Of all the labels hung on communicators, one of the most desirable is "world class." Originally used to describe athletes capable of performing at an international level of competition, today it has a broader connotation. Thinking back to flips, sprints, and the ability to stay afloat, this adjective seems perfect for top communicators.
Many claim to be world class. A quick Google search turns up hundreds of references where "world class" is proclaimed. One person has a blog where he eloquently rails against overuse of the term and recounts how his company used, to good effect, an alternate position in match-ups with competitors: "We suck less."
That slogan might be questionable, but the point is relevant. Using "world class" to describe oneself carries no weight. It is only real when it's externally judged and internally driven. It's also selective. To be world class, others in the category have to be measurably lower.
Not everyone aspires to professional greatness, but nobody gets revved up in the morning thinking, "I want to be stuck in the pack." A number of senior communicators, who I list below, offered their views on what it takes to be world class in this business:
1. Top communicators must consistently under-promise and over-deliver, recognizing that whatever is initially proposed must still meet stakeholder needs; 2. Have a deeper understanding than your peers of the views of stakeholders and incorporate it into plans; 3. Take "no" like a vitamin. Let it feed determination, not stop the action. 4. Inject fun and joy into the job. That will motivate everyone around you.
If this were a top-five list, the number one answer would be: Don't be afraid to disrupt the status quo. Challenging orthodoxy adds an element of discomfort and creative tension. It can also bring out innovative ideas that don't have to be big to be effective. Senior executives like a great collection of small ideas. Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison provides this advice: "As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think."
To be world class, you have to experience it. Take new sides, embrace (most) challenges, and ask for opportunities. This is my last column, for awhile at least. It has been a wonderful, world-class experience. This week's column has input from pros, including Caroline Hempstead and Judith Everett at AstraZeneca, Eileen Marcus with Fleishman-Hillard, Julianna Richter from Edelman, media consultant and strategist Steve McMahon, and Seth Greenwald at Ernst & Young.
I'd like to thank everyone who provided feedback and/or quotes, wrote the books I studied, and shared their ideas with me.
Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca.