A Conversation with Brenda Siler, IABC's 1998-99 Chairwoman
Gordon, Gloria, Communication World
Brenda Siler has more than 20 years' experience in corporate communication and nonprofit management, and has worked as a consultant. In addition to her many activities for IABC, she has been active in many other professional and community organizations. She served as vice president of IABC/Atlanta, in several posts for the multiculturalism committee, and as director-at-large on the executive board before being elected IABC chairwoman. She chaired IABC's Chapter Management Forum and the program advisory committee that planned the content for the 1996 and 1997 international conferences. In 1990, she received the IABC/Atlanta President's Award, one of the highest recognitions given to a local chapter member. Siler has given presentations to college students and professional organizations, and was named one of "Ten Outstanding Atlantans" by the city's mayor in 1989. In 1999 she was cited by PR WEEK as one of "12 Leading African Americans in PR."
Currently Slier is director of communication at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of chief executive officers from leading businesses, organized labor and universities.
Gloria Gordon: As you near completion of your term as IABC's chair, what do you feel were the most significant achievements during your term of office?
Brenda Slier: We did a good job of articulating a message about value for IABC. As executive board and chapter leaders discussed the proposed dues increase, we could all connect on the importance of this global membership association and how IABC affects our abilities to be effective business communicators.
Even though IABC's membership continues to grow, what measures do you feel we should take to increase membership substantially, especially internationally?
We are making progress in our growth outside of North America, but there is always more we can do. We hope IABC will continue to make more services accessible to that important member sector. An example was our successful IABC/Europe conference held in October. Plans are under way to have another small conference in Europe next year. We also will offer some of IABC's seminars outside of North America. These efforts plus others should turn into recruitment opportunities for us.
IABC has been using a business plan since 1995 to focus on its work. As this plan continues to evolve to meet members' needs, do you see any major changes or revisions occurring?
As businesses continue to grow globally, this will definitely have an effect on how IABC conducts its work. IABC has a solid business plan, but there is an opportunity to grow our electronic community by offering e-commerce and regular online discussion groups. This can be a part of a member communication, professional development and member recruitment strategy.
What do you consider to be the most significant factor in achieving unanimous approval of IABC's board of directors to institute a dues increase?
IABC has done an excellent job in recent years with its long-range planning through the development of financial scenarios. These scenarios allow executive board leaders to plan five years out for association/member needs. This type of planning with IABC staff, along with identifying the value and need, allowed for thorough and thoughtful deliberation on the dues increase issue.
You have had a very busy travel schedule during your term of office. What did you find to be some of the most important issues facing communicators at the grass-roots level?
I lived the most important issue this year - that is, how do we find the time to do it all? I was surprised to learn that many IABCers thought I was on a one-year sabbatical to fulfill my role as IABC chair. That could not be further from the truth! I had to be IABC's chief volunteer officer while keeping my full-time job and tending to family obligations. It is getting harder and harder to manage our time and responsibilities. This forces us to be more creative with our time and talents.
How did you become involved in IABC?
Back when one could do so, I assumed the membership of a person who had preceded me at the United Way in Atlanta. I began going to chapter meetings and liked the feel of the group. I then volunteered for a committee that put me in charge of membership, thus placing me on the chapter board. I then got involved in the Multicultural Communicators Committee, eventually becoming chairwoman of that committee. My MCC involvement brought me to the executive board and other international-level leadership assignments.
How do you feel the profession has evolved since you first became a member of IABC?
I've been in the profession almost 25 years. I've seen us go from generalist to specialist and now in many cases, back to generalist. Our communication departments shrank in the late 1980s to early 1990s; now we are seeing the communication function expand, if not on site then through the use of consultants. I get a lot of phone calls from executive recruiters - something is going on because there appear to be jobs out there. Also the technology expands the type of work we do, the way we work and our audiences. Sometimes I think the technology may be the reason that some of us have turned back into generalists. We can do a lot with computers, phone lines, etc., but technology can never take the place of applying the strategy. I feel IABC has to keep that message in the forefront of our profession's growth.
Do you see IABC as a major force influencing the practice of communication in the future? If so, what must IABC do to accomplish this?
IABC must continue its international growth. The association's environmental scan released last year tells us that as we increase as a global economy, business communicators need to ensure that they possess the right skills for the future. The association's work should keep this in mind as programs are developed. We also need to develop partnerships with non-communicators - such as HR, IT, knowledge managers - to do our jobs effectively.
What do you feel the association could or should do to serve the needs of both entry-level and senior-level communicators?
I think IABC has the right mix to meet the needs of business communicators at every level. As we keep abreast of what is happening in the world around us, then IABC should develop the appropriate programming. I would like to see IABC work more closely with educators to expand the view of global business communicators to our "communicators-in-training."
If you were starting your professional communication career today, what would you do differently?
I don't know if I would do anything differently. I've always been a generalist, and I think that has served me well. I have spent most of my career in nonprofit and association communication where I have learned how to be frugal and to seek out pro-bono assistance, sponsorships and donations. These are skills that I have brought to my many IABC roles. Though I did not know it 25 years ago, I think my communication path has been the right one.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
I have always felt that the way to acquire power is to give it away. My style is to empower and nurture others. I have a lot of ideas, so sometimes it is hard to contain myself. But I know that it is more productive to lead folks through the problem-solving process, allowing them to better realize the possibilities. That makes a stronger impact than preaching, telling or giving orders.
In summary, what do you consider the most important issues facing communicators - and IABC as an association - today?
I still think we have a long way to go on the diversity front. Whether you call it multiculturalism, cross-culturalism or whatever, we still have some educating to do and some hurdles to overcome. Again, IABC's environmental scan tells us this. As business communicators, we can help our organization articulate its strategy for serving diverse populations. Within IABC, we need to ensure that we continue to broaden our membership base and are inclusive on every level in every way. We cannot afford to be complacent on this one!…