From J student to the board room

by | Dec 13, 2011 | Blog | 0 comments

The late Patricia Dunn, who died earlier this month after a long battle with cancer, was a very rare woman.

She had a journalism degree from the University of California at Berkeley and made it to the top in Silicon Valley. Women executives in Silicon Valley still barely outnumber standard typewriters.

Patti Dunn served as a director of the board for Hewlett-Packard for eight years from 1998 to 2006. She was the outside chairman from 2005 to 2006. She resigned after details of a spying scandal became public.

(For those who don’t follow or remember corporate scandals, this incident rivaled any soap opera, prime time or daytime viewing. HP hired private investigators to identify the source of boardroom level leaks to the media. The investigators impersonated reporters and directors to get personal records from phone companies. The investigators also had H-P directors and journalists tailed. And there was even a sting operation on an unsuspecting reporter to coax her to reveal her source.)

Although this behavior does not become anyone who studied journalism, Patti Dunn still had an amazing business career. After college, she started as a temporary secretary at Wells Fargo & Co. She worked her way up to become chief executive of Barclays Global Investors.

So what is it about her journalism education that could have helped propel her to the top?

Even though the traditional journalism profession is shrinking, those who study journalism (as I did) get a strong foundation in key areas. We learn to:

  1. Write under pressure.
  2. Meet deadlines.
  3. Question powerful individuals.
  4. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions.
  5. Listen well.
  6. Synthesize vast amounts of information into a cogent story.
  7. Be tenacious.

All of these skills are important for leading people, projects and my specialty, change initiatives. You’re well prepared to communicate clearly and credibly.

To go to the next level and be an effective change agent, individuals also need a deep understanding of these subjects, which aren’t part of the traditional journalism curriculum:

  • Change, especially behavior change.
  • Influence.
  • Measurement.
  • Facilitation.
  • Business acumen.

It also helps to develop a point of view rather than being a neutral observer, especially since change agents—as well as leaders—need to call people to action.

All of these topics are front and center in my essay, Reinventing our role to provide more value in a connected world, for Melcrum’s Optimizing Global Local Communication research report. These topics are also key for the Strategic Action Group for corporate communication professionals I offer in the spring and fall, and the new Strategic Action Group for independent consultants starting January 27.

I’m grateful for my journalism education, even though I never worked as a professional journalist once I graduated from Northwestern University with a BSJ.

The HP pretexting scandal notwithstanding, I acknowledge the many accomplishments of Patti Dunn in her career. She was an admirable pioneer in so many ways.


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