We talk about overcoming limiting beliefs, the vulnerability of writing a book and the privilege of speaking out.
Editor CAROLINE PAIGE
It doesn’t matter what your title or salary is. It’s how you present yourself as a leader in conversations and the thoughtfulness you bring to discussions.
My fifth interview for the FEMALE LEADERS series is with Advita Patel. She’s a straight-talking communications and inclusion specialist and owner of Comms Rebel. And she’s leading a rebellion to make the comms industry more diverse because she knows what it feels like when you don’t fit in. She’s a newly published author and a builder of communities who wants to do things differently.
Why did you set up Comms Rebel?
I’d worked in corporates for 20 years and liked the comfort of a nine-to-five with a salary every month. You know, the kind of stuff that makes you feel safe. Then I hit a wall, my career wasn’t moving and my confidence crashed.
I researched confidence and why so many of us struggle with it – imposter syndrome, inner critic and self-esteem. I realised if I wanted to progress, I had to address my self-limiting beliefs. This had to be on me, not anybody else. People around you can cause some of those symptoms and people can tell you you’re brilliant. But until you start believing in your own self-worth and advocate for yourself, you can’t move forward.
A few years ago, I won a Northern Power Women Future Leader award. I was asked to speak at an event that changed my life. I’d never spoken in public before and – I’m not gonna lie, Caroline – I was nervous. I was going to share my career with 120 incredible women. My confidence was improving, but I still didn’t feel I’d much value to add.
After, loads of women told me they felt inspired and connected. Especially women of colour who’d never really seen someone like them talk about their career. That really struck me. So, I grabbed a glass of prosecco, stood on the balcony in the venue and decided to start my own business.
I spent two years building my visibility in the comms space. I worked out my brand, what I wanted to do and what value I wanted to bring to the industry.
Did you face any challenges setting up a business?
There were shaky moments during Covid and I had to adjust. That’s business, right? You have to be bold enough to say this is what I’ll try and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. You’ve got to believe in your own worth and that you can do it. If you don’t, you won’t convince clients to believe in you.
When you hold yourself back like that, you’re not living to your true potential. We all have confidence crises, but it’s important to have mechanisms in place so you can brush yourself off when you fail. It’s about how fast you come back from failure and how you can use the community you built to support you.
Where do you find community?
To start with I found my community mostly on social media. I started the Comms Hive because there wasn’t much going on for comms professionals in Manchester. I was feeling a bit lonely in work and wanted to share ideas with peers. I wanted a community of thinkers who want to do things differently.
I hired a private room in a restaurant and posted on Twitter about it. I said there were seats for ten people and did anyone want to come? Loads of people said yes! I ended up doing dinners all over the UK. During Covid I moved it online so we could meet up and check in with each other.
That group is a really safe space. I’ve met everyone. We don’t get trolls or people trying to sell. I love community building, which is why I developed the Comms Rebel app with the Engage Solutions team. It has 400 comms professionals from across the globe sharing ideas and resources. I wanted this space to be a place where people could access good practice and ask questions in a safe environment.
Social media isn’t always a safe space to explore questions. Evoking curiosity and doing things differently is why I’m hosting Unleash Your Inner Rebel in Manchester on 14 June. It’s a place for like-minded folks to get together and listen to people outside their echo chamber.
Have you experienced trolling?
When I first started Comms Rebel I was trolled quite badly. I had an online calendar where people could make appointments and I got trolled through that. I got emails from random accounts saying I wasn’t going to succeed. And I kept getting fake clients asking me to submit loads of stuff. They’d come back saying they’d looked into my company and I wasn’t as qualified as they thought. They’d say quite hurtful things. It would turn out there was no client – it was all fake.
It felt like it came from nowhere and was a continuous battle for a while. Until I connected with others being trolled. Together, we worked it out. I had several trolls. But we realised there was one attacking several comms professionals. That was shocking. You don’t expect people to go that far to bring somebody down.
It taught me something about who I am and not to let other people’s opinions bring me down. When I got those first emails, I thought maybe I was rubbish. I believed it – until I realised it was a fake client. It took me a while to feel OK, but I learnt something. I was open about being trolled and the community I’d built really supported me. Find the people who’ll keep you sane and healthy.
It’s unfollow and block straight away.
How do you deal with trolling?
When you start putting yourself out there, you’ll get people who disagree with you. You can have opposing views and still be kind. If there’s any rudeness or unkindness, I don’t entertain the discussion. It’s unfollow and block straight away.
When somebody just disagrees with my point of view, that’s different. Then we can have a conversation. We all have biases and things we believe. But we may not have the experience of others, so listening to where they’re coming from is important. You may agree with them or you might not. But it’s important to be able to have that conversation and not be fearful of it.
We’re in a space where we tend to be extreme in our arguments. They can quickly become unkind and not fruitful. Or, we don’t say anything because we don’t want to upset anyone. Buster Jensen talks about productive disagreement. It’s looking for the best outcome and thinking about it during a difficult discussion. We’re conditioned to win. But we’re more successful when we replace that desire with wanting the best outcome.
And you can choose whether you want to get involved. You may not have the headspace or capacity to engage and you don’t have to. People can have their opinion – you don’t need to answer every single person.
Can you recommend a good read?
I’ve been reading a great book by Shonda Rhimes called The Year of Yes. She created the TV series Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Although she seems confident, she’s battled inner demons about who she is. She declined loads of stuff. And she wasn’t helping herself to thrive, so she decided to spend a year saying yes to opportunities.
Her book resonated with me. When I was invited to speak at the Northern Power event, I had to say yes because it’s what I’d promised myself when I was reading Shonda’s book. That was my first try at public speaking. Now, I speak globally and I love every minute. All that happened because I said yes.
You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, otherwise you’d be a mug.
Did you enjoy writing a book?
Priya Bates and I started writing Building a Culture of Inclusivity last year. We’d never really had an ambition to until I read Inclusion and Purpose by Ruchika Tulshyan. We realised there wasn’t a book written by underrepresented communication professionals for comms people. Especially one to help them understand the role they play in diversity and inclusion.
I think we’re the first women of colour to write about internal communications. Somebody may correct me, but if you can look really hard and not find someone that’s a problem, right?
The first chapter I wrote was about trust. I procrastinated and doubted myself. It feels vulnerable – putting your thoughts in a book for others to read. I reminded myself of the value it’ll bring. I have one of my favourite quotes on a pin badge. It’s: “You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, otherwise you’d be a mug.”
Silence is a bit of a privilege … you need to speak up when people are being treated differently
Is there a right time to speak out when you think something isn’t right?
People often say they don’t know enough about inclusion and diversity, so they can’t say anything. Silence is a bit of a privilege. If you pay attention to the environment around you and want to change the lives of others in it, you need to speak up when people are being treated differently because of their characteristic.
People often say they can’t change policy and can’t change things like deep-rooted systemic racism, sexism and homophobia. But in your own environment – where you see discrimination – you have the power to speak out. You can say, I don’t think it’s fair Caroline makes the tea all the time. Somebody else should probably do it. Or I don’t think it’s fair Sunita takes notes every meeting. I think somebody else should. Those are powerful statements that can make a difference.
Finally, what advice would you share with women who want to become leaders?
We all have opportunities to be leaders. It doesn’t matter what your title or salary is. It’s how you present yourself as a leader in conversations and the thoughtfulness you bring to discussions. It’s about understanding what you want to contribute.
A personal brand (or visibility) is really important. It’s who you are and what you want people to say about you when you’re not in the room. I think about that all the time. What is it I’m trying to do? What impression do I want to make on other people? How do I want to help? That’s leadership – influencing and helping others to grow and thrive. You can lead from the role you’re in.
Comms Rebel helps organisations build inclusive cultures from the inside out. They’re a fast-growing internal communications and employee experience consultancy. And they’re on a mission to improve how people feel at work.