As someone who has the opportunity to interview alumni from all across the career spectrum, I am privileged to get a fascinating insider’s look into the differences between non-profit, agency, and government work – three of the biggest industries that will hopefully hire me, you, and your fellow Communications students someday in the future. This week’s alumni interview is with none better than the effervescent Grace Hon of public relations and marketing agency FleishmanHillard, who planned out her co-op terms with the sly strategy to try out jobs in all three of these areas, and subsequently find out what she valued most in future employment.
Do you know yet what you value? Is it stability? Excitement? Mentorship? Would you like the opportunity to continuously be improving on annual charitable projects for a non-profit, or would you rather be always on the go, managing the stress and excitement that comes with agency work? There’s no doubt that there is a certain allure to the idea of working in the fast-paced environment of the latter, but it’s not all glamour and adventure. As a consultant at the Vancouver location of the world-wide agency FleishmanHillard, Grace works with clients in various industries like technology, real estate, finance and health. Some examples include VISA, Vancouver International Airport Authority, RE/MAX, White Spot and New Ventures BC. So, for those who may have watched one too many episodes of Mad Men or Scandal, Grace is here to tell you about her experience in the diverse world of global marketing and communications at FleishmanHillard, along with her own personal musings on leadership, time-management, and virtues (and her personal tip to me about the best cocktail spots in Vancouver, but that’s a secret!).
What are some things you do as FleishmanHillard’s consultant?
We always work as a team to be a client’s extra hands and feet. Recently, we helped create a crisis simulation for YVR to pressure test their communications team. We worked with over 30 different partners, like the ambulance services and the police, on the communications part of different possible crises. One of the most exciting parts of the simulation was building a real-time social media simulation as well. The social media simulation was only available to the partners of the simulation with a login. It was incredibly cool to deliver that first-time offering to our client and to work with FH team in St. Louis. I also work in the technology industry. I manage an account for BC’s biggest tech start-up competition, New Ventures BC. It’s a competition where tech start-ups bring their big ideas to the table, go through rigorous rounds of pitching with mentorship by industry leaders and have a chance of winning over $300,000 worth of cash and prizes.
What’s the best part of your job?
I like working with different teams. One of the most important things to me as a junior person is having access to people who are willing to teach me tools of the trade. Every time I step on to a new account, I have a different mentor—whether it’s in the Vancouver office or with Toronto colleagues. Everyone has different leadership styles – different ways of managing the budget or delegating tasks, liaising with the client, asking for opinions and accepting opinions, and I find that incredibly interesting.
It must make you wonder what your leadership style is.
Leadership can be practiced at any age and at any level of business. We have two interns right now who I work with on a daily basis, teaching them and also learning from them too. Something that was very encouraging for me was when a boss described me as a “chameleon” – someone who can adapt easily to different leadership styles and deliver the same excellent quality of work. After all, it doesn’t matter if you are the best at what you do if you are not equally as great of a team player.
You worked in both non-profits and agencies, are there any significant differences?
With agencies, because there are so many different clients, each team and each project manager is different. You’ll have a different boss for each file. Agencies are like boot-camp. You are in a fast-paced environment exposed to a huge variety of clients and industries. When I was working and volunteering with several non-profit organizations, we had three or four main events in the year – there would be planning, build-up, execution, clean-up, and then a rest period before the next event. Every year, it would be the same cycle again. With an agency, you never level out like that. It’s always busy because you’ll have 3 – 5 clients going at the same time, and when one client finishes a project, you’ll still have something else ongoing. There’s not really a day that I’ll spend working on only one project.
I sometimes feel like I’m back in university, where we would complain about having too much on our plate because the profs don’t talk to each other about their competing assignment deadlines. It then becomes an exercise in communicating with account managers about what you can honestly take on without compromising the quality of work you deliver. You have to balance their expectations and also push yourself to work smarter – and eventually that will become you working faster.
Do you ever get bored?
No, I’m always on the go. One of the things I love about agencies is you’re cutting through the red tape because you’re working directly with the decision makers of a company (the client). Whereas when I talk to my peers who work in-house or client-side, the negotiation is no longer, “I’m the right agency to help you develop and execute your plan,” but a different process entirely. When they draft a plan, it has to go up the corporate ladder and can take longer for that plan to get signed off.
What do you like the least?
When it’s busy, it’s busy. It’s all hands on deck. You work whenever your client is working. It can definitely take a toll, and personally I think I need to be better at managing my time and really being honest with myself about how much I can take on. Every time you wrap up with one client, that’s money out the door and you need to replace them, so it’s always ongoing. It’s a very busy life, but you roll with it and learn how to set boundaries for yourself.
How do you balance your outside life and your work life?
One of my professors told me something that I really took to heart – she wisely advised that an appointment that you make with yourself, whether you’re exercising or reading or going to the spa, is as important as any business appointment.
Speaking of interns, what would you look for the most in hiring one?
Interns here are above all master multitaskers. They’re one-part researcher with incredible web snooping skills, one-part media pitcher and one-part writer. We look for people who are calm under pressure, and sport an eagerness to learn, take initiative, and understand the agency environment.
Why did you join Communications?
I went to UBC for my first year and I switched over. Like you, I had coffee with a lot of people in the SFU communications co-op program who graduated and actually had jobs. UBC Arts had one of the lowest rates of grad employment – and that was terrifying to me, to think that I was paying so much for a university degree and might not even have a job afterwards. That’s what really convinced me to go into Communications.
What advice would you give students who want to get ahead?
I would encourage you to specialize. Don’t just drift through your degree. Pair it with a business, dialogue, or SIAT minor. Perhaps you consider taking courses at BCIT or Emily Carr for coding or design. At the end of the day, your degree is only worth as much as the relationships you’ve built and the skills you bring to your job. I did a Dialogue minor and I really enjoyed it for the fact that the small group sizes helped me meet some of my best university friends.
Did you have a strategy for Co-op?
Yes! I did a mix of non-profit, government, and a private company internships. It helped me figure out what my interests and my skills were. For example, for non-profits, I love events, but I felt more inclined to volunteer than to do it as my 9-to-5. Next, I worked in government, doing a co-op in Ottawa. It was a beautiful city in the summer and my first time away from home, but it made me realize how many levels of bureaucracy there are in government, and why things are so slow to happen. They take great care of their employees, but it was too slow for me. I didn’t care so much about the pay or the working hours. I wanted mentorship, I wanted learning opportunities.
And lastly, your private Co-op…?
Private was this one! FleishmanHillard was my last internship and they invited me to become a permanent member of their team after I graduated. I’ve been with them for a little over three years now.
So what’s next for you?
I’m still exploring and learning a lot. They say your career lifespan will last 45 years, and that you can separate those into three chunks. For the first 15 years, explore the heck out of things. Do anything and everything, get that wide breadth of knowledge. For the next 15, start to specialize. Find out what you’re really good at. Decide what you what to shoot for, aim for the C-suite if that is what you aspire to. For the last 15, give back and mentor the young bright minds because they will be the legacy you leave behind.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Sometimes, I almost wish I went to college, where you learn applicable skills right away [rather than the theory]. On the flip side of that, hiring managers have told me that although college students will do the job wonderfully, university teaches you to think critically and that is the birthplace of strategy.
Is there a philosophy you live by?
I recently read an article in the New York Times and it said something that really hit me. People think about virtues in two different ways: there are the resume ones that you build up to help your professional career, and then there are the eulogy virtues that are talked about at your funeral. Both of them are equally as important, but our culture often focuses so much on our professional virtues that we forget about how far we can be taken by developing our genuineness, sincerity, and other inner characteristics. [As David Brooks says,] wonderful people are not born, they are made.
First Lenny Goh and his concept of the “unicorn”, now Grace Hon and her personality as a “chameleon” – is the animal world really so different from the communications alumni world? Check out one of the interesting reads on virtues that Grace shared with me, and perhaps reflect on the skills and values that matter to you, both in your personal and professional lives.
-Kasia Cookson, Features Editor