Networks and mentors, workplace similarities and differences, complete a cross-border PR adventure

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Final installment of a three-part global public relations narrative and adventure, from agency Australia to in-house Germany

By Katie Sheppet

Communication contacts and networks

In part I and part II, I related communication contacts and groupings I was privy to at Allianz. In this final chapter I’m sharing external networking and mentor relationships that were going on behind the scenes.

Prior to my departure, I had Edelman support from Grant Smith, general manager of Edelman Melbourne and Tracie Stoltenburg, senior account director (and my line manager). Also Teresa Nappi, executive assistant at Edelman Sydney. Without them onside, I wouldn’t have been able to take a six-week leave and keep my full-time position at the company.

During my time in Munich a networking opportunity outside of Allianz was suggested to me through my mentor, Judy Gombita (a principal of PR Conversations and my editor for this series). A few weeks in advance of my adventure, Judy posted a query on the Network of PR Professionals LinkedIn Group (whose membership boasts a large global contingent), asking if any members were based in Munich; an affirmative answer was received from Petra Nieckchen.

Privately, Judy asked Petra whether she was open to meeting me whilst I was in Munich, indicating it might be useful for her mentee to have at least one non-Allianz German communicator connection to further my country and business knowledge. Petra agreed and provided her direct email.

Initially I was a bit lukewarm to meeting a total stranger, but after a bit of encouragement from my mentor, I agreed to contact Petra and set up a meeting. Full credit to Petra for her generosity in agreeing to this arrangement (initiated by an unknown third-party), as I discovered networking is not something that comes naturally to Germans.

Learning nugget: I spoke to an Allianz colleague who told me that networking is a more “[North] American practice,” where people meet for the sake of meeting and exchanging information or ideas and extending their networks.

Apparently Germans like to know what the outcome of each meeting will be in advance, so the concept of networking can be, for want of a better word, “foreign.”

We met for dinner. Although it began a bit tentatively, we ended up having really interesting and fruitful conversations. I learned about Petra’s work in Germany for a non-profit organisation that does research on a new energy source: fusion energy. She shared experience of her time at work and what it’s like to be one of only a few senior-level females in her workplace. We talked about ideas from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (a modern-day bible or words to live by for female professionals in my opinion) and our careers in general.

The meeting proved enjoyable and valuable for both of us. I was glad I’d made the connection effort and sensed that Petra was equally satisfied with our meeting’s outcomes. Petra and I remain connected on LinkedIn.

I indicated in part I how important it is for me to form relationships extending beyond one’s workplace. I can attest that five months later I’m still in contact with several of the Allianz employees and others I met during my six weeks abroad.

The value of mentors

From the earliest stages of my career I was interested in having mentors. My first mentor, Lauren Fragapane, worked at Edelman Melbourne when I started there, but has since transferred to Edelman London; we remain close friends. I mentioned in part I how I built in time to visit London, making a point of meeting up with Lauren and visiting Edelman London. My inaugural line manager from Edelman, Adam Hunt, arranged an after work drink at the office with the team; it was wonderful to meet colleagues whom I work with on global client accounts.

As a result of voluntarily being involved with the World PR Forum (WPRF), I was incredibly lucky to gain two new mentors (who both happen to be Canadian), the before-mentioned Judy Gombita and Jean Valin.

I first “met” Jean over the phone prior to the WPRF for an interview (like I did with other presenters) and then in-person at the conference. Jean is one of the founders and past chairs of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management. He has a huge global network and is incredibly well respected for his lengthy and distinguished professional career and volunteer work, nationally and internationally.

Both Judy and Jean were excited for me about this Germany opportunity and proved tremendous supporters in the lead up to, during and after my work exchange with Allianz. In fact, Jean was part of the reason why Emilio Galli-Zugaro (head of group communications at Allianz SE) decided to proceed with my extraordinary exchange offer, but I’ll explain more about that later.

Different mentors for distinctive reasons

Before I left Melbourne, Judy “virtually” introduced me to Kelly Hungerford from Paper.li (based in Lausanne, Switzerland), because Kelly is a Californian who worked in Munich for more than 10 years. (In fact the two daughters of Kelly and her Belgian husband were born during their time in Germany; they are quite the cross-border family!)

To backtrack a bit, when the two of them were on a phone call about a joint collaboration, Judy learned about Kelly’s Germany work history and told her about my upcoming work exchange. Judy floated the question of whether she was open to serving as my “culture mentor” and thankfully Kelly agreed!

Generally Kelly and I communicated via Skype (particularly great when I was in the same time zone) and Kelly was able to educate me on the formalities and nuances of the German workforce, as well as the best beer gardens in town and where to go walking or running in the evenings. Kelly was also a great help to me when I was feeling a bit homesick (in her earlier ex-pat career having experienced this as well) or a little confused with the local workplace or German culture.

Learning nugget: My cultural mentor, Kelly Hungerford, helped me to determine between when and how suggestions and feedback would be welcomed in Allianz’s German workplace versus when it might be perceived as a Gen Y sense of self-importance or the less-mindful assertiveness inherent in countries younger than European ones (a trait likely shared by the typical Australian or American).

Judy Gombita checked-in with me throughout the six-weeks. I was particularly grateful for her help prior to the trip to Paris to meet with the Euler Hermes team (detailed in part II). Judy sent me lots of information and articles to get up to speed on social media in the B2B space (including her own all-time-most-read CommPRObiz twopart post about third-party endorsements). She was a great person to correspond with by email or phone about work, how I was feeling being in a foreign country and what I was experiencing.

Judy even suggested how documenting the adventure in emails might serve as a good framework for future reports or to store information as a memory aid when writing this post….>

Learning nugget: There are some things related to your career that you can’t talk about with your friends and family, because they’re not in the industry and they wouldn’t understand what you’re going through. And those closest to us aren’t always 100 per cent objective in giving advice. This is where a mentor can be a fantastic sounding board and confidante.

The Eiffel Tower vista during a Seine Cruise in Paris

During the visit to Paris I arranged a Skype call with mentor Jean Valin to discuss my performance and ensure I was on track. Jean made suggestions to me before and during the trip of things I could do to add value to the overall experience, which I wouldn’t have thought of myself.

Because of his own lengthy experience in global public relations, Jean is particularly good at helping me appreciate the “big picture” of past, current and future directions and actions. Additionally, he is great at detailing when smart decisions are made and I provide true value, it can have a positive impact on my career. At the time of accepting his generous invitation to be my mentor, I don’t think I was fully cognisant of just how respected he is in the international public relations realm. Soon you will discover how influential he was in my adventure.

Having a mentor is always a valuable thing, but having the support of a network of mentors during a six-week cross-border work exchange? Priceless.

Learning nugget: For anyone considering finding a mentor, I highly recommend it. Furthermore (similar to Sheryl Sandberg), I think people should have more than one. I hope it’s clear how I value each of my mentors independently, particularly as they contribute to different aspects of my development and offer a variety of approaches and opinions. I am open with my mentors about who else is mentoring me and in what capacity, and it is working well.

Since returning to Edelman, I’ve begun working with a new mentor, Jenny Crowcroft, an account director at Edelman Sydney. Jen provides support to me locally and is more in touch with the day-to-day operations of my job and the Edelman workplace culture.

Corporate and cultural similarities and differences

A pre-assigned task during my time at Allianz (which happened around the mid-exchange point) was to present to the Group Communications team about my role at Edelman, and compare German and Australian work cultures and practices. Some things I’ve detailed in part I and part II. For this section I will focus on my comparison of agency to corporate side.

What I found surprised me: I had discovered there were more similarities in our two companies’ structures, ethics, and ways of working and employee engagement practices than differences.

The similarities

Both Allianz and Edelman are global, leading companies in their fields, albeit one is public and the latter is privately owned.

There’s a large focus internally on the importance of developing and promoting female employees and holding 360 reviews for all staff.

Both companies publish a wealth of information and intellectual property on internal staff portals and external websites. We each have internal company newsletters. At Edelman we have the Edelman Learning Institute (ELI) where all employees must complete modules on Edelman’s corporate practices and policies, Allianz also had an online E-campus.

Each company offers staff exchanges, a mentorship program (I mentioned my current one, Jenny Crowcroft), opportunities to work with global colleagues and attend offsite executive/leadership meetings, and a focus on hiring smart people.

Learning nugget: I travelled to Allianz’s headquarters in Germany expecting to learn how different are the workplace and culture of an in-house communication team, only to discover a renewed appreciation for my own employer, Edelman.

Culture and best practices are mindful, stemming from leadership and teamwork, knowledge and learning opportunities, rather than based on the company structure or industry.

The differences

Some interesting differences I noticed (besides the obvious of public/private and in-house/agency) included recruitment and length of service. Whilst it’s common for employees to remain at Allianz for 10 years or more, at Edelman (and within agencies in general) there is a higher turnover rate of staff. There are many people in the Edelman network who have exceeded 10 years of service, but it’s much rarer than at Allianz where the majority of staff opt to be longer-term veterans.

At an operational level, it interested me that in Germany, Allianz does not seek third-party quotes in media releases. When I asked why, it was indicated that journalists would be sceptical about the validity of the “endorsement.” In Australia (at Edelman) we encourage clients to share their voice with industry partners or customers to make for a better, more credible news story, which our media does not appear to question.

Another key difference I found at Allianz was that content or output planning is based on the financial calendar, rather than editorial content calendars. Of course this makes perfect sense, as Allianz is a financial services company.

Emilio Galli-Zugaro answers why I was handpicked for this cross-border PR adventure

When I told work colleagues, family and friends about this opportunity to work at Allianz in Munich, many were confused. I was asked, “So, you’re no longer working at Edelman?”Is Allianz a client?” (No.) “Is this a typical arrangement?” And so on.

In my pre-WPRF phone conversation with Emilio Galli-Zugaro (see part I), when I was first offered an invitation to do a staff exchange at Allianz, Emilio told me a wonderful story about a somewhat similar opportunity given to him earlier that changed his career. (Perhaps Emilio would be willing to share this story with PR Conversations readers, either in a guest post or in the comments section.)

Emilio asked the woman who gave him this opportunity how he could demonstrate his thanks. She responded, “Don’t thank me. When you are in a position of power yourself, give opportunities to young people like the one I’ve given to you; that’s all the thanks I need.” This sounds quite idealistic. Emilio is Italian and I can’t quite imagine the same thing happening in Australia; however, this is the background I was given when Emilio first suggested my staff-exchange adventure.

Learning nugget: The well-entrenched global staff-exchange program at Allianz was actually the result of something similar happening to Emilio Galli-Zugaro in his native Italy. When you are in a position of power, you can have a direct impact on the early careers of others.

His story explained why the global work-exchange program was in place at Allianz; however, it was at the end of my time in Munich that I asked Emilio, “Why me?”

Emilio’s three-pronged answer

Three reasons were behind Emilio’s initial thought process that I would be a good candidate.

1. The first was because I work at Edelman. Emilio Galli-Zugaro knows Edelman’s president and CEO, Richard Edelman, professionally and personally; he is very appreciative of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer study; and is an admirer of the firm’s work in general.

2. Secondly, Emilio has deep respect for my mentor Jean Valin (a founder and past chair of the Global Alliance). The fact that Jean offered to be a mentor to me confirmed to Emilio that I could be taken seriously as a work-exchange candidate; namely, I was someone a trusted peer was investing time in helping to develop her public relations and communication management career.

3. Lastly, after Emilio spoke to me on the phone for the pre-interview and then met me at the WPRF in Melbourne in November 2012, he observed me “in action” staffing the Edelman booth, interviewing keynote speakers (including him) and uploading the videos from the event. Based on my communication skills and displayed capabilities, he knew I would be able to do the job at Allianz and quite possibly add to their collective knowledge base.

Learning nugget: Opportunities such as mine can be based on many factors, including how your current employer’s thought leadership is perceived, your (global) communication contacts, and where and how you volunteer your time, including demonstrated capabilities and mindset.

Final summation about the outcomes of my staff-exchange adventure

For Allianz I left several working articles for external publication, edited others for external and internal publication, and contributed items for the internal Comm News newsletter. The strategy, fact sheet and templates I left for Lars Mielke, head of social media, I hope are continuing to be useful, at least as a starting point (see part II).

I also opened up some Allianz employees’ eyes to the pressures of a different workplace—or “agency life” as we like to call it—which could bring a fresh perspective or new angle, maybe even a new energy, to topics and areas that had long been discussed internally in Group Communications.

For me, it was a life-changing experience.

Katie Sheppet and Isabell Bilger (from Allianz) at Schloss Ludwigsburg (Isabell's home town).

I lived on my own in a foreign country for six weeks, was able to make a contribution to Allianz SE’s workplace and formed what I hope will be lasting relationships with several employees. I experienced working in a company environment and understand more about the pressures and politics of in-house communications roles.

My understanding and appreciation has grown about how a company whose primary business is not communication services, runs a global communications department and management function successfully.

I extended my Allianz and Edelman networks. In London I met Helen Taylor, head of communications at Euler Hermes (EH), to learn about her role in EH London. This was prior to visiting the Edelman London office. Whilst in Paris working at EH, I also had time to visit the Edelman Paris office. Back in Munich, I spent an afternoon at Edelman Munich.

Edelman Munich was incredibly welcoming. The staff and I spent an afternoon sharing stories of our offices’ daily operations, clients and annual events around the Edelman Trust Barometer results. I remain in touch with colleagues from Munich, and now we’re even working together on a new global client relationship!

The meetings with EH London’s Helen Taylor, Edelman Paris and Edelman Munich wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Katerina Piro, spokesperson for the property & casualty division and one of my managers at Allianz SE. Katerina encouraged meeting with as many colleagues as possible from both companies, to extend my network and opportunities.

Back home in the Melbourne office of Edelman, I still find myself saying, “At Allianz…” so continue to contribute learnings from the company’s Germany headquarters to my ongoing employer and environment.

During my six weeks, I also donned a dirndl and drank litres of beer in the Schuetzen tent at Oktoberfest, which was fun. I learnt some traditional songs, tried leberkase (a traditional Bavarian meatloaf) and picked up some of the local dialect—much to my Allianz colleagues’ amusement.

I highly recommend other companies to follow suit with international, inter-company exchanges.

I’ve given my esteemed benefactor and six-week boss, Emilio Galli-Zugaro, my sincere promise to pay this experience forward. I will work towards earning as influential (and personally generous) an employment position as he has at Allianz, and look forward one day to meeting and giving a young PR professional a similar opportunity as my great gift and adventure.

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Katie Sheppet is a senior account executive at Edelman Melbourne in the brand and digital team. She has experience across marketing, digital and organisational communications. Katie also contributes articles to the Global Alliance’s monthly e-newsletter on a volunteer basis as required. She is on the PRINKS committee, an industry networking event for communication professionals held in Melbourne and Sydney every six weeks.

Previous contributions to PR Conversations include this earlier interview from when she worked on the 2012 World PR Forum, with John Paluszek from Ketchum PR. She also contributed an article about putting PR theory into practice. More recently, in 2013 Katie interviewed Paull Young, director of digital at charity:water for PR Conversations on social media for social good. Contact Katie by email, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Thank you to Heather Yaxley for creating the graphic that accompanies this installment. The photos were supplied by Katie Sheppet.

Part I: Cause and effect of a cross-border public relations adventure
Part II: Deep dive into corporate communications work and culture in a cross-border PR adventure

8 COMMENTS

  1. I am very humbled to have been part of Katie’ s excellent adventure and to continue guiding her through the vagaries and challenges of a career in public relations. Katie was bold enough, and had the guts to ask for guidance. Two very endearing qualities in a person and young professional. Being asked to be a sounding board and guide through a person’s carrer is daunting regardless of the mentor’s depth and breath of experience. It has been said many times; experienced professionals also benefit ftom a mentorship experience with an up and comer younger professional. For one thing, it keeps us in tune with what’s ‘happening’, and it is so fulfilling to know we are helping passing on wisdom learned sometimes the hard way.

    Katie is willing to be guided by an array of mentors and, even though we mentors in this particular case, don’t consult with one another–in fact I haven’t even me Katie’s other mentors with the obvious exception of Judy Gombita. Full disclosure: Judy and I do exchange and engage a fair bit on topics that move us in public relations, but we rarely talk about our mutual mentee.

    My point simply is that Katie can digest and distill what we collectively share with her. Ultimately she is the one exercising judgement and weighing all inputs. That’s how it should be.

    Learning nugget for anyone in need of mentors: Reach out, be bold, be brutally honest and expect the same from your mentor. Know your goals and set expectations for your mentorship relationship.

    In other words, do your homework, expect homework and introspection and above all, carpe diem!

    • Dear Jean,

      Thank you very much for this thoughtful and touching comment. I’m glad to know that you have been able to learn from me on our journey too. Thanks also for sharing a learning nugget of your own!

      Talk soon,
      Katie

  2. Thanks, Katie, for posting such an insightful and inspirational post about your experiences.

    I have shared your adventures with the University of Melbourne Alumni Association (UMAA) LinkedIn Group to inspire recent grads and early career professionals to network and find mentors, as well as to encourage senior professionals, managers and exectuives to become mentors.

    For readers who are also University of Melbourne alumni, please join the UMAA here – http://linkd.in/UniMelb – so you can see the read my post in the UMAA group here – http://linkd.in/1ocFQyK

    • Thanks very much for your feedback Enoch!

      I’m so thrilled you’ve shared this on the UMAA LinkedIn and glad members have found it valuable already.

      Thanks also for your ongoing support and for referring PR students or ‘industry up and comers’ (as I like to call) them to me.

      Best,
      Katie

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