Six takeaways from six years as Director of Communications at On Think Tanks

5 October 2021

I have been part of small and large organisations, each with their own complexities, challenges and advantages. By 2016, I thought I’d done the communications rounds: advertising, design, photography, not-for-profit, NGOs and a global health crisis.

The role at On Think Tanks (OTT), however, was unlike any of these experiences: it was about communicating ideas. Not products, projects, or interventions, but rather knowledge for the greater good.

I have had the privilege to learn about this sector from some of the most inspiring and intelligent people I have ever met. So, in true OTT style, I am going to try to wrap up (almost) six years as OTT’s Director of Communications into six takeaways.

1. Think partnerships and relationships

A communications team cannot survive without partnerships. For OTT, this includes working with management, the research team, specialised talent and external organisations.

Don’t leave those partnerships to chance. Work on these relationships, get to know the people and think of ways to do better work together. For me this meant making time to have a virtual coffee with our clients, contributors and service providers, and taking time to connect people and content.

Human relationships don’t have to be strategic: find points of convergence and use them as a launch pad. It’s amazing what you can achieve by collaborating with individuals that share your vision from a different perspective.

2. Make time to think

It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, to obsess over a to-do list and react to the work that the rest of the organisation is doing. You will feel accomplished (and busy), and everyone will value your effort.

As a director, however, you are paid to think. Your job is to think of new ideas and ways to make them implementable, sustainable and replicable. To do this, you need time. And while it might be less satisfying than checking off a to-do list at the end of a long day, it is your responsibility to look at the bigger picture and build connections between the work that you and your team are producing.

3. Be resourceful

Communications can always use more resources: financial, human and/or creative. OTT is a privileged organisation in that almost all its projects have a communications component with its own budget lines. But this does not mean there aren’t limitations.

What I take with me as I move back to the service-delivery side of communications is that these limitations are not always a hinderance. They can be an opportunity for creative problem-solving. With the resources available, what’s the best product you can create that will contribute to your organisational mission, have the impact you desire and, above all, be replicable?

4. Be inspired. Be humble. Be curious.

Learn from what others are doing. Look for inspiration everywhere. Having a novel idea is great. But so is building on what others are doing, adapting and interpreting it for your own work. This is a fine skill, and your work will be the better for it.

OTT has worked with, exchanged ideas with and been inspired by a number of fantastic communications agencies working towards a shared vision. So be ready to decide when you want to lay the ground for others to work from, and when you want to be a part of something bigger by contributing a building block.

5. Do the work

If and when you land in a directorship position, your job will no longer be to implement. However, I think it’s important to give yourself time to, every so often, roll up your sleeves and do the work: write the proposal from scratch, edit it, build the budget, look at social media, track the analytics, do the design, run a conference, write.

This will not only keep your skills sharp, but it will also inform your work. You will be more sensitive to the effort and the manpower it takes to complete these activities within your team. You will then be able to contribute that knowledge to the organisation’s development, especially regarding human resources.

6. Brand + content + design

At the start of my time at OTT, a lot of my work was about building the organisation’s brand.  The OTT brand is content driven, and over the last few years we’ve incorporated a strong design component to this content – be it video, publications, articles or events.

That brand has become an extension of who we are as individuals. Every communications product we’ve produced under the OTT brand has tried to push the bar of who we want to be, what kind of work we want to produce and how we want to be perceived.

As I move out of this role, I realise how important it is to make yourself replaceable. As a director, your biggest win will be refining a role that someone else can walk into without it being a shock to the organisation.

If you are lucky, you will eventually land in a role that makes you feel proud of the work you produce as an individual and as an organisation. If you’re really lucky, that role will provide you the space to be creative and be a part of building a brand.

And, if you’re really really lucky, at the end of your tenure, you will realise that it wasn’t about the work – it was about the people and what you were building as a team.