Tag Archives: communications practitioner

having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen and to be vulnerable. And that's freaking scary.

The scary thing that makes a good workplace great

A little while back I wrote about the one thing that can make a good workplace great, the tolerance for taking risks and making mistakes.

If I were to pick another Big Scary Audacious Goal (which is a more unfortunate acronym than Big Hairy Audacious Goal..?), it would be the ability to have difficult conversations. Even more than tolerating mistakes, this is by far the most difficult skill I’ve had to work on in my career, and I’m not even close to perfection.

having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen and to be vulnerable. And that's freaking scary. Screwing up the courage to face a difficult situation head-on by having a tough conversation is something that could make any relationship go either way: it can lead to working better and becoming closer to the other person, or it could lead to a separation (if you’re lucky, a separation that leaves both people with positive feelings towards each other).

Having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen, and to be vulnerable.

And that’s freaking scary.

In fact, both these shifts that can change a workplace culture into a great one have that one thing in common: a willingness to show vulnerability.

I believe the more people talk about those difficult conversations they’ve had, the more acceptable it will be to have more of them. And I believe it’s the role of communication professionals to encourage more intentional, face-to-face communication skills among those we advise. The most useful professional development event I attended last spring was from IABC-BC — Speak Up: Important Conversations. All the speakers were amazing, but Tracey Wimperly’s talk really resonated with me:

“We do business with people, not entities…Conversation between people is where the magic happens … We are coaches and convenors of conscious interpersonal communications … Talking points are great for content, but do our leaders know how to really listen? Do they demonstrate empathy? The soft skills are really the hard stuff … Are our leaders comfortable with the soft skills?” – Tracey Wimperly

People, particularly those in leadership positions, need to signal loud and clear that they are open to having the difficult conversations, by their words and their actions. They need to be vulnerable in order to encourage their employees to feel supported enough to take risks and contribute the whole of their talents and skills.

I was reminded of that again when I listened to Brett Gajda’s podcast, Where There’s Smoke; the episode Be Seen (Vulnerability), with Bobby Umar. Brett practices what he preaches – my partner and I saw him speak at an event the other night, and I envy the people who get to work with him. In the Be Seen episode he gives an example that is so raw and compelling, I choked up thinking of similar examples from my own career.

Here’s one leader who also certainly fits the bill: Dan Pontrefact (you lucky Telus employees, having him on your leadership team!), who has embraced the Working Out Loud movement (Yay!) and wrote a pretty raw piece on why his next book is postponed.

In fact, if I’m ever asked again in an interview what I consider my biggest weakness, I’d probably have to be honest and say: “I find it extraordinarily stressful to have the difficult conversations that must sometimes happen in a professional situation. And I’m working hard on getting better at it, because if you can have difficult conversations where the other person feels valued and respected, even if you have to part ways in the end, you have a stronger relationship because of it.”

Here’s Tracey’s entire talk. It’s well worth eight minutes of your time, especially if you are, like me, a communications professional:


Surveying would-be students

Since I’ve been with BCcampus we haven’t focused much on post-secondary students as an audience. The primary audience for our communications efforts is made up of representatives from post-secondary institutions themselves. After all, it’s the presidents, vice-presidents academic, directors of information technology, registrars, people at centres for teaching and learning technologies who we deal with regularly. They’re the ones we have to persuade that working with BCcampus is cost-effective and provides better service to students and faculty. Students are attached to their university or college, and therefore are a secondary audience for us.

That being said, many of our services are student-facing: ApplyBC.ca, the provincial application service; CoursesBC.ca, an online course directory, MyCreditsBC.ca, a new service that provides unofficial electronic transcripts for students of eight institutions. Not only that but students also use the learning management systems, and get their learning experience from faculty who use educational technologies. It’s worth getting the student take on the landscape of online student services.

We surveyed student applicants through ApplyBC recently – it was a “toe-dip” – a foray into taking the temperature of our secondary audience. I’ve included a synopsis of the results below; you can find the full report and survey results on the BCcampus wiki.

We are also surveying post-secondary stakeholders, and that report will probably be available later in February.


With this survey BCcampus sought an overview of student’s perceptions and attitudes toward existing online student services. The survey was purposefully short (in order to increase chances for completion) and was meant to complement, rather than replace, detailed user testing of existing tools. The questions were also meant to situate BCcampus services within the landscape of the broader provincial system.

The survey respondents were mostly would-be post-secondary students (not yet accepted into a higher-ed institution). Results indicate:

  • minimal awareness of post-secondary online services in the British Columbia system;
  • fairly strong approval of ApplyBC, the provincial application service;
  • lukewarm support for existing services for post-secondary students in general;
  • strong support for additional and enhanced services in the future.

Response rate:

There were 7,190 applicants using ApplyBC during the survey period. Google Analytics for ApplyBC show 12.64% of visits derived from search traffic and 15.48% derived from direct traffic for the same period.

Thus, approximately 2,013 applicants came from direct or search, and therefore would get the popup invitation to take part in the survey (7,190 * (12.64% + 15.48%) = 2,013).

Of the 2,013 potential respondents, 249 emails were sent as a result of applicants choosing to participate in the survey, approximately 12% of eligible users.

Of those 249 emails sent, 63 completed surveys were collected. However, 79 eligible respondents clicked on the link, leaving 16 incomplete responses. Those 16 were not counted in the survey results described here as there was not enough data gathered from them to make a thorough analysis.

Total participation rate in the survey is approximately 3% (63 / 2013 * 100).


It is possible there is a gap between expectations and the reality of the B.C. post-secondary system that bears further research. It also may indicate the respondents have not thought through what the landscape of post-secondary services for students might look like. This could be a function of the survey design or inexperience, as the overwhelming majority of respondents are not yet post-secondary students.

The survey responses could also indicate that researching and applying to university or college online is such a basic expectation it’s not perceived as a separate “service.” In many ways online services are now perceived the same way electricity or indoor plumbing are perceived: so ubiquitous that their origins and function are unconscious until they break down or disappear.

Today’s post-secondary students expect online services to work without undue delay or complexity. For the most part they do, but the post-secondary system could be providing a better experience overall.


What makes a great co-op work term experience? (Part 1 of 4)

Precis: This is a four-part series on successful co-op work terms. I’ve had the chance to hire and/or supervise several co-op students in my work as a corporate communications practitioner over the past few years. I’m about to complete another four-month term, and once again this was a rich learning experience for both of us.

This time, the administrators of the program at the post-secondary institution asked me to give them an interview. I prepared my responses and have turned them into a four-part series of blog posts directed at students. The first question was:

“Thinking about the co-op students you have hired in the past, what skills, abilities and attitudes have they demonstrated that have encouraged them to have a successful work term?”

So, you’re a student in a communications program looking for a co-op work term placement. How can I tell you’ll be a good hire for my organization?


Writing writing writing! Not only great stories well-told, but examples of your writing using correct spelling and grammar. I’m looking for a nascent wordsmith. You do not have to write masterpieces, but you do have to show some budding talent. Writing as a craft can be honed, but usually there is some innate material to work with.

For those of us who have always aspired to work with words and stories, who write because we simply must, our calling and our passion for the written word shows in everything we write, whether it’s a letter to the editor, a blog entry or a series of Twitter posts. I have had one or two employees who simply did not have “it,” and those are difficult conversations to have, but for the most part, we get into this profession because we simply love to write.


Demonstrate your experience with computer programs, both web-based and print publishing, beyond “I have a Gmail account and use it daily.” Seriously, I have read resumes that list that particular “skill” and I am surprised at the number of second and third-year students who, contrary to pop-culture stereotypes, demonstrate very little computer savvy.

How do you demonstrate your computer savvy-ness?

  • Set up a blog using WordPress or Drupal or some other content management system, and make it look nice. It doesn’t matter what the content is as long as it’s inoffensive to at least 70 per cent of the population.
  • Use it to showcase your passion, talent and skill. It will shine through that skateboarding video you did for the neighbourhood guys or that paper you aced. Did you set up a database in your last job? Great, add a post about that too.
  • Don’t have a blog yet? Start one! But in the meantime, have great examples in a portfolio, including writing samples, screen shots and links to your work.


Be a team player (really, it’s not just a buzz word) while at the same time demonstrating self-reliance.

My most recent hire required the student employee to work from home on a laptop we provided. I was looking for evidence of someone who is highly self-directed, yet conscientious and accountable for results.

I was not disappointed. Jenna hit all her deadlines – in fact she was much more efficient than I had anticipated, finishing well before deadline much of the time – and she made sure to ask me if there was anything else she could do when she ran low on work. She had a lot of questions about how to go about doing her work, which was fine, but she didn’t need constant supervision. She struck the perfect balance between her learning needs and my organization’s need for an extra pair of hands.

Your great attitude will show through if you are a good communicator and have a blog (that you have set up on your own time – added bonus!) or a portfolio to show a potential employer. It will also shine through during your interview, a topic to be covered in a further post.

Upcoming posts in this series:

  • What makes a cover letter and a resume really stand out?
  • What are the benefits of networking?
  • What are the key points to a successful student interview?