Michael Ambjorn – IABC AGM Speech

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Michael Ambjorn’s speech as new Chair of IABC 2015-16

Things have been interesting recently. That’s what happens when you hit a mid-life crisis. Things go a bit haywire. IABC has been in a full-blown mid-life crisis. So, should we go off and get ourselves a Porsche?

Luckily, that’s not on the cards. It is easy to lose confidence. As the hardnosed will tell us: never waste a crisis. And as an old British bulldog once said: ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’. Make something of it. Use it to take stock, prioritise. Fix. Set things up again for the future. Stronger. Better. Aligned and with a clear direction.

That’s hard though when you’re knocked for six. A famous boxer once said: ‘Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face’. We had a triple blow: a global recession, a changing market, an out-dated infrastructure.

‘We’ve been fixing to get ready’ as the Texans might say, and today I want to talk about where we are on that journey – and where we can go next if you want to.

Now before we dive into that, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here on the stage. Who’s this fast-talking espresso-addict? Well, for starters, correlation does not necessarily mean causation and I hate to admit that I’ve been fast-talking long before I learnt how to make a decent espresso – nevertheless, a couple of extra shots certainly does not make it better. So if I get carried away, please do signal me to slow down.

I’ve got something to say. It is about the future of our profession. It is about the future of our association. It is about our future. It is about you. And me. Those who have heard me speak before will have heard me say: that the intersect between the two are the sweet spot of action. That’s where the interesting things happen. That’s where the good stories come from. You are in this room right now because you’re a leader.

You can make a difference to the person next to you, to a fellow leader, to the association and ultimately the profession – and society. You are uniquely positioned to impact the world. If you want to. If you will give me your ears for a few minutes, I will propose a way for how we can do it together.

Before that I want to tell you a story. It is a personal story – it starts in the battleship-grey headquarters of a large corporation. I’ve worked at a few; I’ve also run a small foundation; headed up a 260 year old Fellowship focused on social change – and these days I help boards and teams establish, align and execute purpose-driven comms and engagement strategy.

This corporate. Imagine you’re at this HQ building. You have a brief moment between conference calls. That’s when you get the call. That’s when a well-established industry leader calls you and says: ‘you’re it.’

I need you to do one more thing.’ Don’t worry about the fact that you’re at that time commuting every three weeks to Chicago, from London. Leading a team spanning four continents. Standing there you’re told: Don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about that at all. Because you need to run something. Something for the association. Something that will advance the profession. It won’t be easy. But you will enjoy it. And be better for it.

Standing there in that battleship-grey headquarter building with low ceilings – too far from daylight really; and coffee really unworthy of consumption although always served with a smile – that’s when you, against logic, common sense or indeed sanity, take something more on. Whilst the details might be different, I am sure many of you have had the same experience. You get tapped. You step up. You deliver.

That was my first. It wasn’t my last. Why do we do it? I can tell you why I do it:

  • I believe that in today’s world, communication can be a force for good.
  • I believe that we have a unique way of connecting people for this purpose – a certain je ne sais quois – which I haven’t seen in any other organisation that spans the world like this organisation does.

And I know: that with thousands of members worldwide, across diverse industries, sectors and disciplines, this is a community alive with knowledge. Alive with experience. Alive with ideas. All of which are freely exchanged. A community I love being part of – and people I can’t do without.

A community that has a real and tangible impact. It is a force for good – through the Global Standard for the Communication Profession, our Code of Ethics, our educational offerings, our mentoring, our leadership development. I could go on. Most of all though, for me: it is about the connection – and the connections – that it enables. Because it is in that intersect the magic happens. The sweet spot of action.

Let’s be clear – the ask that was made, the ask to step up, was based on social capital – it was based on a connection. A connection who could vividly paint the possibility of experience ahead. I’ve seen it in action. Again and again. I can’t count the amount of times when I have been up against it with a tough comms challenge – or a question from a mentee, perhaps outside my own field of comms strategy and facilitation, that I could not answer and have received emergency assistance from many a generous colleague in this organisation – and vice versa.

You know who you are. Thank you. I will always endeavour to do the same for you. Because there’s a u in endeavour.

Now let’s take stock. The smoke has not entirely cleared. Some will in fact say that we’re on a burning platform. One only we can fix. What’s happening?

These days I pay my own way for membership, yet when I joined, membership was an employer-provided benefit. For me; for many. The CFOs of the world removed that budget line. It isn’t coming back. Meanwhile on the interwebs indirect competitors are eating our audience for breakfast:  $20 for a copy of Harvard Business Review? Why pay, you can read five articles a month for free… $50 bucks for an event? Curate your own crowd using Meetup.com – there are thousands of if not hundreds of thousands of groups out there.

Competition is fierce.How many of you have used Uber or AirBnB? We’re not the only ones being disrupted. I know times have been hard. It hasn’t been a bed of roses. This I know. But you are nothing if not resilient. Now, it is not surprising that the field is busier than ever – Google tells me that there are:  2,500,000 searches for a communications strategy every month,  140,000 of those are looking for comms skills,  120,000 are looking for a coms conference…and if our membership grew at the rate of our LinkedIn group – now well past the 40,000 mark, we’d have fourfold the resources we have now.
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Be resourceful: easily quantify your impact

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The person hiring you next will want to know what difference you’ve made in the past. The past is not always a guide to the future, but most employers and clients see it as an indicator.

They want it in clear concise measurable, and ideally easily verifiable terms. This is true for traditional permanent staffers and freelancers on the move alike – not to mention those who are willing to give their skills away pro bono: the recipient should still look for proof to ensure a good match.

It is how I’ve hired (and been hired) since the nineties and the good practice guidance out there reinforces the importance of this point, whether you read the classic What Colour is Your Parachute, this handy Interview Guide from Berkeley (PDF) or the direct advice from companies like Google.

Show the employer that you are a good fit with detailed examples of times when you successfully used the skills they seek. The Berkeley Job & Internship Guide

Many people struggle with this and come up short. You don’t want to know how many people with otherwise good CVs have made a wasted journey to an interview where they then failed to use data to set out the measurable difference they made. It is a lot of people.

Basically, a good interview answer is in its concise essence structured like this:

Faced with challenge X I did Y which resulted in Z. Whatever you’re starting these days it will most likely have a digital footprint – and this makes for easy illustrations – both qualitative and quantitative. Because a good Z is made up of both.

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A seat at the table

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If you have followed the Griffiths & Hinton research on the future of the communications profession you’ll know that if you want a seat at the table as a communicator, then you have to be able to operate at board level. The IABC Career Roadmap speaks to this, guiding communicators from foundation level, through generalist / specialist to strategic advisor and ultimately, for those who aspire to it, business leader.

You may have seen a couple of Communication World articles from IABC UK Past President Stephen Welch which set out practical steps for improving your business acumen:

The top of the tree can be a confusing place though – so if you want to help steer an organisation at the highest strategic level – here’s a brief guide that will walk you through three types of board (full-screen) Read more