I was talking with a friend the other day about career paths, and I couldn't help but find myself quoting Sheryl Sandberg to her. "Friend," I said, "Careers are a jungle gym. Not a ladder."
Since the book was released several years ago, I find myself referencing this Lean In quote over and over again as it relates to my own career in marketing. Over the past 10 years, I have been able to build a reputation for myself as someone who is very knowledgeable in different areas of PR, social media and digital marketing, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, if you were to ask me 15 years ago to describe what my career would be like, it wouldn't be anywhere close to what it is today.
Note: 15 years ago, acting was my passion, and I only assumed my future career would involve a lot of theatrical lighting.
My "official" educational background is in Theatre and Communication Studies. While in the theatre department, I worked in several mini-departments, such as costuming, set design and box office/publicity. Guess which one I enjoyed the most. Yep, box office and publicity. Though most of our promotional budget was limited to a few posters around the school, it was interesting and incredibly rewarding to be on the business side of the arts. Essentially, all of our student teams learned how to operate and manage a small business, in addition to our ongoing acting, directing and writing classes.
As far as communications goes, my primary focus was interpersonal communications: the study of relationships and, more specifically, communication within those relationships.
The thing which always excited me the most about studying interpersonal relationships is what makes people connect with one another, and, ultimately, what makes people disconnect.
Note: I still reference A LOT of the interpersonal comms material I learned even today in my work, translating basic concepts to online community management and the need for companies to build real, authentic digital relationships.
But after I graduated, I immediately accepted a job in education. I taught middle school English, Drama, Journalism, Debate, etc. I also ran my own after-school drama program for younger students. Wherever there was an opportunity for a humanities-related course of study, project or program at the school, I jumped at the opportunity to lead it, and I had a wonderful principal who helped make that happen.
There was one project in particular that has always stuck with me, however. It was the lesson plan that initially got me interested in social media marketing.
One of my English classes was reading The Outsiders at a time when social media started to become mainstream. You no longer needed a .edu email address to be on Facebook, and it's all my kids could talk about. So as a class project, I assigned characters from the book to individual students, and their job was to update these characters' social media statuses as we read through the book.
While I was leading this lesson, I learned more about how businesses were using social media as a marketing tool, and I was intrigued. I bought several books on the topic and started to educate myself on best practices since no formal courses or education existed at the time.
It wasn't long after teaching this lesson that I felt a pull to explore this world of social media marketing and see what I could make of it. So I took the first job I could find outside of the classroom: advertising sales for a small parenting publication. It was during that time that I also was given the opportunity (and was offered an extra $25/wk) to manage the Facebook page for the magazine and run contests and promotions through the publication's presence on social media. Gotta start somewhere, right?!
In the five or six months of 2010 and 2011 that I managed the Facebook page, I was able to grow its overall social media audience by 60%. And I held on to that number so I could parlay that into the next step in my career.
Yet early 2011 ended up being marked by personal tragedy for me, and it was during this time that I decided that a sales position wasn't my forte after all, but social media WAS, and I decided to find a role in which I could pursue that passion.
Note: I realize that we're all technically in sales to an extent, but I'm talking about full-time outside sales positions. Not a great fit for my personality and communications style.
As luck would have it, there was a start-up PR firm launching in Birmingham, and the founder needed someone with social media experience. I was eager to prove myself, and this ended up being a great marketing "starter" job in which I was not only able to establish and perfect my approach to social media marketing, but I was also able to wear more hats and learn new skills, such as both traditional and digital PR, media relations, blogger outreach (what would later be called influencer marketing), and content marketing.
Fast forward many years later and I now have experience working with start-ups and well-known national brands in PR, social media, content marketing, influencer marketing and strategy.
I'm also a sought-after speaker and commentator on all of those topics and have built a strong personal brand, putting my own spin on the marketing industry.
My career has certainly taken me to places I couldn't have imagined.
And I look forward to whatever the next steps may be.
It's a continuous evolution.
It's a jungle gym.
And I'm a first grader who has had a ton of Pixy Stix.