Reflecting on what I’ve learned leading IABC Ottawa

IABC Ottawa 2013 Board of Directors

While I’m still an active board member for the International Association of Business Communicators, Ottawa Chapter, (IABC Ottawa)  my tenure is coming to an end this June and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the experience.

I spent a total of five seasons as a board member: two as the Vice President, Professional Development, and three-years in the executive as EVP, President and now Past-President (an automatic year succession for each). I was 25 when I joined the board and I will have just turned 30 by the time my term has ended.

First, what an incredible opportunity it was to do this so early in my career. I’m thankful for some of the amazing board members before me who saw my potential (or maybe just realized I was too young and naive to turn down the opportunity when no one else wanted to step up?). I am grateful for the wonderful board members, volunteers and members I was able to work with, learn from and get to know. The opportunity changed me. It allowed me to grow professionally more so than I have in any job and build great relationships with many amazing communicators in our city. It’s made my career path a little clearer, even if I am still not sure exactly where I want to go.

There’s a big gap between having leadership ability and being responsible as a leader

I’ve always had natural leadership tendency. Starting at 15, my first job was as a receptionist at First Choice Haircutters and my colleagues joked I was the receptionist/assistant manager because I had such a strong knowledge of our processes and procedures and was best suited to resolve issues when our manager was away (and we had no assistant manager). At most of the jobs I’ve worked since I’ve been a go-to person, a trusted advisor, a mentor to colleagues, it’s my nature.

However, being accountable and responsible in a position of leadership is a totally different story. I’m sure my learning curve was steep from the combination of my own lack of professional experience coupled with my drive/desire to excel in the position.

While it was exhilarating, exciting, fun and rewarding, it was also completely and utterly exhausting–to the point where during my year as president, I spent virtually EVERY weekend on the couch in a state of near comatose. I love to sleep–and get enough of it–but it meant many, many nights up late to complete tasks and get organized or even worse–tossing and turning with worry about the issue of the day.

Secondly, being a leader means you have to make tough decisions. A lot of tough decisions, and often. Whether it’s mediating conflicting priorities, dealing with an underperformer, or solving unanticipated challenges, often times you have to be decisive and swift. Sometimes you make the wrong decision and have to live with it. You’ll feel guilty, people will judge you. It happens.

There’s never enough time

In each of my positions on the board, and particularly as president, there were goals I set out to accomplish with the respective teams. In the early planning stages it seemed so attainable and realistic but as the season unfolds, you have unanticipated challenges, team members who drop off, other opportunities that present themselves or just the rest of your life getting in the way.

While I am so happy and grateful of what we’ve achieved over the last five years, I’m also crushed by what we weren’t able to get to. There’s never enough time to get everything done, but it’s still a good idea to set your limits high and try to get it done.

Never expect anyone to be as passionate or engaged as you are

Sometimes I can’t help but function on the brink where passion meets insanity. I can get so much accomplished when I’m really jazzed about what’s going on, can’t get it out of my mind and really want to push it further. It’s an amazing feeling even if everything else in your life is about to blow up. However, the hardest thing in the world is feeling like that and coming to terms with the fact that everyone else around you does not–and probably will not–ever feel the same way about that particular thing you are doing. When you are leading a team it means being aware of what will motivate and drive other people and focusing your energy serving their needs and not jumping in and doing it all yourself (something I still haven’t really learned, by the way). It also means being self-aware of what’s going on and showing others how you feel–passion is contagious after all.

That being said, you can never expect anyone around you to be as passionate or engaged as you are. Everyone has different priorities and situations in their lives that influences how they are feeling and being hyper-focused on your own mission can blind you to those around you. This can lead to misunderstanding or conflict.

The great news is sometimes you will get to work with those who are as passionate or engaged (or whoa, maybe even more so!)–and that’s a fantastic bonus!

Not everyone will like you 

I hope it’s because of my age, but this has been the hardest lesson to swallow. And while it’s something you hear all the time, I guess I’ve just grown accustomed to being an agreeable, likeable person. However, being agreeable and likeable is in definite conflict with being in charge. I’ve grown a good understanding that everyone has a different viewpoint and opinion and most of the time you don’t have enough information to understand everyone’s viewpoint. And even if you do, sometimes you just have to go against it because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sorry, but not sorry.

BUT… Accepting the fact that not everyone will like you doesn’t give you free reign to be rude, dismissive, or disrespectful towards others. I note this because sometimes this notion is confused.

Volunteering is real experience 

My last point is really more of a rant inspired by a couple fellow board member over drinks one day. Not every volunteer has this experience but for the few of us discussing–we put so much time, effort and energy into volunteering–on top of our jobs, on top of our family and friends and many other things that may be happening in your life. And sometimes you get a comment from an outsider “Oh, well that’s just volunteer work.”

It’s not just volunteer work. It’s real work. It’s real work we choose to do on top of other priorities without monetary gain. Someone who volunteers (particularly in their chosen career field) is demonstrating a real commitment and a level of dedication that others are unwilling to do. The real value of volunteering is experience gained, but you really do have to put in the effort to learn and grow through volunteering. You get out of it what you put in, and when you put in A LOT, it’s irritating to be marginalized by someone who doesn’t understand this…

I digress.

Experience comes from a sense of accomplishment, and despite my own roadblocks, stumblings and challenges I’m proud of what IABC Ottawa has accomplished the last five years. When I joined the board we were recovering from financial hardship, with a brand new board we had little access to corporate memory, membership had been declining steadily, and we were combatting a general sense of apathy towards professional associations in our market.

Today, IABC Ottawa is a vibrant, thriving community (not to mention, the International Chapter of the Year!). Where we used to beg other chapters for templates and advice, now other chapters look to us as a great example for what to do.

When then-President Sandra Markus recruited me, her vision was to make IABC Ottawa the hub of the communications industry in Ottawa. With all our struggles to manage the association day-to-day it seemed like a far-off fantasy.

I can say now through our diverse programming, partnerships with other industry associations, our amazing website (including our nationally syndicated podcast) and especially our engaged volunteer base, IABC Ottawa is very much the hub of communications in Ottawa and beyond. We’ve attracted and retained some amazing leaders (with much more experience than me, I might add) who already have and are taking over the reigns and I leave with confidence the association will continue to thrive–while still evolving. As I hope I will be able to do in my own career.


*Photo: the 2012-13 IABC Ottawa Board of Directors by our volunteer photographer extraordinaire, John Finnigan Lin. While I hate how I personally look in this photo, it’s kind of my favourite!


I don’t always cover unsolicited blog pitches…

In fact, I rarely do. However today it was explained to me that:

You may think that just like with many other areas of life men are also paving the way for the development of modern social media, but you’d be wrong.

and later on in the pitch:

I’m sure your readers will be intrigued by the true nature of social media landscape and the role of women in shaping it. This is a man’s social media world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.

Wow. Really?! Get a clue Alex Hillsberg.

Not only is the fact that women rule social media old news, but if you’re going to do a blanket unsolicited pitch through an email service provider, you should really avoid offending those people who are paving the development of modern social media.

The quest for fit

When talking about finding a job or filling a position, the word ‘fit’ get thrown around a lot. Unfortunately, ‘fit’ has become a buzzword, and everytime it gets flung around, it loses a little more of its intended meaning.

I’m just as guilty as anyone, I love this word. In an effort to be part of the solution rather than the problem, I’m examining exactly what ‘fit’ means.

You are likely not in a perfect job (perfect for you, at least) and many of us perhaps never actually find the perfect fit at work. Some people are perfectly OK with this and dedicate time outside of work to following passions and feeling fulfilled. I am not one of those people. If you’re not either, keep reading…

To make matters more confusing, the term can be completely relative and fluid. I would certainly say that I have been in jobs that were a great fit at first but then because of a change in staffing, management or my own personal growth, I came to the decision to leave because that fit was there once but it was gone.

Fit is highly dependent on a company’s culture… Culture is another term that’s difficult to define and perhaps misunderstood. Many startups (and I pick on startups because I lived in that world for five years) talk about the importance of culture. They offer all sorts of interesting benefits, from flex time to free meals to funky work spaces and free drinks in order to define their culture. However, culture is so much more than perks–it stems from leadership and all the coolest perks in the world can’t make up for bad leadership.

But wait… How do you define good culture? And how do you define good leadership? And can’t these things be vastly different?

I confess this post had been sitting in my drafts half written for quite some time. I had lunch with a friend a few weeks back who inadvertently answered what I couldn’t quite put my finger on here and in other aspects of life.

It’s not about culture, or even leadership. Not about perks, interesting projects, work/life balance, the distance from your home or any of those things we usually weigh in our heads when debating a new job. Only one thing really matters when it comes to what will make you happy. Your values and how well those values align with the company you are considering.

Oh, how simple that sounds! Funny enough, at the last job interview I had, I outright said what was most important to me was to have shared values with my employer and the people I work with. The obvious follow-up question: “Well, then, what are your values?”

I froze. I stumbled. I rambled off some obvious things. “I guess, I don’t really know?”

Fortunately the rest of the interview went much better, because I got the job (spoiler: I’m talking about my current job) and I’m quite happy with the fit. A lucky guess I suppose.

I still have a bit of an unfulfilled itch (I am ambitious and energetic, after all), but rather than trying everything to see what sticks–the old spaghetti-on-the-wall method–my current side project is to define exactly what those values are.

Reflecting without rose-coloured glasses

Be more painfully aware.

I started blogging in 2006* right after I finished college (though I didn’t launch this particular blog until a year and a half later). Today, many students are blogging while they are still in school, and almost every student is posting publicly on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. It’s a very different environment to grow up in when key moments, fumbles, mistakes and downright fails are posted publicly for the world to see.

I have been reading this extremely enlightening–and perhaps slightly depressing–book based on the blog You Are Not So Smart. The book is all about self-delusion, how our brains trick us into thinking we are smarter and better than we actually are. I am enjoying the book because knowing exactly what is going on in your brain is probably the smartest thing anyone can do, which is further reinforced by the themes in the book.

Anyway, remember when building your career, how everything was rosy and when things did go badly there was a grandiose life-defining lesson that you are very proud of? Remember how you essentially made every right decision? How you were smarter and more composed than ‘kids today’? How you wouldn’t change a thing because it made you how you are today?

That’s probably how you remember it at least. That’s how I remember it to. Thanks brain, you’re nice. However, that’s probably not the way it was. The book has taught me is that we have very little control over our own minds–the only control we really do have is to make up a shiny happy narrative to justify or rationalize the decisions and paths we’ve taken.

Are you bummed out yet?  Or you’re angry. Or you’re trying to come up with a witty comment to dispute what I’m saying. Don’t worry though, there is hope! I am going somewhere with this.

When we chronicle our lives publicly, there’s a virtual database of information we can access and assess.  That data can help you better understand who you are today (you can’t change who you are and you can’t deny what you’ve done if it’s publicly available). It’s also really interesting.

I was inspired to write this by two recent events: first, the fact that now archives every single tweet ever. The first thing I did was search my user name and see what I posted about in 2007 when I joined. It was definitely enlightening. I was much more of a blogger back then. I was more community oriented. It reminded me that I should take the time to proactively reach out, survey and interact a little more than I have been lately.

The second inspiration was a blog post by Mark Schaeffer, a blog I’ve been reading since it apparently sucked. (You really need to click through to understand why I’d say that.. In truth, I find it very informative and insightful, and always have). He shuffles through thousands of blog posts and reflects on mistakes he used to made and commits to learning from them. He will (continue) to be a better blogger for it, I can assure you.

A few takeaways here:

  1. Take the time to reflect on and learn from what you’ve done in the past, and don’t just trust your brain to supply the data.
  2. Remember, when posting anything online, that future-you may be reading it. Hi future Kelly! Hope all is well! 


*So I went to the WayBack Machine to find the first blog post I ever wrote on the cardcommunications blog. I find it hilariously awesome that it was about short concise writing–no wonder I would eventually become such a Twitter junkie. See that fun insight?

Photo Credit: Hauptillusionator via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Hauptillusionator via Compfight cc

Be better by being less busy

Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: TheeErin via Compfight cc

The past year and a bit has been a blur. This period started out a few months leading up to my wedding where I was working crazy hours and trying to plan a wedding, all the while balancing out copious volunteer commitments and whatever bit of a social life I could squeeze out of it.

Then I got married and things just got crazier. I made a snap decision to quit my job two weeks before the wedding  to move to another agency that was similar but just a better fit personally. Right after my honeymoon I started my new job, and then two weeks after that I became the president of IABC Ottawa. While I had trimmed down some of my volunteer commitments, I still hung on to a few others, I still took on speaking opportunities (more than ever, in fact), I still felt guilty about not writing my blog regularly… And did I mention that agency work is naturally demanding?

A real addiction

The truth is I got addicted to busy. I had to be busy. If I wasn’t on the verge of a mental breakdown I just wasn’t getting enough done! It’s a rush and when things work out you feel exhilarated and a great sense of accomplishment.

At what cost though? Attention to detail (something I used to pride myself on!), organization skills, falling behind on trends, relationships (fortunately my husband is the same way, but definitely was straining on friendships and family)… The list goes on. However, more than anything else, it hinders your ability to have great ideas.

I didn’t realize in the thick of it (too busy, obviously), but without taking time to free your mind and de-clutter your life, it becomes really difficult to have good ideas and impossible to have great ideas. Also when you’re suffering from acute busy-ness, it becomes very difficult to see the forest from the trees and you lose an important sense of strategic oversight.

What is the cure?

I realized the error in my ways due to a crippling injury. After dislocating my knee at the CHEO BBQ this past June, I had no choice but to relax. I slowed down because of the physical limitation, but also because my mood was down. I hate feeling useless and dependent and so I shut down and started operating on a bare minimum basis. I watched a lot of TV and slept a lot. I still worked but had to rely on others to drive me to work which means I worked a normal 9-5 day. I missed events, re-scheduled any off-site meetings and spent my evenings at home.

And what happened next?

Because it was already non-refundable booked, I went to the IABC World Conference in New York three weeks after my injury. I took the time to read all the session description in advance and planned on attending the ones I was really interested. I studied the attendee list to determine anyone I really wanted to make a point to meet or see. The outcome was a really amazing conference experience that left me inspired and brimming with ideas. I even stayed up until 2 am one night drafting pieces of blog posts for future use. While I’ve been to numerous conference the last few years, it’s been a long time since I felt that way coming out of one.

And in virtually every other area of my life I had a similar epiphany. Taking the time to think through what you are doing means you will inevitably do a better job of it. Although I’m doing less I’m feeling generally more productive and assured that when I start something I’m committed to finishing it with an appropriate amount of effort.

Am I cured? It’s hard to say at this point. My challenge the next few months will be saying ‘no’ to new opportunities that I may want to participate in but that will take up too much of my time. Are you drowning in busy? What’s your best tip for coping?

LinkedIn Skill Endorsements: Flattery or faulty?

One of the best features of Linkedin has always been the ability to publicly recommend a colleague or connection. It’s like a resume reference who’s posting the reference check publicly for everyone to see (with your consent of course). Yes there may be some questionable reciprocal recommendations floating around, but for the most part, it takes time and effort to craft a worthy recommendation and since it’s public–your own reputation is potentially on the line if someone finds it to be false.

Almost a year ago (September 2012) LinkedIn rolled out a new feature ‘Skill Endorsements’, this is the “Lite” version of recommendations. If you don’t have time or feel fully comfortable personally recommending someone, you can endorse a few of their skills.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

You can always find two sides of a story: the positive is that skill endorsements are a great way to assess someone’s stated skills (if someone says they are an expert at something, but it’s not endorsed by their connections, you might question that expertise..). It validates anything someone states in his or her profile.

The bad part? Well a lowered barrier to entry means an overall reduction in quality endorsements. Recently I received six endorsements for ‘Creative Direction’ and while I was certainly flattered by the gesture, my creative director at work would probably die laughing if he noticed that (I wouldn’t blame him either).

And for that I don’t blame my connections who endorsed me for it–because I think probably it’s LinkedIn’s algorithm at fault. They probably received a blue box that said “Would you endorse Kelly Rusk for these skills?” And maybe the first 2 or 3 were relevant and they just hit accept for the whole lot.

I think the skill endorsement feature will stick around because LinkedIn is really pushing it at every opportunity. However, I think that tactic is also reducing its effectiveness (as per my example above).

What are skill endorsements REALLY good for?

The single most valuable application of this feature is not how others will perceive you as a result of your skill endorsements… It’s for your own benefit. Only your first degree connections can endorse your skills, so if you’ve focused on using LinkedIn to build a quality network, these are people who know you personally. And you understand the level of relationship you have with each of these people so you can use your own endorsements to paint a picture of how your first connections perceive you.

Are you being recognized for your strengths? Are you endorsed for skills you feel you excel at? Does it cover your experience and align with the wording in your profile? Are you receiving endorsements for people you’ve worked closely with?

If the answer to any of these questions is no–then it’s time to look inward and reflect on what you are doing and how you are putting yourself out there. Using the endorsements to improve yourself makes the feature one of the most valuable features of LinkedIn.

 And the icing on the cake?

Want to reconnect with someone in your network but not sure how to approach them out of the blue? Why not visit his or her profile and endorse a few skills you know to be relevant? It’s a passive engagement but he or she will receive an email about it and it might be a perfect primer for a long-overdue follow up email. Or perhaps someone you really want to strengthen your relationship with endorses your skills first? Why not send a nice thank you email and perhaps suggest a coffee outing? The skill endorsement can be a great professional door opener (or perhaps unlock-er?) to stay in touch.

How to get more skill endorsements from your connections

There are two methods to increasing your skill endorsements: ask and pay it forward. Personally I’m a little shy/timid about asking connections to endorse me–however I have been asked and do appreciate the reminder from those I’ve enjoyed working with but maybe didn’t immediately think to endorse. Be sure when asking to do so personally (not send out a blanket request to your connections) and only ask those who you are confident would be happy to endorse you.

Secondly you can pay it forward–I find this to be a really effective and interesting method. If you take the time to go through your connections and endorse some of your connections (and for your own reputation, please do so strategically and honestly!) LinkedIn will reward you by suggesting to your connections that they endorse you.

What do you think? Do you dig the skill endorsements? Do you question its validity? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

From World Conference: Your brand in permanent beta

Recently, I attended the 2013 IABC World Conference in New York City. This annual conference attracts 1400+ communicators from all corners of the globe and features leading thinkers, business leaders and some of the most prominent brands in the world. One session I really enjoyed was the general session: Taking the pulse of the new generation: Communicating effectively with Millennials. Frankly, as someone who sometimes fits into the definition of this generation, I did not go expecting to learn much.  However, I was completely surprised by the smart, insightful and interesting discussion by panellists, including Sandra Lopez of Intel,Nick Shore of MTV and Michael Lewis of Teach for America. The panel was moderated by Jake Katz, of YPulse.

Anyway, I’m not going to go into the session in detail, instead I want to highlight one insight, which, I think as this generation grows and develops into business leaders, is something we’ll start to see more and more of in a business context. One of the panellists described how millenials “live their lives in permanent beta.” Particularly because life streaming is the way they grew up, publishing and presenting their image is not a matter of drafts, approvals, revisions then launch—it’s updated, in real-time and subject to feedback loops along the way from a much broader perspective.

Read the rest of this post on the Banfield blog… 

Report from the IABC World Conference in NYC

It was Tuesday night—close to midnight and for the first time in a really long time I just got that “I NEED to write” moment. It used to happen to me a lot but lately I’ve fallen victim to the over-busy syndrome and nothing has suffered more than my writing—something I used to consider my passion!

But there I was  at the IABC World Conference feeling that rush all over again, finally!  Three days in I was  already getting concerned that I’d probably forgotten half of the really interesting, insightful and useful information that I’ve learned. I’m relieved I got business cards from most of the people I’ve met so that I can go over and hopefully remember some of the fascinating conversations I’ve had.

Like any conference—key themes emerge throughout the presentations. What’s unique about the World Conference is that because of the sheer size—with so many tracks going on and a really diverse set of topics under the communications, you can really make the themes you really want to emerge. Kind of like those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books.

Social Media Panel featuring speakers from Dell, Amnesty International and DIRECTV.
Social Media Panel featuring speakers from Dell, Amnesty International and DIRECTV.

Anyway, rather than write about any of the wonderful sessions I sat in on (and I hope that I will do that later) I wanted to write to express three of the themes that really stood out to me and that really excite me about the whole experience. These themes include building strong connections (trust and reputation), The “I” in IABC (International perspective), and strong leadership that embraces communications

Over the next few weeks I will cover a few of these themes and relate it to my personal experience at the conference.

Stay tuned!

Living the long weekend in a new Ford

We decided to buy a new car. While I love my Avenger, it’s a big honkin’ thing and not the most practical for ‘booting around’ downtown as we often use it for. Case in point, the various bumps and scratches that mostly resulted from me trying to back out of our narrow lane way sans coffee. Oops.

So we want something small, but stylish. Practical but fun. We’re both geeks so of course we want some cool technology built in too…

Having previously worked with Ford Canada through Thornley Fallis, a Ford was our first choice. I’m a big fan of the My Ford Touch system, as well as lot of the cool bells and whistles (many that come standard!) in a new Ford.

My first car buying experience was a bad one. They got me in and excited about this “great deal” (which it was to start…) and then loaded me up with all these hidden extras that amounted to me paying way more than I had realized. I had strolled in to test drive a car with no intention of buying that day. I ended up paying almost double what I thought I was paying… I must have had “sucker” written across my forehead. (Lesson learned: do lots of research BEFORE you ever step foot in a dealership. Knowledge is power, friends!)

So I definitely have my back up this time. We went in and looked at some cars and one that really intrigued us was the new CMAX–this is Ford’s new Hybrid that’s compact and affordable. The CMAX is new to North America, but is already popular in the UK–a great blend of ‘tried and true’ mixed with the excitement of something new:

Image provided by Ford Canada
Image provided by Ford Canada

Despite the sales guy leading with “it’s a great family car” (Ya, no thanks, we’re not there yet!) We really liked this car. And thanks to Thornley Fallis–we got to take it out for the long weekend and really give it a spin.

It also came in handy because following the IABC Ottawa Excel Awards, two board members (Simon Chen and Carolyn Miyazaki) and I drove around town to deliver “LUNCH baskets:” to some of our sponsors–courtesy of LUNCH.

We also drove it up to Sharbot Lake for the annual Seed to Sausage ‘Day of the Pig’ party. Between that, driving around town, and to the cottage and back, we didn’t even go through a full tank of gas (very impressive considering our current gas guzzler).

My favourite feature is the bumper sensing system that beeps when you are close to something, and the rearview camera. Contrary to what my husband might say, I am actually a very good driver but I am wary about space directly around the car and getting in and out of tight spots. Can you blame me really? I’ve been in a big car with terrible blind spots the last few years!

We loved the CMAX so much that when we dropped it off at the dealership–I was quite sure we were going to walk out of there as proud new owners. While it was certainly a better experience than my prior one–the cost proved to be just too much out of our price range.

So we haven’t bought a new car yet. I hope we can swing a great deal on a CMAX but in the meantime we’re going to look at some other options. I was hoping for a happier ending to this blog post but I’ll still say the CMAX is a great car, for a great price (especially for a Hybrid!)

My Ford Touch - with built in nav system
My Ford Touch – with built in nav system
Decent trunk space