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2023 Marketing Communications Awards
Chapter President of the Year 2023

My Journey From Pack Mule to Unicorn

By Janki DePalma, CPSM, LEED AP
Early in my career, I was the unlucky recipient of two back-to-back firm layoffs. I learned quickly that the newest, youngest marketing hire was in a vulnerable position. To cope, I made myself likable and hyper-produced without complaining, hoping to be respected and safe. I became what I call a “pack mule.” After years, I realized that while pack mules are useful, they are not treasured. The precious equine creatures in our kingdom are unicorns. Unicorns own their unique traits and enhance the lives of everyone around them. I share my story to encourage you to let go of pack mule behavior and release your unicorn!

Fawn trauma response

Did you know that the human brain’s primary job is self-preservation? When faced with stress, the amygdala portion of the brain takes over, rendering the prefrontal cortex (the thinking space) inactive. It makes sense evolutionarily; you have no time to ponder when chased by a bear. Additionally, traumatic events create neurological roadmaps for next time. The brain likes shortcuts, so if a technique works, your brain will use it. Psychologists have identified several responses to stress, including fight, flight, and freeze. In 2003, psychotherapist Pete Walker coined the phrase “fawn response” as part of his research on chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). As social creatures, we realized that pleasing/placating the aggressor could prevent or reduce harm. The fawn response displays as people pleasing and codependency and is prevalent in workplace trauma such as job insecurity, discrimination, or bullying.

Pack mule- definition

Did you know that mules do not occur naturally? They are a hybrid animal born sterile- they cannot reproduce! My “pack mule” definition comes from an image of the Gold Rush miner who piles his mule with all his equipment, making it trek through the Sierra foothills in the hopes of striking it rich. The mule carries a lot, making the miner’s job easier.
After those layoffs, I remember thinking that the best way to be “safe” resided in the false narrative that the more I could carry, the more valued I’d be, and my job would always be safe. This created a vicious cycle where I was overworked, overwhelmed, and unable to voice my needs. While carrying a heavy load may seem valuable, ultimately, the burnout you face will negatively affect your firm, too. My logic wasn’t working. Why wasn’t I moving forward when I was carrying so much? That’s when I discovered the truth. Mules don’t get promoted… unicorns do.
I reached out to my friend Rachelle Ray, a fierce advocate for proposal professionals, founder of PIE (proposal industry experts), and A/E/C consultant. She reminded me of a key distinction: being useful versus being invaluable. The pack mule is useful, but the unicorn is indispensable.
Janki and the chapter created two new revenue streams: Annual Sponsors and Event Sponsors increasing total chapter sponsorship revenue to $70,000.

Unicorn definition

My definition of a unicorn is a creature valued for the unique sparkle they bring to the organizations they are versus how much they do. I often hear the term “marketing unicorn” tossed around, and this usually means someone great with graphics, a fantastic writer, understands strategy, and also loves planning events. This person is rare because this one person is doing the job of at least three people. That’s a well-dressed pack mule who is overqualified for their job if you ask me. My unicorn definition stems from the idea that we all have unique skills that can add recognizable value to our firms. When we identify what those are and how they can solve a business problem, this is what leads to our true unicorn transformation.

Unicorn metamorphosis

Metamorphosis happens slowly. The first step is self-awareness. Many of us don’t even realize that we are experiencing stress/trauma in the workplace. Think of the fawn response as a survival tool. As a young marketer, I did not have many tools for survival- I assumed overworking would keep me from the chopping block. Now, I have the entire Home Depot at my disposal. My pack-mule behavior was a tool that wasn’t serving me anymore. Time to find some new ones. Self-awareness starts with asking some questions.
  • Could you be exhibiting the fawn response of placating in order to stay safe?
  • Do you feel selfish when you decline menial work that falls outside of your focus?
  • Do you feel like a failure when you ask others for help?
  • Is your identity the “go-to” person?
  • Do you prioritize others’ needs over your own mental or personal needs?
  • Are boundaries loose?
  • Do you find that the harder you work the more work you receive? (this was always me)
If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, you may be a pack mule.


Member Retention Rate

Consider the SMPS Austin chapter a space where you don’t need to indulge in the hustle bravado – you’re among friends who are here to help and support.”
Let’s work on finding your inner unicorn. Unicorns are rare and valued. Self-reflecting on our strengths is a good way to discover your unique superpowers. Here are some things that helped me. While assessments like CliftonStrengths are valuable, I was quick to dismiss these traits as valuable- they just seemed like things I did easily. The game-changer for me was crowdsourcing the answer. I copied an exercise I saw on LinkedIn. Just before my chapter presidency, I created an anonymous survey for 10 of my closest friends. Keeping it anonymous meant that this was honest feedback! I asked them two questions:
  • What work-related skill am I uniquely good at?
  • What skill would you suck out of my brain and add to yours if you could?
I assumed I’d receive generic answers like “You are so friendly” or “You’re such a hard worker.” Nope! My friends highlighted my talent for making people feel welcome, my ability to connect, and my communication skills. Learning what people admire about you highlights your unique and valuable traits.

Unicorn behavior

Now that you know how you are a unicorn, you need to act like a unicorn. How do you do this? Start by lightening your load! Burnout is real. Your pack mule behavior is not serving anyone. Identify what resources you need to be successful at work, and then discuss those resources with your manager. Heads up, you may face one of two scenarios. One, your manager may not even realize that you are facing burnout. Ray suggested that employees and managers should schedule a quick 15-minute check-in after every big project push, even in open-concept offices. As the pack mule, you might cling to this identity as the “go-to” person and find it hard to let go. However, you owe it to yourself to have that honest dialog about your needs.
The other truth may be that your firm loves that you are a pack mule. Your usefulness serves a purpose to your company, especially if you have established unrealistic expectations. In tough times, a single mule who does the work of two is useful. Sometimes, firms don’t know that marketers can serve a greater purpose. Imagine telling that Gold Rush miner that they should have a unicorn instead of a mule. It would take some convincing. The conversation with your manager will give you important insight into your role in the firm. Either way, you need to work on boundaries. I turned to my dear friend Maisha to share her guidance.
"Drawing boundaries can be difficult to do and accept because people have a hard time hearing and saying the word no," says Maisha Christian, career coach, founder of Beauty and the Boss, and AEC veteran. " But learning to say no is important in order to protect your time, energy and workload." Christian recommends practicing phrases you can easily say when you perceive you're being pushed towards pack mule behavior. She recommends a simple phrase like "Thank you for thinking of me, but no thank you" which is both professional and direct.
  • Authoring two articles for the Marketer, SMPS’s award-winning bi-monthly journal
  • Established Southern Regional Presidents group, The Seven Families
  • Collaboration with AIA, ULI, ACE Mentors, CREW, I-LinCP, EleventHer, and other industry organizations
  • Created a marketing and business development curriculum for ACE Mentors of Austin
  • AIA Austin Design Excellence Conference Presentation - “SMPS Presents: Help me Help You”
  • Presented to SMPS chapters nationwide
Next, find ways to flex the ways you are unique and valuable. My ability to make people feel welcomed is a superpower. For my SMPS chapter, that meant leading my presidency with the goal of making everyone feel like they belonged. A highlight for my year was creating the “I Belong” campaign, highlighting the specific stories of belonging in our chapter. For my work, it means teaching my team how to build key relationships. We practice how to be gracious hosts at events and how to foster relationships with clients and partners. My superpower helps them in ways that were so much more valuable than my former mule ways.
Ray takes it further, suggesting we follow the CAPP recipe (challenge, attribute, advantage, and proof). An example she provided was,
  • my technical staff hates writing (challenge) and
  • I am a strong writer (attribute).
  • When I interview the team member and write an approach myself, I save time, reduce anxiety, and increase the ROI of our proposals (advantage).
  • I did this for these 5 projects (proof).
I can now spend less time formatting this proposal and more time helping us write winning approaches. I now move into indispensable territory and can unload some workload.
The SMPS vision of “business transformed through marketing leadership” resonated with Janki as she sought to elevate the chapter. Janki developed a presentation for the Design Excellence Conference hosted by AIA Austin, titled “SMPS Presents: Help Me, Help You - How Marketing and Technical Staff can Work Better to Win More Work.”
How did I start my unicorn transformation? It wasn’t easy. That fawn response was rooted deep in me. I believe the greatest gift we can give ourselves is self-awareness. To quote Taylor Swift, “It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.” I stopped volunteering for extra work, including travel, that did not support my professional goals. I quit operating in a sense of fear- trying to “future-proof” my job. Instead, I also looked for ways to use my specific skills to solve business problems in my firm. In my case, I noticed the stiff competition to find talented mid-career architects. One of my unicorn skills is connection. I genuinely like meeting people, even if they are competitors. Turns out, those connections helped my firm greatly during the recruiting process because those candidates already knew and liked my firm through knowing me. You can begin changing perceptions by the way you talk about yourself. For example, if you want to showcase your writing skills' value, you can tell your manager, “I’m a strong writer, so that I can coauthor this article for you.” I am helping the firm but also protecting my boundaries. I keep telling myself when you say “no” to one thing, you are saying “yes” to something else. My yes was being physically present more for my son’s senior year of high school.
Understanding the difference between pack mule and unicorn has been my career's biggest “ah ha” moment. My value doesn’t come from how much I do but from how I solve a business problem. This has given me an amazing sense of freedom. I had to let go of my identity as the “go-to” person, sometimes sitting on my hands when volunteer opportunities happen. The ironic thing is that by taking on a smaller load, I have a greater impact at work; it’s choosing value over volume. I hope my story helps you find your inner unicorn. We are all sparkly creatures- it’s time to let that horn come out.