Yesterday’s Sage Advice, Today’s Work Hacks


Nancy Wiser, APR, Fellow, PRSA, President, Wiser Strategies

Most careers move through several stages. My informal breakdown includes the exciting “Newbie Stage,” the more profitable “Advancing Pro Stage,” and finally, the astonishing “I’ve Been Around Forever Stage.”

I’m in the middle of the third phase. I must admit, it’s a little scary sometimes when I do the math and realize just how long I’ve been in the working world. Recently I was in the car traveling with a couple of team members and before I could stop myself, I calculated my tenure and blurted the number out. Then I quickly said, “Don’t tell anyone I’ve been working that long!”

It’s passed quickly, perhaps because of the variety of roles I’ve been fortunate to experience. My professional career began in therapeutic recreation. Four years later, I was given the opportunity to become director of community relations with Eastern State Hospital. While in high school and college I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for six years.

So, after 40+ years of full- and part-time employment (please swear you won’t tell anyone!), I’ve gathered many tips about working. Or, using today’s vernacular, I know a lot of “work hacks.” Some of them came from the excellent bosses I’m fortunate to have had and other mentors who took the time to help me.

Here is a sampling of sage advice I value most:

  • “If you don’t have anything to do, pick up a broom and sweep the floor.” That was advice from my first boss, my dad, to my older brother. But, I include it here because it was said for me to hear as well. Dad established a screen printing business before screen printing was cool and we hung out there and helped him when he had large jobs. I learned a great deal from him and attribute my work ethic to his industriousness. Without his example, I may not have taken the risk of starting my own business.
  • “Don’t answer questions you aren’t asked and keep your answers brief.” This came from Butch, my boss when I was a recreation therapist at the state psychiatric hospital. Officials were conducting a periodic review and I thought I was being loyal when I offered information about how Butch made sure we always had adequate staff for our programs. Little did I know he’d been telling them how understaffed we were. Oops. Indirectly, his advice is always a part of media training programs we conduct.
  • “Remember that people who appear to be talking to themselves are actually having a very normal reaction to stimuli that’s very real to them. Their response is rational considering what they are experiencing.” This reminder was shared by a psychologist who talked with visiting groups about the mentally ill people we cared for. I’ve remembered that often when I thought someone was way off base.
  • “The role of the public relations professional is behind the scenes, not in the forefront,” said Lance, a consummate professional. At the time, I thought this was a little strange, especially because I was such an exuberant and outgoing person and bursting to be in the middle of things. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it is usually true. Even when we are the spokesperson or leading a program, we are representing our organization, not ourselves.
  • “I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of looking for a different job, but this would be a good time to start a search. “ A personnel director spoke these words to me in kindness. Public relations and marketing positions often are highly political and it’s easy to be a victim of people in high places coveting your job for themselves or their friends. This was the case in one of my positions and Leonard gave me the heads up. It wasn’t a shock to me because I’d already figured out the situation, but the advice coming from him motivated me to take job hunting seriously. Fortunately, I was able to find my next dream position before the ax dropped. The moral to this story is to cultivate relationships wherever you work so someone will tell you what you need to hear even if it’s hard.
  • “They haven’t hit rock bottom yet. When they do, they will be ready to listen more closely and implement the strategies we are outlining.” My firm represented an insurance company in a fight with the state attorney who had sued the company. The client’s public policy advisor was one of the most strategic thinkers I’ve ever worked with. It’s often hard for companies to take aggressive positions to defend themselves until there are no other alternatives. Eventually, they were ready to listen.
  • Speaking of strategic thinkers, Tom Preston, APR, Fellow, PRSA, once said, “Elected officials are not your friends. They can be your allies, but they are not your friends however they like to position themselves.” In other words, don’t rely on them to do what’s in your best interest or even to follow through on what they may have expressed as their position on an issue. They will always do what is in their best interest or that of their constituents.
  • “People just need an excuse to do what you want them to do.” This is my saying, and, indeed, my advice. If you want people to act in certain ways, give them the excuse they need. Why do thousands of people flock to Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington (or others around the country) to watch “horse racing as it was meant to be”? They do it because it’s an excuse each spring and fall to pull together the latest fashion, gather with friends, drink adult beverages and enjoy a beautiful day in the Bluegrass watching majestic Thoroughbreds run. The vast majority of attendees don’t follow racing and many don’t even bet. But, they don’t miss Keeneland because it’s a ritual and they want to be a part of this iconic seasonal event.

Work hard, even when there’s not much to do. Don’t over communicate. Plan for the worst but be prepared for people to resist. Realize that not all promises will be kept. Listen to friends’ warnings of rough seas ahead. Understand what motivates people and you can give them an excuse to do what you want them to do.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned and tried to apply. What are some of your favorite work hacks?