It all started a couple of weeks back.
I was overtired, stressed, and totally Zoomed out so I made a snap decision to take a week’s break. I usually pack every minute of holiday time with manic activity — swimming, running, traveling to see friends, going out — but that’s not possible in these restricted times, so for once I actually had to stop.
The weather was then as it is today here in Bristol— overarching blue sky and glorious Spring sunshine. I spent the first part of the week sprawled face down on the small patch of grass that is my garden, listening to birdsong above the gentle hum of our quietened city, staring at ants.
The second part of the week was more productive. For the first time in nearly a year, I picked up a pen and started to write.
In that simple act of writing something snapped — a blinding realisation that I wasn’t in the right role for me, coupled with a burning desire to do more to make a difference for the world right now.
I handed in my notice, a couple of months ahead of plan.
Crazy time for a change of direction?
Now, I’m under no illusion: this is ‘interesting’ timing for a shift in focus. Terrible timing, you could say.
But one thing that the last few years have taught me, with the end of a long marriage and of my own business under my belt, is that if something doesn’t feel right, however scary, it pays to make a bold change. Life is way too short and precious to fight against yourself.
I’ve learned so much from leading the content design team this year for Nationwide Building Society. And I’ve had the privilege of working with some truly inspiring and talented people in a business that does all it can to do the right thing for its customers and staff. It’s been a fascinating experience, but I’m naturally more consultant, coach, and teacher than senior manager, so I’m heading back out into the freelance fray to see where I’m best placed to help right now.
As to what, exactly, comes next? The honest and slightly terrifying answer is, I don’t know.
I have an eclectic set of skills and experience around:
Content / marketing / comms strategy, brand purpose, business development, internal change, coupled with a belief in business as a force for good and in a human-centred, research-led approach to its design (+ a bucket-load of enthusiasm and positivity).
How best to apply this mix of skills in the current Covid world situation? I’m not yet 100% sure.
Given that uncertainty, here’s how I’m going to go about reimagining and repositioning what I do.
I’m sharing this to help me get clear on the path I’ll take, and also because there may be ideas here that could help you to clarify your business positioning too.
A roadmap for reimagining what you do
I could make any number of assumptions about what type of work to go after, but there’s so much I don’t know right now. The world is in flux and old certainties are fast flying out of the window. I’m going to start with some research to get a pulse check and work out how best to contribute. I want to find out how people are feeling and what help they’d value from someone like me to help their businesses emerge from this crisis.
This research-based listening approach was at the heart of all Valuable Content projects for clients — to set brand positioning, marketing, and content strategy. It never failed to deliver up golden gems of wisdom and insight to help guide decision making and ensure relevance.
I’m starting here, with conversations with people whose opinions I value and trust.
Curiosity is a great connector. These listening projects often unearthed new opportunities for Valuable Content’s clients — leads and avenues they hadn’t thought to explore. And thankfully, these conversations are already doing the same for me. (Yes, I have my first freelance client! So excited!)
Active listening is one avenue to understanding. Reading and learning is another. And thankfully, there is some fascinating content around to help us make sense of the fast-shifting world context.
One of my favourite commentators is Mark Schaefer, author of many well-thumbed books on my shelf including Known, and more recently, Marketing Rebellion — The Most Human Company Wins. He’s always bang-on-the-money when it comes to reflecting the changing business landscape.
Mark has recently published a new e-book — the Pandemic Business Strategy Playbook, which is helping me to think hard about business relevance, both during and after the current crisis.
He suggests we think about our own businesses in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Where would you place the type of products and services you’re trying to sell right now?
Are your products and services at the top of the pyramid? Because right now, the psychology of our customers is at the bottom — people are concerned about putting food on the table, about their health, about basic human needs. If your marketing and business are near the top of the pyramid you’re just not relevant in the current climate. The only option is to pivot, and I’m seeing many sensible businesses doing just that.
Mark advises struggling businesses to fight to the other side with grace, by finding opportunities to serve in short-term ways that create long-term loyalty. I love that.
“How can you help people in an insanely helpful way with the resources at your disposal?” — Mark Schaefer
I’m finding this reality check a helpful reminder when thinking about business direction from here.
Other content I’m finding valuable:
- Tom Critchlow — the Quarantined Independent (on surviving the pandemic as an inde)
- Weekly tips from Andrea P. Howe and the Get Real Project (unconventional wisdom to help build strong relationships in the current climate)
- And here’s that link to Mark W. Schaefer’s Pandemic Business Strategy Playbook again.
(Got any recommendations for valuable content to learn from? Do send them over. I’d love to hear.)
The two areas of focus above will help me work out what people want and need from someone like me — clarity on the external context. But if I’m going to do work that’s meaningful, I’m going to have to look inside too.
I’m hunting for work that hits the sweet spot between what others really need and want from me, and the kind of work that I love and value too. This takes a new level of self-awareness. So alongside the research, I’m going back to basics, thinking through the big questions of what I do best, and how I want my life and work to be.
What makes me tick? How can I use my strengths? The VIA Institute strength assessment tool is the best I’ve found to reflect on your personal, unique set of attributes. (Curiosity, appreciation of beauty and excellence, social intelligence, zest, and kindness come out top for me, thank you for asking ;) How about you?)
And what do I want for my business? — why, who, how, what?
- Why do I do what I do— what drives and motivates me?
- Who do I want to make a difference for — who will I serve?
- How will I help people — what process will bring results?
- What service will I offer? And what shape do I want my business to be?
Thinking is one thing but I’m looking out for what intuitively feels right, right now too.
For example, I had a great conversation with Ollie Francis of Deckchair yesterday. We share a people-centred philosophy when it comes to business. We talked UX, content strategy, teaching, and the future of work in a post-Covid world. Chats with Ollie always leave me feeling excited and inspired. He’s just the type of person I love to work with — full of curiosity and ideas with a desire to change the world for the better.
I’m also thinking about the work I’ve done in the past. What felt best? When am I most energised and really in flow? I’ll do my best work if I stick to this rather than stuff that drains me, so I’m noting this down.
“Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” — Bill Wheeler
I’ve found writing this article really helpful. Writing has always been the best way to get my ideas straight and make sense of a complex world. As I said in my previous post, “I write to find out what I think” has never felt more needed, or more true.
I know that the process of writing will help me get my thinking clear. So I’m going to continue to share what I learn in the process of getting my new direction sorted.
(I’ll publish ideas and lessons here on Medium. I hope you find these helpful too.)
6. Have some creative fun
What to do with all this research and deep thinking? That’s the fun bit, where creativity comes into play.
My plan is to turn the challenge of deciding what to do next into a game. I love a good Design Thinking exercise. I’m not sure which activity to use as yet to help me turn ideas and insight into reality for my business, but here’s where I’m heading for some inspiration:
I know that some of these creative exercises will be useful as I design the next iteration of my business. Perhaps they’ll be valuable for you too, particularly if you need to align a team around future direction.
(Design Thinkers, UXers — if you have recommendations for relevant creative exercises or canvases, I’m all ears).
Yearning for clarity in uncertain times
Listen, learn, think, feel, write, and have some creative fun — that’s my approach to find the answer for my work from here.
My coach friend James puts it even better:
“The world is uncertain. Hold it lightly. Stay true to your values, listen / think / do, experiment, and allow strategy to emerge.” — James Perrott
I’ll follow that plan but I know I’m going to have to live with the uncertainty for a while until I find that sweet spot. I’ll do all I can to hold the faith and continue to push forward but please keep me honest!
If you’re in a similar position, I hope these ideas help you too. If you need any added encouragement, just shout. I wish you luck and happiness on the journey in these unsettled times.
Stay curious. Clarity will come.
Sonja Nisson (previously Jefferson) is a strategic marketer and content coach. She founded Valuable Content and is co-author of Valuable Content Marketing — how to make quality content your key to success. Connect and chat with Sonja on LinkedIn.