communicate with stakeholders.  Many business owners don’t understand how to use social media.  While everyone seems to be talking about it, there is a lack of knowledge when it comes to how to apply the broad concept of social media to specific business communications, workforce management, product/service development, and marketing plans.  To gain competitive advantage, companies need to adapt to the new realities.  It is my goal to help small businesses develop a social media strategy and therefore find the best way to engage in social media for their specific needs and objectives.

Coaching:  Initially I considered incorporating coaching into my consulting business endeavor, yet began to question how coaching would “fit” when I started laying out my Capstone project (which will be my personal business plan).  I want to continue to develop my coaching skills in order to ultimately provide coaching services to leaders, executives and small business owners.  I am empowered by my experiences in facilitating awareness and change in others.  Coaching, with it’s forward focus and action orientation, suits my personality and dovetails with my values. 

Yet I have to be strategic as I create my consulting practice.   I have to consider the consequences of what might happen if I pursued two paths, social media consulting and coaching, at one time.  I believe I cannot do both with excellence, and fear my efforts would be diluted.  The opportunities for social media consulting appear greater for me.  Focus seems important from a practical perspective; social media is changing daily and will require my full attention and time to keep abreast of developments.  From a business perspective it will be clearer to focus on one area when marketing and developing my business. 

There is a sense of urgency today with social media - businesses need help now to figure out how to best participate in this new avenue of communications.  I believe I can create and fill a niche in this area.  Because I don’t want to lose the skills, processes and values that I believe come out of coaching, I hope to incorporate coaching skills (asking powerful questions, listening, and driving to results) in my interactions with business owners during my social media consulting engagements.  So while my business focus will involve social media, my implementation will include skills from my coaching practice.

It is exciting for me to be at this stage in my personal and career development.  I had not foreseen this place, and would not be where I am if I had not chosen to get my Masters of Organizational and Strategic Communications at Queens; I am profoundly grateful for the journey that has led me here today.  I have enjoyed getting to know the people in this program, the students and the professors.  I love the divergent and differing points of view and varied experiences that I have been exposed to as a result of this program.  I value the warmth, generosity and caring that I have found across the spectrum of encounters with the people involved with the Knight School of Communications.  It is both with enthusiasm and sadness that I contemplate graduation and leaving school, but rather than say good-bye, I prefer a bientot...I’ll see you soon! 

ODEV 645 Advanced Coaching

I have just begun this course...but what I expect to take away from this class is:
  • to learn more about different coaching models such as executive coaching and leadership coaching
  • to gain further insight on coaching practices by learning about various techniques (such as in-the-moment-feedback) and
  • to practice and develop my coaching approach and style through classroom coaching opportunities and hands-on client coaching
  • to continue to develop my skills in working with the client more effectively by asking powerful questions, directing communication, creating awareness, designing actions, and improving in planning, goal setting, managing progress and accountability.
  • knowledge of cross-cultural issues in coaching
  • to broaden my knowledge of various coaching approaches (NLP, cognitive-developmental, transpersonal) 
  • to learn more about team coaching and peer coaching
  • to gain exposure to assessments and knowledge on how/where/when to use differing types of assessment tools.
Overall, my goal for this class is to continue my professional development in the area of coaching by increasing my knowledge and practicing my skills both in class and with my coaching clients.

ODEV 640 Introduction to Coaching Theories and Application

Coaching is communications in action.  It is a process where a coach, through structured interaction using a process that focuses on outcomes, information, strategy and results, helps a coachee effect personally desirable and sustainable change.

I am drawn to coaching because of the way it dovetails with adult learning realities.  Adults learn when they need to know something, they are self-directed and have prior experiences that impact how and what they learn.  For me it comes down to motivation - we change the things we want to change, we do the things that make sense to us (we are less willing to do things that make sense to others and don’t resonate personally).  I did my research paper on training effectiveness and learning styles in Proseminar, and so am interested to find that coaching offers a relevant and proven approach to help people actually make changes. 

Coaching as a field and profession is quite diverse.  There are a variety of coaching genres, contexts and theoretical traditions that impact the practice of coaching.  Coaching can be grounded in a variety of approaches: psychodymanics (a focus on the unconscious mind), cognitive behavioral or cognitive developmental thought, there can be a concentration on solutions, ontology (influence of body posture), narrative (identify connections between stories), and existentialism (meaning and meaninglessness), coaching can be person-centered (looking at self-actualization), it can be impacted by Gestalt (creative adjustment to the external environment), or NLP (an approach that focuses on patterns of behavior and their impact on the construction of reality) and more.  In addition to the different approaches to coaching, there are many different types of coaching: performance coaching, developmental coaching, transformational coaching, executive and leadership coaching, team coaching, cross-cultural coaching, peer coaching, life coaching and career coaching.

From a practical standpoint, I found that to be an effective coach, good listening skills are vital.  I had to get out of my own world and prepare before each coaching session to clear my mind of “me” so that I could be focused on my client/coachee.  Asking “good” questions is important in a situation where an 80/20 or 75/25 rule regarding coachee/coach talking time is used as a benchmark for coaching sessions.  Good questions solicit information and are helpful in providing perspective-opening possibilities; the ability to ask good questions requires confidence, experience, and prior thought (I have a list of questions that I keep and add to every time I hear a "good" one).  As a new coach, it was so helpful to have a coaching model and to be able to use that to guide each coaching session towards action and results.

As part of this course,  we had to coach a client, someone we didn't know.  I contacted my coachee and found that I would be doing my coaching with him over the phone.  This lack of face-to-face meeting gave me immediate concern about my ability to build rapport and to develop a "relationship", and this was on top of my overall anxiety of having very little experience in the coaching arena.  But I found I was able to do it and felt that I was helpful to my client over our four sessions together.  Coaching is like being on a tight-wire; when you're moving and balanced, it's an amazing thrill, but the abyss is just a mis-step away and is a lurking presence.  I found that during the coaching process, approaches that I had learned from this course, as well as other ideas for interacting with the coachee, would come to me - some of these worked well (like asking my client to sit in a different chair when we had our sessions so we could create a special place where our conversations could take place and where the distractions of a home office were somewhat removed) and others did not (in listening to my tape recording of sessions, I found I became a cheerleader and stepped over my objective role which ultimately hinders coaching effectiveness).  As a result of my coaching experiences with my client, the proverbial light bulb went off for me! I discovered that I was passionate about helping people grow, and felt that coaching's forward-looking, positive approach to change which focused on the client coming up with information, ideas, and strategy made sense to me in the ways that traditional teaching or counseling never did.  I now apply coaching principles to my interpersonal relationships (most importantly for me, when going through issues with my children).  Overall, I was surprised and pleased with my hands-on coaching efforts, and found that I really enjoyed the personal challenge and seeing my client's breakthroughs and directional changes. 

As I pursue coaching, I will hone both my approach and the context and type of coaching most interesting to me.  The type of coaching that I did in this class ended up being mainly performance coaching, because of the needs and interests of my coaching client (coachee), but I find I am interested in developmental coaching and executive/leadership coaching.  I will pursue this more in my Advanced Coaching Class (ODEV 645).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

COMM 635 Organizational and Employee Identity

Organizational life has evolved over centuries and is now in a post-modern incarnation.  Nothing is certain, and truth, where it can be agreed upon, is socially constructed.  This state of being is combined with massive changes in technology, demand for our time, 24/7 accessibility, and changes in business dynamics.  All of this puts pressure on individuals, employees and organizations as to how they will be positioned in this new world.

The key issues of this course were raised in the syllabus: how identity is created, sustained, and transformed through communication.

This course made me look at myself.  With the multiple demands confronting me in my roles of mother, significant other, friend, volunteer, student, neighbor and job creator/seeker, the big question of identity arises.  Just what is my identity? How can I be authentic given my many and disparate stakeholder groups?

Specifically, my work identity is in flux, so I am in the process of transforming my identity, creating my brand. While branding for products makes sense to me, I recognize as a result of this course that creating a personal brand for certain aspects of my own life is important as well.  Brands are mental short cuts that are especially relevant in our fast paced world.  I used to be identified with finance and had various licenses and certifications which conveyed credibility and other things - but I am changing careers and have to create a set of new workplace characteristics by which to be known that will present me to the business world as someone who is knowledgeable in communications, social media and coaching.

Communication enables me to develop and manage my work identity.  Polishing my narrative, putting it “out there” for people to see, using mediums such as Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, and blogs can serve to bolster my presence and shape perceptions in the workplace.

In addition to personal identity, we learned about organizational identity issues.  Issues we explored that impact businesses today and have changed the way companies operate and communicate: stakeholder activism, how firms stand out amid the “noise”, platforms of messaging, new realities in image control (organizations no longer control either their image or the totality of their message) resulting from the change from “push” to “pull” communications, home offices and geographically disbursed work-groups, technologically-enabled instant communications and expectations towards 24/7 employee accessibility, and the blurring of public and private lines/work and personal lives.

This course provided me with an understanding of the social construction of reality, and the necessity to project my identity and tailor my messaging to my various stakeholders.

COMM 633 Strategic Crisis & Issues Management

Crisis communications was a course that was both structured and free-form.  It is that same dichotomy that embodies the idea of crisis, unexpected and unpredictable, and the discipline of crisis communications.

The course was divided into three parts: pre-crisis, crisis event, and post-crisis. 

Pre-crisis we learned about planning, about looking at the past to come up with possible crisis scenarios for a variety of situations that could flare from being a problem to becoming a full blown organizational crisis.  We looked at prodromes, scanning, thinking about black swans, and stretched the input to consider any other possibility (both known and unknowable/out-of-the-box) that could be useful in forming a framework for a specific crisis scenario. 

Crisis detection begins the second phase of crisis communication planning. Investigation into the crisis event showed the importance of resource allocation (who does what, where and when), of determining or recognizing a crisis-in-progress, and of having steps and structures in place to address and address and contain the crisis.  Meaningful in this stage is organizational honesty and transparency.

For the post-crisis stage, it is important to ensure that the crisis is over, that the response is evaluated from multiple perspectives, and that learnings and take-aways are noted and incorporated into the next phase or permutation of crisis planning.

In a crisis, one of the most important things is handling and addressing a crisis is communication.  Attention to all possible stakeholders was a point that resonated with me.  Stakeholders drive and define whether or not something is a crisis.  Therefore, identification of the groups/people that could be affected by a business or personal brand crisis is critically important. Success on one front in dealing with a crisis does not make the whole impact of a problem suddenly become resolved.  It is a multi-faceted dilemma that requires complex assessment and strategy.

Post-crisis it is critical to evaluate, assess, and revise existing crisis communications plans to take into account any knowledge gained from a prior crisis.   Communication effectiveness is critical to whether or not a crisis is deemed to have been successfully weathered.

We spent a lot of class time talking about real-time and case study crises.  We argued as to how to address a crisis and how to specifically counter or approach different communication dilemmas.

I enjoyed Professor Grayson's real-world business examples, and his hands-on knowledge about what it takes to do crisis management as a job for a large corporation.  We spent time talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, analyzing the handling of the environmental crisis from a variety of stakeholder vantage points.  While I took this class before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I found myself analyzing the communications failings as the incident played out for the 3 months last year.  I saw the negative impacts that resulted from a poorly defined and/or badly executed crisis plan.  Coordination of information was problematic, and the lack of transparency, leadership and an unwillingness to take responsibility - all points addressed ahead of time in a crisis plan - had undesirable affects on both the outcomes and severity of the crisis.

While my conclusion from this course is that there is nothing absolute in communicating during a crisis, the exercises of working through what-if and real-world scenarios created lasting value for me.  I now look at this discipline with new respect, with a willingness to spend the time to pre-plan and test the most likely (and unlikely, with consideration of black swan possibilities) crisis communication plans.

COMM 628 Leadership and Communication

This course in leadership explored the complexity of leadership.  We spent a good deal of time looking at the question "what is leadership?"  Answering this question begins with a definition of a leader, which I suggest is a person with vision who is able to get followers to embrace his/her ideas. Leadership involves vision and change.  So how do people become leaders?  For some it seems innate, for many it is something that can be learned - and it evolves with practice and experience.

From a communications perspective, leaders influence followers through effective communications.  Leaders work with others to create meaning.   Leaders look to change the way people think about what is possible, while managers are problem solvers and tend to be reactionary instead of visionary.

From a theoretical standpoint we looked at leadership as originating from classical characteristics - the premise is that leaders have certain traits, skills and style that define them as leaders.  Alternatively, we looked at models of leadership that can give rise to notable individuals: situational, contingency and path-goal.  Further exploration of leadership looked into leader-member exchange (LMX theory) and transformational leadership.

To inform the definitions of a leader, we looked at current events, personal encounters and experiences and applied what we had learned in class on leadership theory and characteristics.  From looking at leaders like Lee Iacocca and the Dalai Lama, we learned a lot about both vision, passion, drive and integrity and how different leaders communicate their visions.

Because leadership is such a “hot” topic in business literature today, we explored what pop culture is saying about the subject.  This was a great addition, as it allowed the entire class to be exposed to well-known books that deal with various aspects of leadership, from Death by Meeting (Lencioni, 2004) to Bad Leadership: What it is, how it happens and why it matters (Kellerman, 2004) to Good to Great (Collins, 2001). 

I left this course thinking in an entirely different way about supervisors, about leaders, and about motivating people of all levels.  I have a broader vision of what leadership is, beyond the charismatic and Type A “types”, and have greater confidence in my own leadership abilities.

COMM 626 Best Practices - Strategic Communications

The idea is that "best practices" are proven efficient and effective ways to do things. 

Best practices come from gathering the best information together and applying it as appropriate to new endeavors in order to obtain a desired outcome with as few problems as possible.  From a communications standpoint, best practices are past successful ways of communicating (which include information, methods, modes, ideas, and tactics) that can be used to shape effect excellent strategic communication going forward.  However, best practices are rooted in history and can only serve as a beginning point for future scenarios; best practices are not necessarily next practices. 

This course focused on digital communications strategies, and helped us identify the major functions of strategic communications.  We looked at how business structures are changing internally and externally to embrace the new realities of communication and changing stakeholder demands.  We explored online platforms and looked at the new media relationships in our changing world.  We looked at the impact of technology on corporate investor relations, crisis communications, the growing call for environmental corporate responsibility, and the affect the Internet has on business/government relations.

Approximately half of the class occurred online; we used Moodle for online discussion boards, we posted our assignments, and we conducted several classes over the Internet as well.  While there were bumps in the execution of our digital strategic communication, it was a valuable exercise even though I personally did not like parts of it.  I found that the online class was not as conducive to discussion as face-to-face classes are for me.  Online class was comprised on one-liners, of quick, short ideas that generated (or not) quick, short responses.  The depth that I enjoy from exploration of topics did not come forth in our online sessions.  Technology may improve this, as will practice on my part in learning to be effective and strategic in my communications given this new milieu.

Each person in the class created their own communications case study (mine was on the opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the public relations, messaging, and media tactics involved with building support for this new organization - detail of my case analysis is further down this blog).  Each person then analyzed their particular case and extracted what they felt were the "best practices" used in the communications strategy/s.  As a class, we discussed our ideas for best practices and discovered that they broadened significantly when the variety of cases (along with the separate "best practices") were combined - showing me that the more history you have, the broader the ideas in retrospect about optimizing the related communications.  However, just because you have these best practices, it does not mean that things will work well.  The NASCAR Hall of Fame, while doing a good job incorporating best practices into their kick-off communications plan, is struggling.  Current events (the recession, changing entertainment tastes to name two) had a significant impact on the viability of this organization, and yet they were not addressed using the backward-looking best practices.  This is exactly why best practices should be viewed with some caution.

It seems to me that each experience offers new inputs into "best practices".  While on-going learning and questing is good, it shows the limitations of "best practices".  They end up being best guesses, helpful most of the time, but there is a flip side to relying on them; best practices can be potentially blinding when innovative or creative strategic communications are called for.