BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re a communicator.”
Mark Lambert, then-Illinois Corn Growers Association and Illinois Corn Marketing Board communications director, gave that sage advice to Lindsay Mitchell just over 15 years ago and she has since worked her way up the ladder of success to that same position Lambert had held.
Mitchell grew up on her family’s Christian County farm between Taylorville and Assumption, graduated from Taylorville High School and went on to the University of Illinois, majoring in animal science. She wanted to go on to veterinary school at U of I.
“If you see something that isn’t getting done, just step in and do it.”— Lindsay Mitchell, communications director, Illinois Corn Growers Association and Illinois Corn Marketing Board
However, she found a “T” in the intersection halfway through her college career and went in another direction.
“I started thinking more about having a family and what my life would look like and so I decided to add an ag education teaching certificate and added that degree on to my college plan. I was able to get both of those degrees finished within the five years that I was at U of I,” Mitchell said.
“So, I left there with a degree in animal science and ag education. I student taught in Downs and lived in Bloomington during that time.”
After her student teaching was completed, she decided to take another career path turn.
“I didn’t feel like that was the right place for me. So, living in Bloomington, I ended up getting my very first job in ag at Illinois Farm Bureau where I worked in governmental affairs and commodities,” she said.
Mitchell moved on to Illinois Corn five years later where she found her calling.
“I had zero communications training at that point. However, I was on the newspaper staff in high school, I was yearbook editor. I have always been a writer, a journaler, even at Farm Bureau I was freelance writing,” she noted.
“I think that probably there were some arrows if I had paid attention pointing me to communications, but I wasn’t paying attention. I came to Corn as a project coordinator and worked my way up the old-fashioned way.”
One of her first tasks at Illinois Corn was when Lambert asked her to ghostwrite a story for the organization’s president at the time. Lambert read it, and said Mitchell was a communicator.
“I guess that story was good, and from there Mark really just coached me into this position. I would say my communication training started a little more than 15 years ago when I started at Corn and over my full career including Farm Bureau,” she said.
Her role at Illinois Corn began as project coordinator and then director of marketing before landing her current position as ICGA/ICMB communications and marketing director.
“I still really enjoy writing. I really enjoy writing web content for us or press releases or statements. That has always been my biggest communications skill set. I also really enjoy the work that we do with Illinois Farm Families. I like the coalition that I work with,” Mitchell said.
“It’s fun to bounce ideas off of those other communicators in Illinois Farm Families — Illinois Farm Bureau, Corn, Soy, Beef, Pork and Dairy. There’s just a lot of energy there.”
Another favorite part of her position is “trying to boil down the really complicated things we talk about like ethanol — very chemistry, mechanics heavy — and trying to make the palatable for somebody who doesn’t understand any of those things. Trying to find a way to explain the complicated topics to someone simply is enjoyable.”
The biggest challenge she’s experienced so far in her career is making sure the message gets across to folks.
“People’s attention spans are very short and because our issues are very complicated sometimes it’s hard to get their attention long enough. I end up trying to come up with a sound bite,” she said.
“So, maybe if someone just hears ‘a deal is a deal’ that we used once. If somebody hears that they can get the idea that someone has gone back on their word. If they’re willing to give me a little more time, I can explain the whole thing. That is really complicated for me sometimes to try to get someone to understand a complicated topic when I only get five seconds of their attention.”
Over the last two decades there has been a large shift to social media platforms becoming such a part of people’s lives. With that there can be a blur between facts and fiction at times and the increased challenge to get truth out there.
“It is different and I feel like people in my age bracket are a little bit at a disadvantage where we weren’t raised with all of these technologies and now we’re living in a world where we have to use them. It is complicated and I think that’s attributed to people’s lack of attention span and this idea that I get five seconds or 10 seconds of your time,” Mitchell said.
“I think the thing that I have learned and still learning because I have a really good staff and good communicators around me is we have to be willing to be a little bit more entertaining. We used to want to be professional, authoritative, I have all the answers, and I still want Illinois Corn as an association to be viewed that way, but I also have to step back be a little less serious sometimes and be willing to entertain someone long enough to get their attention.
“That’s a difficult balance to strike and it can be a challenge and a tightrope because I don’t want to look goofy. I don’t want my farmers that I’m representing to look goofy, but I also want to get the attention of a consumer who might have a tiny little bit of interest in what I’m talking about.”
Do The Work
Mitchell’s career path had some turns and she has some recommendations based on her own life experience.
“My career path really was just get in and work your way up. Learn as you go with on the job training,” she said.
Mitchell has four children, a 21-year-old, a recent high school graduate and a junior and sophomore in high school that are also looking ahead to their own careers.
“I basically tell them, ‘You’re going to end up where you’re supposed to be even in spite of yourself sometimes, because when you have a skill set be willing to find that and use it,’” Mitchell said.
“For me, in the beginning, it was a hobby, but I was honing that whole time, I just didn’t realize it maybe. You just have to be willing to never quit learning, put in the time, look for opportunities and meet people. I tend to be introverted, which I don’t think a lot of people would guess, but I force myself to try to get to know people and prove myself to other groups of people.
“What I see in my own kids, the high school and college age, is sometimes the hesitancy to really talk to people on a one-on-one level because that is not a skill they’ve developed in their online world. There’s a hesitancy to talk on the phone to people, a hesitancy to sit down and share a meal at the state fair and that’s how you really get to know people.
“My other piece of advice is if you see something that isn’t getting done, just step in and do it. There were many, many times throughout my career when I would notice that, OK, we need to get this letter written to such and such congressman.
“When I was at Farm Bureau and just an administrative assistant working in governmental affairs and commodities, I would just draft that letter. And it might be completely wrong, but it was a place to start for people that needed to decide what was in the letter.
“If you’re working and you’re proving that you’re helpful and you’re willing to just step in and make the team look good, then people give you a chance and they’ll train you for a skill that you have.”