Learnings (and Mistakes) that Have Shaped My Communications Career in Higher Education

With almost 20 years on the marketing and communications side of higher education, I’ve learned a great deal from key stakeholders and my brilliant teams. But I’ve learned from myself and my mistakes, too. It’s amazing what can grow from a few blunders, helping you lead a more productive, informed and fulfilling career.

Following are six of the biggest lessons I learned from my own failures:

Communicate with everyone.

During my early years in higher-ed communications, I would communicate with one audience at a time. My approach was not as inclusive; and, I sometimes left out key audiences that needed to be informed.

Lesson learned! As higher-ed marketing experts, identify every possible communication channel to disseminate updates through a mix of university websites, videos, email, newsletters and live discussions, as well as through external media, social media, community partners and education outlets. Different audiences receive information from a variety of sources, so accessibility is important – accommodating the way they are informed. Transparency helps reach key audiences; so they are not only informed, but so they feel part of the conversation.

Delegate, delegate, delegate.

During my first job out of college, I tried to do it all. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I was capable and effective.  So I took on more work than I should, and, eventually, I started missing details – and I was not being very effective (and didn’t feel very capable). While I had good intentions, I was missing deadlines, making mistakes and feeling overwhelmed.

Delegation is important to a successful outcome. Your team is just that… a team, and delegation empowers all team mates to have a role and to feel involved in project success. When the right mix is involved, work gets done more efficiently and successfully. Delegation is a great way to coach and mentor, as well.

Give back – and Get Back.

In my early career, prior to getting involved in higher education, I was stuck, frustrated and not learning very much in my job. I was craving professional development and new challenges, and I made a mistake by waiting too long to satisfy this craving.

Then, I got involved with the American Cancer Society as a volunteer. With the sole intention of giving back to the community, I actually “got back” so much more from this experience.  Volunteering gave me the professional development I needed, while enhancing my communication and leadership skills.  Most importantly, I met a board member from Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), and that introduction led me to higher education and long-term communications role at my current organization. So, expand your community, and more will come.

Course Correct.

We’re familiar with the expression, “Life is what happens while we are busy planning it.”  Well, the same holds true with our careers. I wrote a plan for a previous president, and then I got so focused on sticking to the communications plan — and then I missed a few opportunities.

While it’s important to have a plan, I also learned that it’s helpful to step back, evaluate, adjust and course correct when new opportunities develop – and challenges occur. I now accept that plans often need to be adjusted, and that’s a good thing.

Listen to All Stakeholders.

It’s easy to isolate yourself and your team in your work. I’ve done that many times, and learned the hard way about isolated thinking. Big mistake!

Learn from stakeholders from all sides — from students to donors to staff members to the community, as they all have something to teach you. They wear different hats and can collaborate and add perspective to university outreach and strategies.

Model and Mentor.

In my early years, I wanted to show my bosses and leaders that I could figure it out by myself.  While sometimes I could, I also found that I made some mistakes along the way and that I could have benefited from some extra guidance.

Eventually, I started working with a mentor who taught me new leadership skills. In return, I mentor students and professionals, to help them grow in their careers and foster new partnerships. After all, higher education is about teaching others, and it’s important to mentor and model throughout your career.

We can learn from so many teachers and leaders in higher education, including ourselves.  So embrace the blunders, and celebrate the lessons. There’s plenty to learn from our slip-ups!

About the Author

As the Chief of Staff and Vice President of Strategy for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), Catherine B. Lucas, APR, redefined MSU Denver’s brand in the higher education marketplace; spearheaded the legislative approval process to offer master’s degrees; and led the name-change transition from “college” to “university.”  She has earned a reputation for brand and reputation management, collaborative decision making and community engagement.