In our latest #CareerTalk series, Lisa Gu, IABC Waterloo Membership Director, interviews Michele English, an inspiring communications leader pivoting a new chapter of her career.
LG: Can you tell us about your first name? It’s Michele with one “l” instead of two.
ME: Well, I guess you could say my first name has a typo. Maybe it’s why I ended up liking editing so much! My parents claim they named me after The Beatles song “Michelle”… but they spelled it with one “l” which was a popular way to spell it at the time.
LG: How did you figure out you wanted to be a communicator?
ME: For as long as I can remember I had passions for reading, creative writing, history, and film. When it came time for me to select a program for university, I chose schools that offered both Communication Studies and Archaeology to keep my options open while I explored both paths. I landed at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I focused on Communications in my second year. Upon earning my degree, I wanted to develop a specialty and gain some experience, so I selected Humber College for its post-graduate certificate program in PR, which includes a co-op placement.
My co-op term was at a small PR firm in Mississauga which led to a regular full-time role. But I wanted to head to a new city, so I took a three-week contract at an ad agency in London, Ontario. (Don’t worry, I had a back-up gig in case it didn’t work out.) During that time, I attended a local IABC event where I met my future boss and started a new role at a food and agriculture company a few weeks later.
In each of those roles, I tried to find ways to add value. Once you have a track record for being approachable and a solid contributor, opportunities for more robust work start to come your way. Each role offered different types of work which gave me a great foundation: production, graphic design, photography, vendor management, and of course, writing plans and delivering tactics. It was also great to learn from more experienced communicators.
LG: How did your career progress?
ME: First a little context, to help you understand my path. I’m curious and I like to change things up at work every couple of years or so. Challenging and interesting work is just as important to me as “moving up” so I’ve made several lateral moves. Communications channels have also changed significantly throughout my career — like the advent of the Internet and websites, and the introduction of social media — so there were all kinds of opportunities to pioneer new media.
A couple of years into my career, I got married and made the move to Waterloo. I was looking for an organization with a variety of communications roles, so I could take my portable skill set and apply it to a variety of work. With that goal in mind, I landed a six-month contract at Manulife as a communications specialist focusing on media relations, philanthropy and special events.
From there I moved into product marketing communications, introducing unique financial products to Canadians by creating secure websites such as online banking, supporting product launches, and designing sales campaigns. Through these roles, I graduated from specialist, to officer, to consultant.
Then I took on a secondment to be the communications lead for an integration project. When that wrapped up, I began providing executive communications support and was soon asked to expand my mandate to support post-sale communications for our sales force. That’s when I started leading people.
Soon my team and scope grew, and I took on more responsibilities as a director. When the company went through its first global restructuring and shifted to a matrix environment, it provided an amazing and challenging opportunity to design a new structure to meet the diverse and changing needs of the business. Our team provided internal and executive communications support to the head of Manulife Investments, which became a new, larger business unit called Retail Markets. My mandate grew to support internal communications, the external voice of our executive team, and leading the technical writing team, which was a new field for me.
There was a lot of change in the organization, but resilience and being open to learning and trying new things afforded me and my team many opportunities for growth.
LG: You’ve hired many communicators. What are some of the top qualities your best hires share?
ME: I’ve learned that it’s not only what someone has accomplished that matters, but that how they did it can be just as important. The most successful communicators I’ve worked with have these qualities:
- They have a creative approach to their work. For example, they can create a high impact program on a low budget.
- They are strategic. They plan their work rather than jumping to implementing solutions.
- They view their clients as collaborators and take time to build positive relationships. They are consultative and not “order takers.”
- They focus on continuous improvement. They take the time to document process, analyze their completed program, and determine how they can deliver something even better next time.
LG: Speaking of improvement, how do you stay current in the communications field?
ME: Professional development organizations can be a great way to build your skills and your network. IABC has been a great resource for me over the years.
I joined as a student member. In my co-op term, IABC resources on Crisis Communications helped me to build out an empathetic and comprehensive plan for my client. I mentioned earlier that I found one of my jobs at an IABC event. And joining the IABC board was a great way to meet other local communicators, while helping to build an organization that supports our craft.
LG: You’re exploring the next chapter of your career. Any thoughts to share with other career re-launchers?
ME: When Manulife went through a structure change recently, it was time for me to try something new. Fortunately, this change afforded me the gift of time to reflect and determine where I want to go next.
My advice is to “figure out what you want to be when you grow up” now. You don’t need to wait for a life change to get started.
I’m investigating making an industry change to healthcare or education. I’ve been trying my hand at communications consulting, rounding out my skills with online learning, and I’ve freshened up my online profile and resume.
And I’m talking to a lot of people — friends, family, former colleagues and new connections — about my ideas and aspirations. Their feedback has helped validate my long-term career plan; it’s exciting to figure out what my next adventure will be!
Thanks to Michele for sharing her career journey and aspiration with us. You can reach Michele on LinkedIn . Do you know an IABC Waterloo member with a unique career path? Email email@example.com to be featured!