Why sink or swim when you can play?

Casilda Malagon and Stephen Welch

Astronauts do it.

Air Force pilots do it.

Children with their toys do it.

Let’s do it.

Let’s simulate.

We have taken a little creative freedom with Cole Porter’s lyrics about falling in love to make a point: communicators need creative learning methods to help us navigate the new—sometimes uneven—professional paths.

As we progress in our communication careers, most of us come to a point where we move ahead—or not—by doing and succeeding or by doing and failing. Once you become a technical expert in your field, the next step for you might be to become a strategic adviser to leadership and then, become a business leader in your own right. The real consiglieri know that the skills needed to become the best adviser you can be cannot be learned by maps alone: It is not a linear road, and although many have navigated it before and learned to surmount the obstacles in their way, very few leave breadcrumbs for those coming behind them.

When it comes to giving advice and leadership, most communication professionals are left to their own devices and their ability to watch and learn, sink or swim, succeed or fail. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Picture this: A seasoned communication expert—let’s call her Carmen—is promoted to the executive team of her company, mostly due to her hard work, talent and knack for delivering complex projects on time and on budget. Carmen knows that what got her a seat at the table will not be enough to help her succeed in her new role. As a leader she must learn to advise and influence more, while actually doing a lot less. Carmen is smart, she buys, The First 90 Days, consults her mentor, studies the company’s business model and strategy documents, speaks to other communication leaders through the IABC network and makes a plan of her priorities. But she knows, in her gut, that once she steps into the boardroom she will learn by fire.

The problem is that offering advice, speaking truth to power and influencing decision-making teams requires Carmen to bring together a group of very specific skills and understand when they are most effective. It is all about intent and timing. How can you teach that? You can’t. Not really. One has to live through it, to learn it.

But in the C-suite, lessons can be risky and mistakes can be expensive. So we looked at our alternatives. The answer, to our surprise, was right in front of our noses. If leadership is learned by experience, let’s bring the experience to Carmen before she goes into the room.

There is nothing revolutionary about this idea. Would you get on a plane with a pilot that hasn’t successfully landed lots and lots of planes in simulation? Would you let a surgeon who had never used a scalpel take out your appendix? In high school, many of us took part in school elections, Model United Nations, or Mock Court. In communication, many of us have prepared organizations to respond to crisis through simulations, stress testing a team’s response to media and organizational pressures. It works. We know it.

Teaching specialists think these types of methodologies—from role playing to simulating and gaming—encourage deep learning and make students use the creative thinking part of their brain. They are particularly useful to teach the ability to react to complex, multi-variable situations where decision-making can lead to multiple positive outcomes. Doesn’t that sound like a normal business day?

Take Carmen again. In our experience, the real question is not why use simulation to prepare her and the next crop of communication leaders, but why not? Yet, that’s not quite the full picture. In our quest to discover the perfect training model, we realized it has to be fun.

Make them laugh, make them laugh, make them laugh.

Let’s do an experiment. Bear with us. Read the next sentence and then close your eyes for five seconds.

Remember the smell of a batch of freshly baked cookies coming out of the oven.

If you did close your eyes and you have experienced the joy of someone baking delicious things for you, chances are you are smiling now. Chances are your brain has produced dopamine, the hormone that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Neuroscientists know that a happy brain, a dopamine-infused brain, learns better. Learns for longer.

Now that we have primed your brain with a little bit of joy, by connecting you to the olfactory happy memory of cookies, you might be more able to finish reading this article and remember it. That is what neuroscientists tell us.

But let’s get back to Carmen. We have posited that in her move from technical expert to strategic adviser and then business leader:

  • She needs different skills than the ones that got her to the executive team.
  • It is more useful for her to learn those skills through experience.
  • The more fun she has the more she can learn for the longer term.

These three principles are easy to take with you as you face a new stage in your career or as you guide your communication team through the next wave of challenges. Take some time to “practice” how you will react in a new environment, get someone to give you feedback and make it fun.

If you want to get some new skills, learn them through experience, and have some fun (and help your career) then come and play with Stephen Welch and Casilda Malagon and experience the business simulation for yourself at the Strategic Adviser Forum: Corporate Snakes and Ladders, at the IABC World Conference, happening 3–6 June 2018. Register today

If you want to meet Carmen, follow her on Twitter—she will be giving clues ahead of the forum to help you win.

About the authors

Casilda Malagon  is an expert in sustainability and communication, now leading external SD reporting at a FTSE 100 company. Malagon was previously dedicated to development, sustainability and stakeholder relations at organizations like the International Council on Mining and Metals, the United Nations, the World Bank and USAID. She is the co-creator of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders and a digital native and developer of the first model to measure interactivity and public discourse in online campaigns.

Stephen Welch is a communication, human resource, and change professional who with strong skills in consulting, leadership development and research. Welch is also experienced in marketing, mentoring and developing business simulations. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and the Market Research Society.


Author: carmenspinoza

Carmen Spinoza is Globocorp’s Communication Director – a virtual character in a make-believe multinational company. She and the other members of the Globocorp Executive Team are part of the simulation that helps you explore high level business issues.

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