Career 20 July 2020
How often in school did you spend time actually learning about the big picture of who you want to be and how to get there? I'm not talking a loose career goal, a major, or a GPA but the actual qualities and characteristics that you want and need to be successful as both a person and a professional. When you walked out of college with your very expensive degree, did you have all the skills that you needed to be truly successful? If you are anything like me, life after college has been a constant experiment in learning about yourself, the world, and how to be truly successful and happy. For the past ten years, this self-development process has been the driving force for all of my decisions. School never gave me the tools to do this; I had to figure it out for myself.
At 21, I rolled out of my dual bachelor's and master's program and right into a classroom of 9-year-olds in one of Connecticut's wealthiest towns. This was my "dream job," but after only a few years, I became restless. I would have much rather spent time with my students developing real life skills like navigating conflict, communicating across differences, and building connections, than teaching them about the westward expansion.
I have come to realize the magnitude of this void that our education system has created.
It took a lot of soul-searching (and therapy) to realize that the unhappiness I was feeling was not just me being a "millennial," but that the work I was doing did not align with the person I wanted to be. As much as I loved teaching and learning, the actual content of what I was teaching these little people was not going to be useful for the world and workforce that they would eventually enter. I realized that K-12 education is so heavily focused on content (much of which is important but some of which is not), that we often didn't have time to focus on other life skills that are so important to students' overall development.
So, I pivoted. I let go of all my fears, my cushy classroom, my two degrees, and the entire life I had built as a successful and well-loved teacher to head to a place I was sure I could have an educational impact: higher education. In my first year out of the classroom, I began deep-diving into the personal and professional development that my two fancy degrees did not provide. Through this work, I was able to begin being more intentional about taking steps to become the version of myself that I had always imagined and, eventually, help students do the same things for themselves.
By day, I run a large undergraduate residence hall, managing a team of 30 student staff members, teaching them how to support and coach college students only slightly younger than themselves. While my title doesn't make you think "educator," I feel like more of a teacher in this role than I ever did as a traditional teacher. I know that my student staff members are learning far more about life and themselves from our work together than they would in a classroom.
As much as I loved teaching and learning, the actual content of what I was teaching these little people was not going to be useful for the world and workforce that they would eventually enter.
My most impactful days are those in which one of my students walks into my office, eyes full of tears, and releases all their stress and tension. We talk about what's on their mind, and we build a plan together to help them navigate whatever is happening that day. More importantly, we work on strategies to set them up for success next time a similar problem arises. Nothing is better than when they walk back into my office a few days later to share what part of the plan worked for them and what didn't.
Each day my student staff members are navigating conflict, solving problems, communicating across differences, building connections, making mistakes, and learning so much about themselves and others. They are often put in situations that they may not be fully ready for, but, with my support, they are able to manage these situations successfully and learn so much in doing so. When I started to think about this deeply, I realized how much sense this all made. Learning is the ability to make sense of things, and this happens best through experiential learning. Even more importantly, to learn fully we must have context to connect the new information to. My students are able to make these connections through the context of their job. However, in the classroom, this is so much harder because our students are simply not provided with the experiences to make these necessary connections.
This is the problem with education today. We are unable to provide significant learning opportunities to students because of the system we have inadvertently created. We are providing no time or space in the classroom for experiential learning, where students can develop tools to support their continued growth after college. This leaves us to fill in so many gaps on our own as adults, now without the resources or time to spend intentionally enriching ourselves and often with significant student loans weighing us down each month.
Learning is the ability to make sense of things, and this happens best through experiential learning. Even more importantly, to learn fully we must have context to connect the new information to.
When I was walking out of that cushy Connecticut classroom, I didn't completely know what I was looking for, I just knew that wasn't it. Most people in my life thought I was making a huge mistake, but making that decision was exactly what I needed to begin the journey of discovering what "it" was for me. Working with my student staff members on their personal development made me realize that this was really the type of teaching that I dreamed of. It's more than just facts and figures, it's life. I actually have a chance to profoundly impact these students by helping them build skills that will help them be the person that they want to be.
Through this experience, I was driven to make an impact on the academic side of higher education, and in my spare time, I work as an adjunct faculty member at two institutions in their education departments. As a teacher myself, there is nothing more humbling and incredible than educating future educators. In this role, I get to practice what I preach and provide my students with both context and content, and, most importantly, I provide time for my students to reflect and develop as people and teachers.
It's more than just facts and figures, it's life.
As I am sure you might have predicted, I recently began to feel restless again. This time, not because I was unhappy with the work I am doing, but because I have come to realize the magnitude of this void that our education system has created. As someone who has been involved in the teaching system from elementary school through college, I've had an inside view of what we are not teaching our students, especially women. Through this restlessness, I have realigned my vision of the person that I want to be: someone who is invested in helping women build skills that our education system was (and still is) unable to teach them.
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4 Min Read
From Facebook ad boycotts, alignment with #BlackLivesMatter, to ditching names like Aunt Jemima: social activism is the latest must-have for brands. Should you jump on the bandwagon? And how do you make the shift without getting labeled as inauthentic, especially if your brand has never talked about these issues before?
Now is the time to speak up, but brand activism is a significant strategic shift, not just a one-time change in temporary tactics. You need to address and master that realignment so you're not fast to fail in this emerging space. Even more importantly, by doing brand activism right, we as marketers have a chance at helping achieve lasting change from these times of upheaval.
Agile ways of working have often led to exerting the majority of our planning energies at the moment of maximum ignorance. We create perfect strategy documents that assume nothing will change for months, or even years, as we go about our business and get work done.
That's almost never true in the world of marketing, but it's even less true than usual in 2020.
Now is the time to speak up, but brand activism is a significant strategic shift, not just a one-time change in temporary tactics.
Fortunately the agile mindset, and the frameworks that help us put it into practice, offer an alternative way towards meaningful brand activism that allows us to make a lasting connection with the causes that resonate with both our brands and our customers.
Agile Marketers Still Need a Strategy
I once read an article discussing agile marketing which asked: "Can you plan to be agile? Isn't that cheating?" There's a strangely persistent myth that being agile means you react to what's going on around you in real time, irrespective of any plan or strategy.
That's not only inaccurate, it's a terrible idea for marketers who are expected to be stewards of brand health over the long term. The bottom line is that strategy matters even when you're responding to sudden change. When it comes to brand activism, the most important first step is to know — really know — your brand. Then, as cultural moments emerge, investigate how the two align.
If there's a meaningful reason for your brand to join that conversation, it's time to determine what the acceptable variances are from your existing messaging. How much can you change without totally sacrificing work already in progress (more on this in the next section)?
When it comes to brand activism, the most important first step is to know — really know — your brand.
Once you're comfortable with the degree of change, respond as soon as possible. Embrace the idea of a minimum viable campaign — the smallest amount of work that could still achieve your goals — and get it in front of your audience. Then expand and iterate over time.
Balance Agility and Stability
As you debate the desirable degree of change, remember that work left undone is a form of waste. There's high value in finishing what you've started before jumping to something entirely new.
When possible, complete your current work before pivoting everything to a brand activism campaign. Look for ways to make slight, incremental adjustments to your marketing plans, rather than diving in to take on every imaginable new initiative right away.
Strong organizational values should ideally already underpin much of your marketing work, which means there should be clear intersections between cultural movements that you need to participate in and your current marketing activities.
Rapid response times matter, but we won't help our brands in the long term if our marketing strategy becomes nothing but a series of pivots.
Learn, Iterate, and Improve
If you begin from your core organizational values and go to market with a minimum viable campaign, you can rely on a Feedback loop with your customers and audience to hone your messaging over time. As you start to feed out new messaging, gauge reactions and outcomes. See what's working and what's not. Get better as you go.
This kind of continual iteration can be enormously powerful, but it only works if we begin from the minimum viable starting point. When we draft a complete, fully formed campaign and put it all out simultaneously (an approach known in the agile world as "Big Bang"), we have too much invested to easily adjust.
Once a cake is fully baked we can't add more sugar or less baking powder.
If social justice really matters to your organization and needs to be reflected in your brand perception, the shift to brand activism must be permanent and ongoing.
But if we deliver a cupcake — still tasty and enjoyable, but smaller — we have the opportunity to tweak the recipe so each new offering is a little better.
Commit for the Long Term
Lastly, don't think of brand activism as something to adopt for a quarter and then abandon. If social justice really matters to your organization and needs to be reflected in your brand perception, the shift to brand activism must be permanent and ongoing.
Make it a real commitment, then take the time to consider what this holistic adjustment will mean for the way you go to market. Will it mean abandoning certain advertising channels permanently? Are there aspects of your messaging that could use updating? How can you support education and lasting change with the platform available to your brand?
Be thoughtful and genuine, taking time to consider carefully and listen openly to the reactions you receive. Too often we stop thinking and acting like real people when we have our marketer hats on, but the same respectful intentionality that we should exhibit as individuals should inform our brand marketing efforts.
Find a Meaningful Intersection and Iterate Toward It
If you haven't already, take the time to really consider your organizational and brand values, and how they fit with the current social justice movements. Look for an authentic intersection, and begin a steady, iterative march toward it. Deliver valuable marketing collateral as often as possible, then listen to feedback and adjust as needed.
Once you arrive at the intersection between your brand and activism, sit down and stay a while. Explore the impact you can have through long term strategic change, not just one time opportunistic tactics. This position, not just a one-day use of a particular hashtag, is where brands and their marketers can be part of the solution.