10 things I’ve learned in running an education sector content consultancy for 10 years
This week marks not just 10 years of Pickle Jar Communications, but also 10 years for myself as a business owner and leader. I’m often asked about the joys and challenges of starting and running a business, but in 10 years I don’t think I’ve ever written about it. So, indulge me today as I share 10 things I’ve learned in being a business leader and consultant serving the education sector.
1. Our work is a social responsibility, not just a job
I could go to work every day and earn lots of money developing content strategies or communications and marketing plans for companies that exist solely to line the pockets of wealthy investors. But even as a private company, when you work in the education sector – in any way, shape, or form – you come to realise that the work you are doing is not just any other job. It’s a social responsibility.
2. We craft portals to a world that changes people’s lives
And the reason our work is a responsibility and not just a job is this:
As a content consultant serving the education sector, the work that we do creates a vision for the portals – the websites, the channels, the experiences – that inspire people with curiosity and a desire to learn. And when you get to do this with multiple institutions, your work inspires a passion for lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge for – quite literally – millions of people who encounter the content and experiences that you’ve influenced or created.
3. Your heart and soul is absolutely in it
In my case, my business truly is my baby. It’s this beautiful thing that other people love and gravitate towards. It’s the thing I spend the largest portion of my life thinking about and tending to. I see my team and their families as a family, and so I put the love and care into it as if it were one of my dearest loved ones. And sometimes that leads to pain and heartache, even heartbreak, but it is always worth it.
4. You don’t work in the education sector for the money…
There are agencies out there that do the same kind of work that we do outside of the education sector who charge double (or even more) what we charge the education sector. But the education sector is not cash-rich or frivolous when it comes to spending money on consultancy services. So if you’re going to run a business in the education sector and really do it with passion and pursuit of excellence, you realise that you’re not doing it to become filthy rich.
5. …But some people do
But there are some consultancies out there that do see the education sector as a cash cow. It’s a vast sector and perceived as generally quite stable, and so there are plenty of consultancies who see it as a route to making money. But you can generally spot them a mile away. That’s not to say they don’t do a great job, but sometimes you can just tell it doesn’t come from the heart.
6. Perfectionism is your greatest strength and your fiercest enemy
This one is highly personal to my own lessons and growth as a business leader with a strong dose of perfectionism. For years, I have nearly driven myself into an early grave to ensure that everything we deliver is absolutely perfect and of the highest quality. Combine passion and perfectionism, and you’re kinda screwed. So while it’s the thing that might make your company great, it can also be the thing that demoralises others and damages your health…
7. You must put yourself and your wellbeing first
This one took me 9 years to learn. If you don’t put your own health and wellbeing first, then that’s what lets other people down more than actually letting them down directly. Over the years I’ve worked 90+ hour weeks over and over again in order to not let others down, whether that’s my team or my clients. But after a serious case of burnout put me out of action for over 2 months, something had to change.
Putting my own needs first is selfish, right? The buck stops with me and all that… But I’ve come to learn that one of the most selfless things you can do as a business leader is look after your own health and wellbeing. Only by doing that can you actually be there properly for other people. When you’re at your best, you can inspire. When you’re at your worst, you don’t inspire anyone, you intimidate.
8. Your job is to empower autonomy and inspire brilliance
In the early years of running Pickle Jar, and particularly as I started to grow the team, the temptation to see and review every piece of work, to be party to every client or sector communication, and to personally dot every i and cross every t was a powerful one. But it’s not sustainable – and neither is it good practice. My ideas and approaches are just that: my ideas and approaches. It doesn’t mean they’re right or the best way. They’re just a way. So now the pursuit is really to empower autonomy amongst the team to develop their own ideas, to step out of the way and to gently inspire their own brilliance, but at a distance. Seeing other people shine is absolutely one of the greatest rewards for nurturing great people and not swaddling them.
9. If you don’t laugh every day, you probably should do something else
There are so many days in running this business in which I’ve wanted to quit. I’ve had times when finances have been far too tight for comfort, times when clients just don’t get something, times when business has just felt like an absolutely uphill struggle. But the secret to it all and the thing that can always remind yourself of your love and passion for it is your ability to find something – even just the ridiculousness of it all – to make you laugh. Even just a smirk is enough. But look for that one thing – especially on the darkest of days – that makes you smile and laugh. Maintaining a sense of humour is a powerful quality in a business leader.
10. The sector is insane, but I’d never not work in it
And fortunately the education sector regularly delivers up little nuggets – or big ones – that will make you laugh. Fundamentally, there is so much in this sector that is insane or just ridiculous, that it will always keep you laughing and keep those surprises coming. But through that chaos, we also find beauty, and insanity in this sector is often borne of passion and commitment to change lives and change the world. For that reason, I shall never ever stop working in it.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll think about the relationship that we have as consultants in the education sector to that sector, and 10 ways in which I’ve realised we add huge value and contributions.