During the 2019 IABC World Conference in Vancouver, BC, Bananatag had the opportunity to get face time with some of the industry's brightest minds for our second annual Chuck Chats LIVE series!

In this interview, our host Chuck Gose picks the brain of internal communications expert Advita Patel, CIPR Inside Chair, Founder of The Comms Hive, and Communications Consultant for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Advita and Chuck chatted about funding your own professional development, the power of professional designations, and most importantly, great advice on how communicators can advance in their careers. 

Watch the video, listen to the audio interview, or read the transcript below!


Video Transcript

Chuck Gose: We're back again with another episode in the Chuck Chats video series. Proud to have a previous Chuck Chats guest Advita Patel here.  Advita, welcome to Chuck Chats.

Advita Patel: Thank you. Good to be here.

Chuck: For those that aren't familiar with you, why don't you give us a quick introduction of who you are?

Advita: My name is Advita Patel. I am an internal communications consultant. I currently work in the energy world, and I've worked in comms for what, about 14, 15 years now, in internal comms specifically.

Chuck: Let's talk a little about your career journey. 

Advita: Well, I initially started, actually I never ever thought as many people as you would have had a conversation with wanted to work in comms. So my background was IT.

Chuck: Oh really?

Advita: So when I was 16, I wanted to be the Asian version of Bill Gates. The female version, and actually wrote that on my personal statement.

So I did a degree in IT, and I specialized in IT. In my final year, my dissertation was on web development.

So it was back in the days when you had the modem, and took about three hours to load a web page. So I did coding and JavaScript. The year I graduated there was a .com crash, so unfortunately nobody was really hiring web developers, and if there were hiring web developers, they were hiring them from India, China. Those guys were just super amazing, and they can pay half the money.

So I had to do a bit of a career back, “What can I do in my life now? I've wasted three years doing a degree in IT.”

So I started working as an admissions officer in a university, in the hospitality and tourism department, going to different schools and colleges trying to recruit students to come and do courses at the university. I was doing a part that involved marketing.

The marketing manager one day said, “Why don't you do a master's in strategic marketing because you seem to have a knack for it?” So I then spent four years, well three and a half years, doing a part-time masters while working full time in strategic marketing.

Then the first comms job that came up was a mentoring and coaching scheme that involved marketing a program in the NHS to nurses and doctors.

"But why should you allow that line manager to dictate to you what your career path is?"

I didn't know what internal comms was, to be honest with you. I wasn't aware it was even profession as such, and I was just kind of doing newsletters, and writing the odd article, the odd blog, for the mentoring scheme.

Actually, when I was at the university before I did the masters, I was asked to go around all the lecturers and do a little mini interview of them and put together a newsletter. I called it the Towster Times because the building I was in looked like a tow truck. That was my first kind of dabble into internal comms.

Even then, I didn't know it was internal comms. I was just doing a newsletter. Because I was really good on the word, Microsoft Word, I could do really funky things on it.

I mean it looks atrocious now bizarre, but-

Chuck: At the time.

Advita: ... in those days, it was like a classic piece of work.

I did the mentoring scheme, and then I kind of realized internal comms was a profession.

Rachel Miller actually was the first internal comms person I connected with on Twitter, because I didn't really know anyone who did that as a job.

So I did the search, #internalcomms, and Rachel popped up, and it was before she actually became a freelancer and doing her own consultancy. She was still working in house at the time. So she would write in that blog, All Things IC blog.

So I started following her journey, and understanding what kind of internal comms was. I became a member of CIPR and IoIC at the same time, which is Institute of Internal Comms.

Then from that point on my internal comms career kicked in. So I just kind of went from job to job doing internal comms roles in various organizations.

Chuck: How important was it for you, or what value did you get out of being a part of those organizations? CIPR or, IoIC, what have you gotten out of that?

Advita: For me, it was all about professionalism because I find that we have to work hard when you're working internal comms to try and get that respect to a certain level.

So a lot of leaders seem to think that you're just there to write a newsletter for them, do an org announcement, and do an email. For me personally, I wasn't really getting involved at that strategic level conversation. 

I became a member of CIPR first. I purposefully chose the Chartered Institute of Public Relations because they were  wider than just internal comms. I wanted to understand how public affairs worked, how PR worked, and how marketing to an extent worked as well.

"I'd rather be in control of my own destiny."

Then I realized as soon as I started saying I was a professional member of a body, some of the leadership team kind of noticed... It was their language.

The kind of organizations I worked with were full of engineers, people with technical expertise, accountants, etc. They all used to that kind of terminology.

So having that kind of backup, and backing, and support from that organization really helped. 

I'm based in Manchester, which is away few hundred km from London. Not many things happened in Manchester at that time. So you were kind of on your own, and you worked in a silo, and you didn't really understand what was what, and couldn't connect with other people.

CIPR allowed me to form a network of individuals. So meeting people like Rachel, and Jenny, and Trudy, and hundreds of others internal communicators, it's like being welcomed to a big family, which is what I really enjoyed.

Chuck: You said they see the communicator as kind of the order taker. There's obviously some communicators who have assumed that role, but why do you think leaders assume that that's what their communicator is there to do? Why don't they want to bring them in?

Advita: I think it's partly our fault, to be honest.

I do think that some of our internal comms people don't really understand what their role is, so they kind of follow a habit.

That happens if you don't expand your network, and you don't understand what internal comms people do, and you're just working in silo like I was.

Many people transition from an HR, or PA role, or an exec assistant role. They're good with people, you can write alright, so off you go and do it, they don't know any different.

So they just expect that that's what the role is, and continue on. If you don't look outside of your own bubble and you don't know what's going on out there, then you're probably think that's it.

Over time, we just inherit it, right?

So if I organization thinks an internal comms person is someone who just writes things and sends things out, and doesn't really think strategically, the new person that comes in, they expect them to behave in that way, unless that new person pushes back and says, “Actually, this is what I'm here to do, and this is what internal comms actually is here to do as well.”

You find that not many people have that confidence to do that.

Chuck: What's the best way for people to get outside their bubble?

Advita: Network. I know it sounds really simple solution, but we are so lucky in this day and age in 2019 with the kind of different social media platforms that we have.

When I first started in internal comms 15 years ago, there wasn't even Twitter. There's no Twitter. Facebook really didn't exist.

Chuck: No LinkedIn.

Advita: There was no Instagram. There was no LinkedIn. It was traditional email.

If you worked emails, you find their email address or whatever, or go to a face-to-face networking event.

Nowadays though, it's easy.

Doing traditional, old fashioned, face-to-face networking, it's uncomfortable for some people, so they shy away from it. So you kind of had an excuse in those days if you were a bit introverted.

It's like, “I don't really want to go to an event where I'm uncomfortable.”

But nowadays with Twitter and LinkedIn, Instagram even, people are all over it with comms, and what it is. Get out there and speak to the people and learn.

I mean we spoke about it on the Chuck Chats we did. There's a multitude of free CPD (continuing professional development) that's available for people. So I know a lot of people say, “Oh, it's a rich person's privilege to have CPD. If you've got money, you can do it then.”

But I've never, ever asked my business to pay for anything.

"You shouldn't fear failing. Failing is what makes you grow."

All of the CPD I've done, I've done it myself. There has been some organizations that supported me and paid for various things, but the majority of the stuff I did, my masters, it was only part funded. I funded probably 75% of it, same with all the other courses I've done. I've funded most of them myself.I do it a bit like a new year's resolution. In January, I've kind of decided what I want to do. I kind of do it like a mortgage payment. So I need to save 25 quid a week to do that, and I'll make sure I do that. That's important to me. I think a lot of people need to understand what's important to them. So I think that's really important that you expand your network, and use the channels that are available to you, and open up and meet different people.

I mean I'm here with Trudy and Jenny, and I would have never have ever imagined 10 years ago I'd be sat in Vancouver, going to a weird conference, which I paid for myself. No one's paid for my flights, and my tickets and stuff, but it was important to me, and I'm now having one of the best times.

Chuck: You stole my next question because I was going to talk about our chat where we focused on communicators investing in themselves, and not waiting for their employer to invest in them.Why do you think so many communicators are letting their employer dictate their career path when it's really the communicator that's their own path, that's their own career?

Advita: I don't know. I think it's because it's just habit.

You get told when you're working in-house, “You go do your PDR. You go sit down on a month to month basis with your line manager.”

They tell you what you're doing well, what you're not doing that well, what you need to stop doing, so it becomes a bit of a habit, which I don't think is a bad thing, sitting down with your line manager on a monthly basis and having that conversation.

But why should you allow that line manager to dictate to you what your career path is? So I've had numerous conversations with my line manager saying, “Oh well do you not want to do this role instead? If you want to become an MD one day, you will have to go out into operations”, but that's not my desire.

So trying to force me down a path I'm not comfortable with just for me to succeed in my role in that organization, is not the right fit for me.

So I'd rather be in control of my own destiny.

I think the only way you can do that is by being confident in who you are, and what you want from your line manager. I find it bizarre that people don't know what they really want to do in their career, and allow their line manager say to them, “Actually you need to do presentation skills. You need to do this. You need to do that.”

You might not think, “Actually, I don't need that”, because how well does your line manager know you?

Chuck: Or have you had a discussion with them?

Advita: Yeah, you have that discussion. Money's always a big part.

So I don't know about other people, but I know that every time I talked about it in the early days, when I spoke about CPD and professional development, budget was the first conversation.

“We don't have the money to do that. Can't send you on that. There's an online course though, so you can do it that way.”

Look at the money. It wasn't about you. Their interest is not you. Their interest is always the funding. If you've got the funding, great. If not, then think of something else. So that to me then puts you in a different path, right?

"If you went through life succeeding at every single thing you did, I mean it's pretty boring life and firstly, but also what do you learn? What'd you learn from? Just succeed at all times?"

Chuck: Mm-hmm.

Advita: So I think it's important as a communicator, well in any profession but in particular as a communicator, look at what's out there. Work with your line manager, maybe not if they can't fund you.

Maybe look at giving you time back, so rather than taking annual leave or holiday say, “So right, okay. I can try and fund myself, but will you give me time to study?”

It's a negotiation. I always think those kinds of conversations is a two way negotiation rather than one way.

Chuck: Well, I applaud you on your stance on investing in yourself. You should be super proud of that, but I'm curious from a more tactical or comms level standpoint, when you think back on your career, what was a big highlight?

What was one big thing that think back on as a big point of pride for your career?

Advita: For me, it has to be when I became chartered.

Chuck: For those aren't familiar with what that is, explain what that is.

Advita: Chartership is basically a qualification with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. It's a qualification that you undertake. It's probably the highest level of qualification that the Chartered Institute of Relations offer.

It allows you to prove that you are what you say you are in terms of your skillset.

So it's a full day, it's an assessment day. You're in a room with probably four or five, six maybe other professionals. You're given three themes: strategy, ethics and leadership.

It's not like an exam where you can't have any notes with you, but it's a day. You get an assessor, two assessors, and they will ask you various questions throughout the day on how you would handle a certain situation.

It's really intensive.

You are with all of these other pros in the room. It's one of those things, it's marketed as a public relations chartership. So you're a Chart.PR. So as an internal comms person, I had this kind of overwhelming worrying that I wasn't good enough.

I think everyone has that.

I tweet all of my life all the time, and people I know failed, and I want to keep it really quiet, I'm not going to tell anyone, and I kind of went through that phase.

But I thought to myself, “You know what?” I read a book by Brene Brown called The Power of Vulnerability. It's a really good book if you not read it. It talks about being vulnerable, and put yourself out there. I thought, “I want to own this.”

So I tweeted out and said, “I want to do my chartership. If I fail, I'll learned from it, and if I pass, amazing.”

Chuck: You've got to put it out there.

Advita: You've got to put it out there, right?

So many people DMed me, and sent me LinkedIn messages saying, “Oh my God, can you tell me how you went? How did it all go? You're so brave for telling people that you're doing this. What if you don't pass?”

It's like you shouldn't fear failing. Failing is what makes you grow, and you learn from your mistakes.

If you went through life succeeding at every single thing you did, I mean it's pretty boring life and firstly, but also what do you learn? What'd you learn from? Just succeed at all times?

You've got to learn from your failures. So yeah I'm quite keen about that. So that has to be my proudest because I was so scared. I mean I'm not introverted at all, but having this kind of pressure, because people know who I am, and I'm quite vocal about comms and professionalism.

I thought “If the woman who goes on about professionalism in comms fails chartership, it's going to be really embarrassing.”

It's like that worry was always in the back of my mind. So the relief of passing that, and of course passing my masters, because that wasn't an easy thing. I had to do it part-time while I was working full-time. So most of my routine was around my education, because it's something that's really important to me.

"I'd love to see communicators start saying no a bit more, standing their ground."

Chuck: We talked earlier about some of the communities that develop around associations and membership groups, but you're creating a bit of your own through the Comms Hive. So talk to us about what that is.

Advita: So the Comms Hive for me was about creating a forum or a place where people could talk to each other without any pressure, or any agenda, or any fear of being pitched out. Just a safe haven. You can be comfortable over wine and drink, or wine and food, sorry, or drink and food.

Chuck: Or it can be wine and drink.

Advita: Or wine and drink, whatever, whatever takes your fancy.

It all started off when I went for dinner with two of my comms friends. I'm really lucky that over the last 10 years I would say I've created quite a strong network of communicators that I can tap into and ask questions if I'm struggling with something.

So when I went for dinner with these two friends of mine, it was an issue I was struggling with, they really helped me solve it over a pizza and glass of wine.

When I was going home, I was like, “Oh, how cool would it be if all the people who don't have the opportunity to meet other communicators just get together in a really informal session and just have a chat?” So the initial thing was just to create a networking dinner in Manchester. That was my only aim really.

Listen, I'll get all my groups of friends together, get a little private dining space, have a three course meal, have a chat and go home.

But when I tweeted out, I had so many requests from other people from across the UK and international to do something like that. I thought, “You know what? Let's just do it. You pay for your dinner, and if you drink some alcohol then you pay for that separately, but you pay in advance and you come along, you have a chat, you go home, and then you can make it regular kind of thing.

When you go to events, you rarely have that time because you're so busy going to different workshops, and listening to others speakers, and you're a bit tired at the end of the day as well.

Chuck: I think a lot of times what happens with an internal communicators is they find themselves kind of going through the motions, or they ended up in this grind, or the hamster wheel, whatever comparison, where they're kind of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

What are some things that you would like to see communicators do to kind of step up the game, or raise the bar a little bit from their daily habits or routines?

Advita: That's a good question. I think I'd love to see communicators start saying no a bit more, standing their ground. I'm saying that quite flippantly because I know it can be hard to say no too, especially when a CEO or CFO, or some of the senior directors-

Chuck: Really, there's a more eloquent ways of saying it.

Advita: No, no I'm not doing that, go away!

I mean you're not going to have a job for much longer if you're a bit like that, but it's about how you position yourself in saying that no. So it's not a flat no, but it's a bit like, “Well, what do you achieve to get from this? What's your objectives, and does it link in with the strategic aims of the business?”

It's a bit like a coaching, which is why I always say internal comms, well comms in general, but internal comms specifically, having a coaching qualification or some kind of coaching background, or doing a lot of calls in coaching really helps to have those conversations because you can kind of cajole that leader into kind of thinking, “Actually, am I doing the right thing, or am I literally just ticking the box.”

Asking the right sort of questions, getting them to that solution themselves without you telling them, “The answer is the best way, in my opinion, and what succeeded for me in the past.”

No one really says flat no. I know I joked about that, but if you do say flat no, then you are risking your reputation a little bit. So again, having that professionalism behind you. If you do say no, have a reason why you're saying that no, and don't say, “I've got a gut feeling” or “I just don't feel it's right”-

Chuck: Or I'm too busy.

Advita: ... or “I'm too busy. I've got to go look at my to do list.”

They don't care. They're not bothered about your to do list and your gut feeling. Gut feelings only really work when you build that trusted advisor relationship with that leader, and then they trust you, and they will.

That takes a long time to build. It takes a while to build that trust relationship. So once you're at that trusted relationship, you can say, “Oh no, sorry John, that's not going to work out, and you know why? Because last time we did something like this is what happened.” Then you'd be like, “Yeah I get you because I trusted you, because you succeeded in telling me what was right last time.”

Chuck: So you're here in Vancouver for IABC world conference, which is always a great thing to be a part of. What's next on Advita's conquer list? What's the next thing that you want to go after and achieve?

Advita: I want to work for myself eventually. That's my kind of big aim, and I'm kind of taking baby steps in doing that. 

So I've taken advice from other people who have done consultancy work or set their own freelancing work, to do it slowly and kind of see the issue, because it doesn't wait for everyone.

Chuck: Kind of the side hustle approach.

Advita: Yeah something like a side hustle.

I've always worked in an in-house role on a permanent contract, and I love that feeling of going into an organization and building that relationship with different people, and the longevity of it.

I like that because it takes time. So I wasn't quite sure if the consultancy or freelance world was for me because I'm so used to the in-house thing.

But over time, I've tried to assume what my niche is, and what can I offer going forward. So that's why the Comms Rebel thing comes from, because I started doing talks in the UK around being a Comms Rebel, challenging the status quo, and standing up for yourself, and saying no more often.

As a rebel, you care about your people, and your leaders, and your organization, and how can you make that work for you, so that's where my Comms Rebel business model came from.

So that's my next phase. I want to try and get to more of like these kinds of conferences. I'm really excited to be here, Vancouver, IABC. It's been a dream.

I've always seen all the tweets and stuff over the years, and I thought, “I really want to go there.” But it's a big investment.

Chuck: It is.

Advita: Flying in from the UK, and spending three days here. But what better time to come than with two really good friends, and I'm just having a blast, having a great time. So hopefully my next step is working on myself.

Chuck: Mm-hmm, well thank you for being on Chuck Chats, the text version, and now here for the video version. I really appreciate it.

Advita: Thank you. Really appreciate it. Thank you so much.