How I went from a hippie living in a commune to a high-powered ad exec

Pam Workman, SVP Director of Reputation Mgt
Source; Pam Workman
Pam Workman, SVP Director of Reputation Mgt

In the early 90's, I was living in an intentional community off of a dirt road in western Massachusetts, learning about eastern medicine, organic gardening and myself. Today, I sit today at 200 Fifth Avenue, running internal culture and external marketing for Grey Advertising as director of reputation management.

I didn't know it at the time, but my future career and life's purpose was developing even while living among hippies – one based on people, community, culture and communications. My early goal, to be a writer sharing the importance of alternative living, eating and thinking, led me to New York City, where I pursued a master's program in journalism at New York University.

Writing about music and culture led to my first job, working in creative development at VH1 and Viacom, and then on to employee number one at a young music company with some big names behind it. (Ever heard of Garth Brooks?) Yet just when I thought I found my footing as a young music executive, I lost my job in the early 2000s. Thank you, digital revolution.

The mass music business exodus began, and with it, I found myself shifting from managing and representing artists, to publicizing them. I spent the remainder of my 20's and early 30's in marketing and PR for songwriters and bands ranging from Billy Idol to the Buzzcocks. To me, there was nothing that universally connected people more than music.

I ultimately chose to graduate from rock stars to tech stars (which felt a little bit like growing up) as my passions evolved to focus on how great ideas (much like great musical experiences) can change the world. And so I dived into the blossoming New York tech community, helping publicize the launch of a slew of social networks and technology solution companies, including Russell Simmons' GlobalGrind, Vibe Media Group, ParentSociety/Cutekid.com, CPX Interactive and more.

And yet, even armed with 10 years of experience, I confronted another job loss in 2009 when the boutique agency I worked for was pummeled by the Great Recession. Gathering up my virtual rolodex, two loyal clients and a whole lot of chutzpah, I decided to launch my own PR firm out of my second bedroom. For the next six years, I built a business working with creative companies, entrepreneurs and innovators ranging including Northside Media Group and Festival, Lippincott, Man Made Music, SESAC, Young Woo & Associates and more.

In 2015, Grey Group knocked on my door and I walked through theirs. I was ready for a new, perhaps bigger challenge - the opportunity to market a global organization working among some of the most creative business leaders in the world and my journey prepared me for the task. Here are my five top tips for surviving job loss, switching careers and thriving in any industry:

"I may now live in an urban jungle and shudder at the thought of going without wifi, but at my core, I'm still just a hippie on a mission to bring together great people through culture, community and the next big idea."

1. It's always about the people: Whether living on an intentional commune or at the top of a corporate ladder, no matter the role, knowing how to talk, evangelize and sell your ideas to people might as well be part of any job or life description. Success at a large agency or organization, or even a small one, never happens alone in a room. Understanding the value of the people you work with is one of the most fundamental tools to success and happiness at work. In my role as head of culture and external marketing at Grey, part of my job is being aware of the wants and needs of our community. Only then can I understand what programs we need to develop or tweak, the messaging that should be conveyed, and how best to relay it in order to keep our community connected and inspired.

2. Everyone is a creative: Yes, advertising is the business of creativity. But today's most competitive companies understand that creativity is part of everyone's job. At Grey, we seek all kinds of creative thinkers, makers and doers across the spectrum of agency roles, from HR to finance, account management to strategy. We believe it is a collective responsibility to be a creative problem solver, thinker and leader in order to deliver great work. This shared accountability is behind Grey's rapid growth over the last 10 years, and what continues to help us land new business and recruit talented people. I may not come from the agency world, but everything I do is infused with creative thinking and problem solving. Harnessing creativity is a must for any job seeker in today's market where change is constant and job roles are increasingly mutable and evolving. It takes a nimble creative person to sort through these kind of dynamics.

3. Diversity to the win: The best creative output comes from diverse thought, talent and people. I firmly believe the years I spent traveling the world and living alternatively among people from all walks of life was the best education I've ever received. What makes one person different can be your best asset. As noted in The McKinsey Study, Diversity Matters, gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to financially outperform, while ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform their non-diverse counterparts. Diversity comes in many forms be it ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Diversity can come in the form of variety of experiences. People who have explored interesting places and played different roles bring a unique viewpoint to their professional lives. Steve Jobs may have been a white male, but his early years exploring the world and his alternative ideas have been directly attributed his success in building and developing Apple.

4. Industry knowledge is power: Making a jump from one industry to another actually looks more like an evolution when done correctly. My interest in working with creative organizations and agencies began years prior to becoming formally employed at Grey. I joined a number of advertising and marketing trade organizations and attended networking events in order to gain a better understand of the landscape and opportunities, building my growing network of agency contacts and experience into a job opportunity. Every industry has its own trade groups and networking events to tap into and start learning.

5. Culture is key: Excelling at any new organization takes more than an understanding of its industry and business. There must also be a good cultural fit. Advertising and creative agencies in particular put a very large emphasis on culture, and can be quick to reject those that don't understand how to work within its system. More and more global companies are following the lead of folks like Richard Branson and Tony Hsieh, who incorporate internal culture as a fundamental asset of their brand. It's important to understand what kind of environment you are seeking and entering into if you are considering a new job opportunity or changing industries. This goes beyond the traditional vetting of company benefits. It's also about understanding how people connect with each other on a day to day basis within the organization. For example, does the company celebrate successes? Is it a highly competitive culture or is team-work encouraged and supported? Does the company invest in its own employees for additional training, education or social activities? What kind of perks come with the job? More and more companies are paying attention to the vital importance of their culture and the research coming out on the direct correlation between employee satisfaction with increased productivity and higher retention rates. When I first came to Grey, the strength of the culture was obvious and inclusive, and that's how I knew I would be successful in my new position.

I'm now a year into my transition from boutique PR agency owner to advertising executive. I've spent time learning the goals and needs of my executive team, colleagues and larger agency community in order to build Grey's programs and marketing strategy. But what I find most fascinating is how my early life experiences on a commune and traveling the world, not only resonate, but also drive my current professional philosophy. I may now live in an urban jungle and shudder at the thought of going without wifi, but at my core, I'm still just a hippie on a mission to bring together great people through culture, community and the next big idea.

Commentary by Pam Workman, senior vice president, director of reputation management, Grey Group. Follow her on Twitter @Workmanpr.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.