Name: John H. Alderman IV
Age: 42, the Answer to the Ultimate Question
College & Majors/Minors: North Georgia College: B.A., English (Theater minor). Georgia State University: M.A., English.
Current Location: Atlanta, Ga.
Current Form of Employment: Full-time, corporate
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I’ve been the Director of Executive Communications at what is now Cox Automotive for going on four years. I’m on the corporate communications team and directly support the president of our company with internal and external communications. He’s a former newsman himself, and it’s a special kind of fun to work for a great writer. We co-write (or I edit) speaking points, emails, announcements, blog posts, and video scripts. We develop a lot of presentations together. I also write a weekly operational report for him that goes to the head of our parent company under his signature. In this role I have supported a number of our executives with everything from presentations to videos to emails to talking points to organizational announcements to communications strategy. The variety of communications styles, needs, and content makes this a lot of fun. The opportunities for true thought partnership are fantastic.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
My first job was as a counselor at a therapeutic boarding school up in the mountains. I actually found that job in a newspaper, because in that small community that’s where the jobs were listed. I wasn’t the best counselor there, and wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing for a living; but it taught me a lot about empathy, and reading people, and meeting complex communications needs quickly in sometimes pretty intense situations. It was great to be part of a team trying to help kids grow up a bit in difficult circumstances.
Finding my current position was charmingly serendipitous. A few years ago I was completing a stateside active duty tour with the Georgia National Guard as head of its Communications team. As I was about to transition back to my civilian job at UPS, one of my mentors introduced me to the VP of Communications here, who was looking for an executive communications person. While I had done some executive communications along the way, I had never considered focusing on that alone. Yet it made immediate, perfect sense to me and I’ve had a wonderful time growing into this role. It’s intricate, high-risk, often ambiguous work, but provides an amazing perspective on business. The company has grown from about $1B to $7B through mergers and acquisitions since I came aboard. Very. Exciting. Times.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
This may seem counterintuitive, but my time in the Army National Guard, specifically my eight years in command, was vital to me as a writer. In the first place, leaders lead through communication. There’s no way around this. Commanders write emails, policy letters, and speeches; we speak to groups large and small. Sadly, some of us give memorial speeches and write letters of condolence. I think it would surprise most people just how much rhetoric – written or otherwise – is expected of military leaders.
Moreover, leading 170 rough-and-tumble, delightfully blunt Cavalrymen forces one to communicate clearly, concisely, and with purpose. During our combat tour we helped rebuild a city council in Iraq, which involved some of the most exciting, rewarding, disappointing, complex, and even dangerous rhetorical situations one could ever encounter. It was wonderful. The Iraqis were very, very sharp in debate, and not above using outright trickery if it suited them. My English degrees were decisive in that environment, helping me to keep up with these men who grew up watching their fathers and uncles argue, and had themselves been arguing ever since. I think my language studies also were a big help communicating through an interpreter. There’s a pattern and a rhythm to using a ‘terp, and some really fun techniques of nonverbal communication you can employ during the give-and-take of translation. Fascinating work, and it taught me to simplify and prioritize in all new ways.
My second command was of a Public Affairs unit comprised of 20 journalists and videographers. Being in charge of writers was an adventure in itself, and uniquely challenging. We developed a relentless focus on products that were directly tied to a strategic communications plan supporting the higher command’s operational strategy. The trick was linking ideas and communications tightly enough across media and people that they supported a common goal, yet loosely enough to encourage and enable creativity and motivation in the teams. It was also a ton of fun to coach young writers to tell their stories better and better both from a personal and an organizational point of view.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
I was your prototypical over-engaged undergrad, and not nearly concerned enough about my grades. I don’t recommend this. But I do recommend aggressive pursuit of extra- and co-curricular activities. I was twice on the national champion precision drill team, an amazing experience that instilled relentless attention to detail, unmatched pursuit of perfection, and unreal levels of teamwork. In our theater program, I learned practical, highly technical ways to present a wide range of emotions and non-verbal messages as well as how to read these things in others. Extremely valuable. I also learned leadership and management as an ROTC cadet, faced political inanities on the Student Activity Board, and sucked the marrow out of life by starting a chapter of the Dead Poets Society. (Yes, at a military school.)
As a graduate student, I eventually got my act together and started studying properly. Since I’m not teaching, my most important classes probably were Ancient Rhetoric, Bibliography & Research Methods, Advanced Composition, and Shakespeare in Film. Why the latter? It not only taught me about another medium, but how to apply my craft to another field. And that’s often the trick for us English majors. isn’t it?
Serving time in the writing lab might sound like a prison sentence, but it taught me how to help people write, which isn’t something that can be learned only among English majors. It’s not just the level of technical competence required to identify, analyze, and help someone solve a problem. It’s building relationships and trust in students on the fly when they’re frustrated, wary of our word magic, or both. Quite valuable to me later as a professional communicator.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
I wouldn’t give up my degrees in English for anything. Two main areas of advice: business and philosophy.
When we are at our best, we English majors have a perspective on people, thought, leadership, and communicating that’s hard to beat. Our studies immerse us in the human condition and teach us about people with a scope and intensity that enables us to assimilate, synthesize, and communicate ideas like no one else. Our ability to simplify the complex is priceless and makes us immediately stand out from those around us. So I’d say English majors (especially those veering into the business world) should practice climbing up and down that ladder of abstraction. Get comfortable helping others express simply the whirlwind of thoughts roiling them. They’ll love you for it.
Second, at heart I’m a literature, not composition, guy. Certainly I could have chosen more practical writing courses and fewer literature courses, but I’m glad I didn’t. The writers from my studies – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Tennyson, Eliot, Ovid, Homer – are windows on the soul and dear, dear friends. Countless times in very dark spaces (including in combat), a passage from one of these writers would illuminate the incomprehensible, or reinvigorate my faith, or simply serve as a touchstone of sanity in an insane world. More than once I repeated Tennyson as a mantra: “Be near me when my light is low, be near me when my light is low.” Great literature can seep into us, change us deep inside and help balance us as thinkers, leaders, friends, and workers. Beauty for the bad times, levity for the grim times, balance for the giddy times, words for the important times. We should revel in this and let it shape our perspectives and our work.