Paula PhotoBy Emily Major

Paula Nesbitt’s passionate interest in ethics and cross-cultural communication has led to a varied career in teaching and consulting. A longtime member of IABC, Paula chaired the first IABC Ethics Committee and helped to develop a foundational code of ethics for the global organization’s board.

Before joining SF IABC, Paula was a member of IABC Colorado, where she taught ethics and directed a new ethics and values institute at the University of Denver. She recently described her career evolution, reflected on her sources of inspiration and empowerment, and shared thoughts on IABC’s new Communication Management Professional (CMP) certification program.

How did you first become involved with SF IABC?

After moving to the Bay Area from Denver, my first SF IABC event was an Independent Communicators’ Roundtable (ICR) meeting. The program sounded interesting, and the roundtable format was ideal for meeting other consultants. Later, when I attended my first regular chapter program, I saw several familiar faces from the ICR who introduced me to other communicators.

In your career as an independent consultant, what industry have you focused on and what has interested you the most about your role as a communicator in it?

Over the years I’ve consulted for a wide range of industries. More recently, the majority of my clients have been nonprofit and charitable organizations. Their strong sense of vision and desire to make a positive difference in the world inspires a sense of contributing to a larger purpose. Particularly intriguing for me as a consultant is the creative challenge of achieving transformative outcomes with sometimes very limited resources.

How has your communication career evolved?

I came to organizational communication with a degree in psychology and a year in an MFA creative writing program. At first I focused on publications editing and then branched out to media relations and communication strategy. During this period I worked for a hospital, bank, private utility, and forest products company, and at one point had my own studio before accepting an offer from one of my clients to go “in-house.”

Eventually, I entered graduate school to study cross-cultural ethics at Harvard Divinity School. There, I got a deeper understanding of how people’s different religious and cultural worldviews inform their ethics. I stayed at Harvard to do a Ph.D. in sociology, where I could study a range of theoretical and applied aspects useful in communication. During this time, IABC Chairman Bob Berzok, ABC, asked me to work on a code of ethics for the IABC Board that would be truly international in scope and later to chair the first IABC Ethics Committee.

For several years I taught ethics and then directed a new ethics and values institute at the University of Denver. Coming to the Bay Area, I taught sociology of work and other courses at UC Berkeley and broadened my consulting into different nonprofit groups. Currently I’m consulting and writing a book on conflict transformation, which involves cross-cultural communication at the deepest level.

As an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC), what excites you about the new direction the global IABC organization is taking, especially with respect to the launch of the first module of the new Communication Management Professional (CMP) certification program?

When I heard that the ABC was being discontinued, I was disappointed and yet delighted that IABC was replacing it with another professional development format. One of the key values for individuals like me who came to organizational communication from different fields is the foundational professional development structure that supports a communication management and leadership career. I found it transforming to gain a coherent perspective of the profession and the self-confidence necessary to move forward.

The certification program is well organized and covers key areas of contemporary competency needed for proficient organizational communication. The program is also highly ambitious in the amount of professional development and cost required to achieve and maintain annual certification. Time will tell whether this program effectively fits how communication is lived out organizationally and occupationally by IABC members today.

What is the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?

During the first years of my career, a boss once said to me, “I think you can do anything you want.” His comment surprised me. It also empowered me to take risks and to find the inner strength to succeed when the odds were against it. Those words also gave me the resilience to learn from experiences where I didn’t succeed, to be a problem solver, and to embrace a “can do” spirit.

Which writer (and which work of that writer) has had the greatest impact on you?

The great philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou taught me about the importance of relationships, where no one should be treated like an object (an “it”). In The Knowledge of Man, his argument of propagandists not fully believing their own position, which explained over-defensiveness and censorship of differing messages, validated the importance of transparent communication. For me, Buber has had an important impact on emphasizing the value of honesty and humility in communication for building credibility and trust.

What’s something that most IABC colleagues may not know about you?

My first career aim was to be a musical composer. But I grew up in a time and place when women were not encouraged to compose serious works, and so I wandered into other creative areas. Organizational communication shares many facets with musical composition. Good internal and external communication, across a wide variety of constituencies, creates a sort of music that is energizing. With points of tension and resolution, it engages the melody of message, the harmony of difference, and the rhythm of consistency.