which direction?

How highly do you rate the ability to take direction as part of the client covenant?

After all, as communication strategists, often we’re not the ones following but giving direction. To our clients, to our teams, to the people we supervise (sometimes they are cross-functional teams within the same organization, sometimes they span organizations).

The whole thing about being a team player, and “there is no I in team”… yea, well, that’s a phrase we all pay lip service to, but I think most of us would rather be leading the team as opposed to letting someone else do it. If we’re really being honest.

Image: unsure shot via Flickr, CC 2.0

Student lessons

I’ve been teaching at Johns Hopkins University for some years now; this is my fifth, as a matter of fact. (Remind me, sometime, to tell you the story of how I got the gig; it’s almost as good as the story of how I met my husband.)

One of the things I have to drill into my students’ heads – and these are grad students, mind you – is the importance of following the directions I give them. That is, if I say something needs to be done a certain way, then they need to do it that way.

To use one of our favorite clichéd PR phrases, this isn’t rocket science, right? Yet you’d be surprised at the number who start out the class not paying attention, not following direction … and then getting upset when they don’t get as many points as they expect.

For example:

  • I create extremely detailed rubrics for all the assignments I grade (and their final paper). If they don’t follow the rubrics – particularly in how they structure their papers, and what information needs to go where – they don’t get the full points possible for each section.
  • If they don’t post to the discussion forum, at least the required number of times, and by the posting deadline… they don’t get the full points possible for the discussion forum.
  • If they submit their papers late, they lose points (how many depends on how late they submit it), especially if they haven’t given me a heads up that they might be going through some kind of crisis/unforeseen emergency (because if they are, and it seems valid enough, I try to accommodate them).

All this is clearly outlined in the syllabus, I take pains to go over it when we first meet, but yet… they don’t follow direction.

“Well, that’s students for you.”

Perhaps. And perhaps the fact that they are graduate students – some of whom are running their own businesses (like me), and some of whom, in their day jobs, are instructing the drummer as opposed to falling in line – has something to do with it. That they are used to doing things their way, and they don’t see a reason to change.

Which is all well and good, except that by enrolling in the program, they are entering into a covenant with the university and its faculty: to learn from them. To be instructed. Which means they must actually take instruction.

Getting sorted out

Typically – at least in my class – it takes just a couple of classes for them to realize they can’t continue to march to their own beat.

Which is good, because while I’m strict, I’m strict for a reason; to try and help the students learn something that will be of value to them once they graduate from the program.

Enter the business world

Just think, though. In the business world, how well does it go over if we refuse to follow certain formats when instructed to do so… especially by clients?

“No, I don’t think I’ll fill out the form in that way. I’d rather do it my way.”

“I don’t care if the client’s budget is _______, my proposed plan and budget will be twice that. Because they don’t know what they’re missing out on.”

“They want a report in what format? That’s crazy!”

We’ve all had these moments. We will probably continue to have them. Sometimes the frustration is justified; after all, clients do hire us because we are supposed to be the “experts.” And it’s frustrating when they don’t take our advice, which can happen often.

But the one thing that I’m trying to do more of is not just hear my clients, but truly listen to where they’re coming from.

So what if they want a report in a format that’s a little more cumbersome than I’d like? Is there, perhaps, a reason for that… that it makes their life easier in some way?

So what if they shot down that uber-cool idea for the eighth time? Do they maybe know that they just don’t have the budget for it, and want to stay focused on what they do have the budget for?

The client covenant

When you and I sign agreements with clients, we too enter into a covenant with them; that if we can help make their life easier, we should. Because that is, in part, why they hire us.

Sure, they hire us for our strategic smarts, and creativity, and perhaps a number of other reasons… but also because they think we’ll work well with them. That we’ll be good partners and team players – which means taking direction when needed – and, ultimately, help them do a great job.

So every time I have the urge to tear my hair out at what I may consider a silly request, I remind myself of what it’s like to be me, with my students, who don’t follow direction.

And that straightens me out.