Three Questions and One Answer

Blog: Agency

— Pam Edstrom 

Recently, I was asked to give the commencement day address to the College of Liberal Arts at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. It was truly an honor and a pleasure to return and share some insights with these young, excited and hopeful graduates. You can watch the full speech for yourself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVnKWaO88hU&feature=youtu.be) or read on for the highlights.

My college education began the day I discovered I wouldn’t actually have the money to attend my chosen school, the University of Minnesota. Watching my mom thwart that outcome by convincing the American Legion to give me a scholarship taught me to question dead ends.

So when my dream to become an FBI agent and later a police chief fell through, I, too, learned to circumvent. Fast-forward, and I now co-lead the second largest independent PR agency in the world. Three questions and one answer guided me along this path.

After completing my undergrad program and teaching some classes myself, I went back to graduate school intrigued about how communications could actually create the social change that crime fighting could not. While there, I heard about Tektronix — a major global corporation with a workforce of 26,000 — and I had this idea that it wasn’t communications alone that could create change, but technology PLUS communications.

I spent nine months trying to get a job at Tektronix, even finally chasing down the CEO on the phone. I asked for five minutes and he cut me off. Being my mother’s daughter I was not deterred. And I have learned to challenge myself in the face of failure. The first thing I do after a setback is to ask myself: Am I running from or running to?

Instead of running from the failure of that phone call, I went back to Tektronix even harder … and finally got a job. There I met my future business partner, Melissa Waggener Zorkin. It is also where one of my future bosses left to join a small startup that had only 200 people — Microsoft. They became our third client.

If I had run away from that dead-end phone call, most of my life would not have happened the way it did. Anything great involves the frightening risk of failure. So before any new, groundbreaking or scary endeavor, I give myself a pep talk: What is the worst thing that could happen? Perspective has encouraged me to keep taking risks.

So if you’ve hit a dead end, ask yourself: Am I running because I’m afraid … OR can I TURN and run TOWARD it in another way?

If you do not know where you are going, you will never get there. You should consistently ask yourself: What is the problem I’m trying to solve? If you know that, then you can imagine the final outcome and reverse engineer how you are going to succeed.

In the early days at Microsoft, the single most important communications objective was to establish Microsoft and Windows as the standard for computing. Remember, at that time Microsoft was just a scrappy little startup that no one expected to last. And Bill Gates was just 26 years old. The problem I had to help solve: How can a smaller company be seen and make an impact?

When I called The New York Times technology editor, his crisp reply was, “I do not talk to PR people.” Undaunted, I managed to wrangle meetings with other business pubs: The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Time, Businessweek. At the same time, I helped plan Microsoft’s presence at COMDEX, the major computer show of the time. We wanted Microsoft Windows front and center, from the moment attendees stepped off the plane to the time the show ended. So from keychains for rental cars, to pillow cases in hotel rooms, and on cocktail napkins, Windows was everywhere. We were the little company that could. Six months later, Bill Gates graced the cover of Time. And a few days later, the technology editor at the New York Times called ME.

So if you know where you want to go and the problem you’re trying to solve, you can think creatively, courageously and maybe a little bit outrageously to increase your odds of achieving success.

During graduate school, I wrote about the Edwardian suffragettes who in 1904 were fighting for their right to vote. Their problem was purely communications. Without access to the legitimate means of communications of their time, they got creative and were the first to chalk the sidewalks in London. They hired dirigibles and leafleted the city. In writing that paper, I had my “aha” moment about communications. I belonged.

But also along the journey of my career, I learned that academia was not my place. Though I loved working with engineers and learning about technology and their innovative products, Tektronix was not my place. And there came a time at Microsoft when I knew that while I loved the people and the beauty and magic of software and the challenge of understanding the business press, Microsoft was a good place. But it was not my place.

So, I had to go out and find my people: communicators! People who loved connecting to customers and constituencies. People who wanted to change the world one story at a time. And that meant it was time to create my place — WE Communications — joining my business partner, Melissa Waggener Zorkin.

I expect many of us, at some time or another, will have to work incredibly hard at a lot of places. Some good. Some bad. Some ugly. The best we can do, regardless of place, is work hard, learn as much as we can and give as much as we are able. When the moment comes that we feel we need to find our own place, we have the courage to seek it. And if it doesn’t exist, we can create it.

My three questions are only useful … IF … I … LISTEN … carefully to the answers.

Someone on my team told me, “Pam! You are always hanging off the balcony because you’re always willing to RISK.” Well, yes. Those risks have led to huge successes and huge failures. In fact, I think I have had more “failures” than anyone at my company. But if you have a learning mindset, then there is no utter and complete failure. Because after any and every effort, whether it succeeds or fails, the ONE ANSWER that MATTERS is this: I. Learned. Something.

So those are the three questions that have guided me well on my journey, one with a great many twists and turns, some questionable, some heartbreaking, some thrilling. But all necessary.

What are YOUR three questions? What is the one answer that really matters to you? And are you REALLY LISTENING for that answer?

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