John Onoda

My first professional job was as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in Omaha, Nebraska; and I remember standing on a street corner the day before starting work and thinking that I had made the biggest mistake in my life.  I knew no one in this strange city, whose culture and ambiance seemed to be a Twilight-Zonish throwback to the 1950’s.  The paper had a bizarre layout that was so strange even the locals referred to it as the “Weird Harold.”  The biggest attraction in town was the local race track with the strange name Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska, spelled backwards, get it?)   At the first big party I was invited to, the host had thoughtfully set out a display of tooth floss for the guests to use.

Instead of launching myself onto the fast track to fame and fortune, I had walked right into a career dead-end, or so I thought.

Well, the paper was eccentric, to say the least; but it was small enough to let me be very entrepreneurial and to pursue my own interests.  For example, since I wasn’t meeting any women on my normal assignments, I volunteered to write the weekly fine arts column (which meant I got to hang out at galleries and attend artists’ openings); and as a result met my future wife when I wrote about her work at the local art museum.

I left Omaha after a year and then worked for The Houston Chronicle, the largest newspaper in the South.  For four years I worked all the major news beats — city hall, crime, transportation, etc. — and also did investigative reports.  I loved being a reporter and probably had more on-the-job exhilaration at this job than at any other point in my career.  Texas is just full of colorful characters and you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up occurrences, so practicing journalism there is a license to live life to the fullest.

I switched to public relations for the money, pure and simple.  As a reporter, I really didn’t know anything about PR except like everyone else in the newsroom I held flacks in casual disdain while envying them their corporate credit cards and higher salaries.  I thought the transition would be simple since I believed all either profession required was listening and writing.  I was wrong and came close to being fired my first year on the job, working for Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. the largest independent oil and gas company, back in the 1980’s.

Someone in Mitchell Energy’s small but excellent communications department took pity on me and taught me the basics of public relations.  Since I had entered corporate communications to make money, I decided that I should try to make as much as possible, which I guessed meant that I should try to become the head of a communications department at a Fortune 50 company.  Of course, in my blissful ignorance I had no idea of the odds against my attainment of that goal.  I am by nature a planner, so I created a plan to pursue my career objective.  I decided that corporate communications was comprised of a number of specialized practices — media relations, executive communications, financial communications, employee communications, issues and crisis management, etc. — and that I would work in a sequence of jobs that would allow me to gain expertise in every one of these areas.  And that is what I did.

So, here are the positions I held over the following 27 years, along with the kinds of skills and experiences I acquired:

  • Senior Communications Associate, Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.  Beyond learning the difference between journalism and public relations, I gained experience in media relations, employee communications, publications, and special events.
  • Director, External Communications, Holiday Corporation (the parent company of Holiday Inn hotels,  Hampton Inn hotels, Resident Inn hotels and Harrah’s casinos.  This was the first time I ran a department and the first time I had international responsibilities.  I also oversaw financial communications (including annual reports, quarterly reports, etc.), brand communications, product communications, and global communications.  Holiday fought off a takeover attempt by Donald Trump, and that experience taught me a lot about waging war in the financial press.
  • Director, Media Relations, McDonald’s Corporation.  This job was mostly issues and crises management on a global scale.  My staff was largely focused on nutrition, environmental and restaurant site issues.  An important skill set I gained at this job was learning to work with a vast global network of public relations agencies.
  • Vice President, Corporate Communications, Levi Strauss & Co.  This was the first job where I was responsible for all aspects of the function on a global basis, including budgets, strategic planning, and administration.  It was the first time I reported directly to the chairman of the company.  It was the first time I supervised video production people.  For the first time, I gained a lot of experience interacting with labor unions and also the first time I was involved in large-scale plant shut downs. The big earthquake hit in 1989, so I gained a lot of invaluable experience in how to manage and communicate during a major business disruption; and also how to prepare for the next one.  The internet became accessible during the early 1990’s, so learning how to use it became a major objective; and Levi’s was one of the first companies to develop both a vibrant web site and an engaging intranet.    Corporate social responsibility was a major factor in my job and has continued to be important to me ever since. Most importantly, at Levi Strauss I received a tremendous education on the difference between managing and leading, and this was probably the single most important lesson of my entire career.
  • Vice President, Corporate Communications, General Motors.  At the time, GM was still No. 1 on the list of the Fortune 500, as it had been since the list was started.  I was supposed to manage the function primarily thought a strategy council, which was comprised of peers from all the major business units and staff functions.  A great deal of time and effort is spent directing the career development of the professionals at GM, and I had never before been part of such an elaborate exercise.  My corporate staff was large enough to have some research and survey specialists, which was new for me, and which I found to be very helpful.  This was also the first job in which a significant part of my personal life had to be spent in work-related social activities, often with my wife.
  • Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications, Visa USA.  This was my first time working for an association, which has an internal dynamic very different from that of a corporation.  Visa was also unusual in that it was directed by a board whose members were the association’s largest owners and customers.  Since the company was not being run for the benefit of shareholders, it had a very different approach to business, and that took some getting used to.
  • Chief Communications Officer, Charles Schwab & Co.  Unfortunately, the 9-11 bombing occurred shortly after I took on this role and the stock market went into cardiac arrest, which had a devastating effect on a company whose main line of business was electronic stock trading.  The major new learning for me ended up being how to whittle down a staff by 40 percent during the first year on the job.  Sad.
  • Senior Consultant, Fleishman Hillard Communications.  This was my first stint on the agency side, and I’ve found that the business mind set is very different from that on the client side.  As my title indicates, I do mostly consulting in this role, so this is the first time I have no direct responsibility for outcomes, which is quite a change from what I was used to.  For the first time, I have no staff to oversee and work mostly at home.  I get to draw on my 20 years of corporate experience and have been gratified to work for clients such as Chevron, AT&T, Amgen, Genentech, Sun, Oracle, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Hallmark, Visa, and many others.

Although I entered public relations for the money, it quickly became one of the least significant factors in my career considerations.  In fact, I in some ways took financial steps backwards during the first three or four moves I made, because I believed that it was important to get the jobs that would provide me with the experiences I needed to become the sort of professional I aspired to be.

A last thought:  I believe that you will best advance your career by continually improving yourself as a communications professional, business person, manager, skilled politician, client of service providers, team member, consultant,  and, most importantly, as a leader.  The sort of change I’m talking about does not come easily.  It requires a lot of hard work acknowledging your shortcomings, overcoming your fears, unlearning bad habits and taking risks.  It means approaching every day as a student eager for knowledge.  It helps a lot to have a coach or, better yet, a mentor.  Mine was Al Geduldig.  Great colleagues who care enough to let you know when you’re on the wrong track are also important.  I’ve been lucky to had such people in my life.

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