A Call for Courage and Ambition by Janet Hitchen and Mike Klein

Change brings opportunity. And COVID-19 has brought nothing if not dramatic changes to the world of work that no one was anticipating or particularly ready for. 

To make the most of these changes, it’s time for Internal Communication professionals to take a hard look at what it would take to really drive the profession – and those we serve – forward. 

Courage and ambition are required – but in our view these are not simply moral and spiritual qualities reserved for the best of us. They are actionable and practical frameworks available to all.

What is courage? 

  • Courage is bravery – the willingness to see what is safe and predictable and to go beyond.
  • Courage dares to speak – even without knowing where that speech will land.
  • Courage innovates.
  • Courage dares to fail.
  • Courage is revolution not evolution. 
  • Courage receives and accepts feedback and learns.

Courage is big — big ideas, big opportunities and being the bigger person. It’s the “going big” part of “go big or go home.”

What is ambition?

Some see ambition as a dirty word, they see it as ruthless or as an equivalent to greed. We don’t see it like that. Ambition is wanting to achieve and succeed at something and to do it over time if required. 

  • Ambition wants to have a voice.
  • Ambition wants to have an impact.
  • Ambition wants to make things happen.
  • Ambition wants to leave its dent in the universe.
  • Ambition wants to influence, lead, and inspire.

A powerful combination.

It’s the combination of ambition and courage that gives us the power to make positive change. Alone these two virtues may fall short.

  • Ambition without courage = selling out, frustration, following not leading.
  • Courage without ambition = directionless and purposeless disruption.

Courage provides the bravery, and ambition provides the direction as we forge ahead in the post Covid world.

The seat at the table.  

We have seen people get seats at the table only to falter. Ambition has got them to the table and they now need even more courage. 

Those who faltered tended to think the seat was the destination. Nope. 

It’s better to think of it like completing one level and gaining entry to the next. There’s a new game with new opportunities, new easter eggs and new trick shots needed to successfully navigate. 

This requires a fresh dose of courage and ambition. It’s never finished, ever. Courage isn’t a one off thing, you have to constantly work at it, adapting and evolving as the game shifts and you find you need new skills and strategies to stay relevant. This underscores the importance of lifelong learning, a growth mindset and continued courage and ambition. 

The Abilene Effect

In a previous role, Janet was invited to the table. “I was the newbie, my role was newly created and I was ambitiously forging my way. Most of the others at the table had had their roles for years. 

“At one meeting, I sat and listened as the COO announced that he was going to close down Internet access for employees as he thought it was adversely affecting productivity. I was stunned. No-one said anything… I was even more stunned.

“I had expected a discussion but no-one spoke up… so I did. 

“I explained why I thought this was counterproductive without even mentioning that our intranet would die. 

I was terrified but I had to say something and that opened the debate. A couple of allies joined me in my defense.

“It took courage and it took ambition. 

“Courage to be the most junior, youngest, only woman at the table to speak up. 

And ambition to want the function I was creating to succeed. I believed our employees deserved to be informed, connected and inspired; internet access was essential to the success of this ambition.”

What’s the opposite of courage? 

Fear.  

Fear leads to stagnation, the status quo and stalled innovation. It also leads to the acceptance of mediocrity and the prioritization of survival over success.

But it often stems from not feeling one has an alternative. So this simple framework combining courage and ambition could help you move from the sidelines and onto the field at the time when your moment is at hand.

  1. Recognize your situation and it’s constraints. Write them down. Map them out.
  2. Look at the situation and think about what’s still possible if you accept all the constraints. Make notes. 
  3. Look at what’s possible if you can change one or more constraints. What possibilities open up?
  4. Come up with ideas – tangible but flexible. Scope them out. 
  5. Talk about them with people you respect to stress test them and get honest feedback. Iterate your ideas.
  6. Seek permission where needed
  7. Act. Review. Iterate. 
  8. Seek forgiveness where necessary.

Any one of us can do this. It’s time to “screw your courage to the sticking place”.

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Janet is an Internal Communication Leader with 16 years experience in Finance, Tech and Retail. She has worked in complex international organisations and for the world’s most admired brand. She now runs her Internal Communication consultancy Janco. She loves figuring out how to balance the commercial and human in Internal Communication and is driven by the belief that community is everything. 

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms (www.changingtheterms.com) and Senior Advisor to Smarp Strategic Services (www.smarp.com). Mike has been actively promoting the role of communication professionals as leaders and advocates through IABC and other organizations, and is an MBA graduate of London Business School.

Janet and Mike are two of the six co-founders of IC Beyond.

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KEVIN: This is a, quite literally, a courageous and ambitious piece. I love it!

It takes courage to put out a call like this to a whole bunch of people as it is asking them to think, and act, differently. Internal communication has been a little too ‘safe and predictable’ for a while now. It’s relatively easy (though not without challenges) to pump out messages that senior managers want you to communicate. It’s very easy, and comfortable, to fall back into changing ‘it’s’ to ‘it is’ and so on in the copy for a briefing, rather than focus on the right way to communicate a major change. 

Internal communication people are wonderful human beings. However, they are often under-valued and so I do think they could be more ambitious, both for themselves and for what they do for the organisation (and for employees). The opportunity is there. Right now, with the renewed attention on keeping employees informed and listening to their concerns around Covid-19. Another opportunity is also coming very soon with automation and AI. The question is, are internal communication people ready and willing to take these opportunities? If they are, how can the wider ‘comms community’ provide the right support to make it happen?

JANET: If we’re going to talk about courage and ambition we have to have some ourselves, right. I hope this gives encouragement, is seen as a rallying cry and supports those who may think courage and ambition are big, scary words. If you want more, if you want a “seat at the table” and so many have been saying this for years, then something has to change. Otherwise the path leads to frustration.

BELINDA: What a fascinating piece – big ideas, simply expressed with practical actions attached. Couldn’t agree more that courage is something you have to work at. It’s a constant effort and requires attention and energy. So, as well as learning and a growth mindset, I would also suggest some self-kindness. You’re not going to succeed every time, no matter how courageous you are. And that’s ok. Regroup, reflect and try again. 

I’m not sure I agree that fear is the opposite of courage. I think you can have fear and be fearful, but still be courageous. In fact, tackling something that makes you fearful is perhaps the epitome of courage. Like Jan’s example, in fact. I was recently reading my diary from my son’s first few days at school. One morning on the way in, he said: “I’ve got a little bit of fear.” But he went in anyway. That for me is courage. 

MIKE: Hi Belinda – a fair point. The real opposite of courage is cowardice. But fear is the oppositional pull that often gets people to withdraw when the opportunity to be courageous presents itself. And there’s a lot driving fear these days – economic uncertainty and the pressure not to seem unsure and unconfident in current direction. Indeed, sometimes courage is the willingness to put a tangible bet in the better side of your organization’s nature – and hesitation can be understandable if not particularly inspiring.

JANET: Great challenge Belinda. I’ve been thinking about this and building on what Mike says I think there is something around inaction and the fear that supports it. It’s back to that status quo and fear of putting your head above the parapet. But that is exactly what is needed right now if Comm professionals want something more. 

I think Henry Ford said “If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You’ll Always Get What You’ve Always Got.” Seems apt.

ADAM: A simple yet elegant take on what’s truly needed to drive both our profession and the organizations we serve forward. Nicely done!

 What I think you imply but could probably state more explicitly is that for courage and ambition to have a meaningful impact, or to even have a chance in some cases, they have to be grounded – grounded in our organizations’ strategic priorities, their cultures, their purposes and ultimately their values. When we as IC professionals seek to drive conversations and changes that are uncomfortable, we’re surely best served by doing so in a way that draws on commonly accepted values and on what our leaders are already saying. In somewhat cruder terms, we should be seeking and pushing for those opportunities to help our organizations put their money where their mouths are.

 Also, not explicitly stated but I think still implied is the notion that NOT demonstrating courage and ambition could well be the riskier proposition in our Covid/post-Covid world when remote work arrangements can make it more difficult for IC professionals (or any professionals, really) to be seen, heard, and valued. Counterintuitive though it may seem, courage and ambition may well be the safest approach in today’s world.

JANET: YES and YES! Love the build Adam. 

Yes to understanding the business and how to weave commercial and community through a more strategic approach. 

Yes to owning courage and ambition for your function in-house, proving your worth and being a valued partner. Can’t agree more. Thank you.

MIKE: Preach, Adam.

TRUDY: ‘A framework combining courage and ambition’ and the points you both make to support that is genius and exactly the kind of thinking we need in internal communications right now. 

 It will take bravery to embrace this concept, as for many it’s so much easier to stick with the status quo. To not challenge or step up is totally understandable, and I can identify with Janet, as I’ve been on the receiving end of being shut down for speaking up at that level. I guess it was courage that made me keep trying – although I didn’t think of it at the time. The thing is, we have to be led by our convictions and values in the knowledge that we have the expertise and skills to advise on what works for businesses. I hope you take this further – it’s a message we all need to hear and experience – undaunted by how it will be received or perceived because it’s what we need. I do hope that practitioners get behind this type of thinking and also support each other. 

JANET: Thanks Trudy. I agree. This isn’t a challenge to IC peeps. It’s a rally cry, a call for IC professionals to be brave and own their ideas and opinions. And this isn’t a challenge to the business either, I have met a lot of senior leaders who want this from IC, they want us to be experts, and have and own our ideas. This hat tips the infamous Steve Jobs quote “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” I hope this lets others see that we can do it, and if we work together and support each other we can be the change we want to see, to paraphrase Gandhi. Gosh that is a lot of quotes for one paragraph ;).