Four ways to find your purpose at work

As Manager of Inspiring Australia (NSW), Jackie Randles finds interesting and creative ways to bring scientists together with community members through collaborative projects that promote the relevance of science and innovation to everyday life.

Welcome to the Ribit International Women's Day series of inspiring stories designed to encourage students to ‘Shine & Rise’. In the lead up to March 8 and supporting this year’s theme ‘Balance for Better’ we invited leaders and influencers we admire to share their experiences entering the workforce and building their careers, and the lessons they learnt along the way.

When I was at uni, I volunteered in community radio where I worked with motivated, clever peers, eventually obtaining funding to produce creative documentaries about all kinds of topics. While travelling abroad during long periods between grants was great, I needed a regular income. So I began working in communications in Government.

At first, I felt incredibly challenged by the hierarchical workplace culture. It took me a long time to understand unwritten conventions. I mourned having the creative freedom to explore issues from all angles, then share my thoughts freely with anyone who might be interested.

Everything was controlled, and for someone who felt passionate about most things, joining the public service felt pretty dull. I railed against what I believed to be incredibly conservative communication campaigns.

“This message will only cut through if we dare to be provocative,” I’d say at meetings, despite the layers of political and stakeholder complexity surrounding most of the communication issues I was employed to manage.  

“To protect people from online SCAMs, let’s scam them!” I’d propose. “Why don’t we use Wikileaks as a conversation starter for Open Government?”

My passion for sparking action on whatever issue was at hand was invariably tempered by organisational strategy, workplace policies, risk-averse managers, corporate brand and reputation, budget or the competing needs of highly complex stakeholders.

While I understood the hesitation, I hated the compromise.

As a junior staffer, I had little access to decision-makers nor their thought processes. With little insight into the big picture and no understanding of organisational context, I was frustrated and demoralised by the daily grind of corporate communications. Without a clear understanding of purpose, I felt like a powerless cog in a machine.

Back then, I did not see corporate communications as a satisfying career option for me and wanted to be somewhere else. However, as I gained experience and understood how to consider the broader system and context, I discovered a purpose for communications work and became highly skilled at crafting nuanced messages and developing effective campaigns.

All this experience has provided me with incredible professional insights and invaluable practical skills that I draw on every day.

My message to you….

If I could revisit those early days as a young woman new to corporate communications, I’d pull my head in, follow directions with more grace and listen more carefully to my managers. I’d inform myself about the sector I was working in, get my head around its broader context and make an effort to find out what the CEO was saying in public.

I would definitely seek out a mentor, find the courage to ask more experienced people questions and request professional development to help me learn about workplace culture.

With this in mind, here are four things you might think about to help you transition from being a student to working in a professional environment.

1. Every experience adds value to your future self

Being new to the workplace, you might feel like your role is neither important nor exciting. You may lack seniority, but if you think like a detective assigned to assess culture, priorities and people, you can empower yourself and become more effective in your role at the same time. Don’t expect to be given a lot of responsibility before you have proven yourself to be reliable and competent. Professional trust is earned.

2. Pay attention to what’s going on

There are complex systems at play in the workplace – particularly between staff and their managers, managers and the executives they report to, Boards and their C-suite and stakeholders with competing expectations. How do others navigate a hierarchy? Who are the people you admire and why? What could you learn from them? Observe how your boss or colleagues might “manage up” and what kind of behaviour gets results. Practice being strategic and see how that feels. Look at the different roles people play in a team and start to identify what kind of career opportunity might suit you as you gain more experience.

3. Find a purpose for your own role

When you understand the broader context of the organisation you are working for, you’ll feel more committed to its purpose and know where your role fits in. Read the strategic plan. What are the opportunities and threats to the business? Who are the competitors, customers and stakeholders? If you are in government, who is the Minister? What are they saying in public? Read news clips and become familiar with any laws, policy frameworks or political issues that may be relevant. Enjoy the process of discovery and sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you understand what’s required of your role and learn how to do it well.

4. Learn something new every day

Every assignment is an opportunity to learn, including the most menial task. Don’t take yourself too seriously! It’s okay to make a mistake: failing is how you learn. Develop your interpersonal skills by talking to teammates and voicing ideas in meetings. To help you communicate more confidently, ask questions of people in more senior roles. Attend seminars, put your hand up for training when it’s offered and seek out new opportunities. What kind of feedback makes you feel good about yourself? When do you feel cranky and what can you do about that?

Ribit.net is a free to use online marketplace that connects student talent to jobs with growth startups and innovative organisations. With a focus on STEM and entrepreneurship, Ribit is committed to helping students present their ‘best selves’ and gain a successful and rewarding experience to further their careers, while also assisting Australian businesses seeking to transform or innovate find the talent they need to grow.

#balanceforbetter #talentattraction #innovation #STEM #entrepreneurship #growth #futureofwork