How marketers are switching up their careers with secondments

As our annual Career and Salary Survey showed, it’s all too rare for marketers to go on secondment or take a sabbatical. However, the experience can bring new skills, broader horizons and a better work/life balance.

change direction

With the UK’s national retirement age rising to 67 by 2028, it is widely accepted that people will have multiple careers during their working lives, likely to be over 40 years long.

To get the most out of their careers, people are now exploring new ways to broaden their horizons, which could be why interest in secondments, rotations and sabbaticals appears to be growing. A recent survey of 2,315 UK workers carried out by employee benefits platform Perkbox found that 64% of respondents consider sabbatical opportunities to be an important workplace incentive.

This trend is backed up by the 2019 Marketing Week Career and Salary Survey, which found that 52.4% of marketers believe career breaks are very important or important, up from 48.7% in 2018. However, just 7.8% of marketers have the option to take a career break and only 0.9% have actually taken one over the past 12 months.

These statistics indicate a desire among marketers to redefine their career trajectory and take greater ownership of their professional and personal development.

Secondments, in particular, are a great way to create fluidity and move talent around, says Charlie Smith, who is currently on a year-long secondment from his role as director of marketing and digital at Visit Scotland, working as chief transformation officer at Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International.

READ MORE: Salary Survey 2019: Flexible working and career breaks

He believes it is healthy for any organisation to encourage movement and argues that marketers should recognise where they can add most value.

“What’s the point that you reach when your value is no longer increasing? Trying to be honest with yourself about that is not easy, but sometimes it’s an important thing to do,” says Smith.

“It’s an especially important thing to do when you know there’s someone else there that can do your job and might do it in a way where they add more value than you, because they have a fresh perspective.”

I do my job now much better because I had 18 months in buying, which is at the heart of the business because we are in retail.

Deborah Dolce, TJX Europe

The person Smith had in mind was Vicki Miller, head of customer experience at Visit Scotland, who has been covering his role since July. Filling in during Smith’s proposed secondment had been part of Miller’s personal development plan for a number of years. During that time he challenged her to step outside her comfort zone and take responsibility for a larger part of the team, as well as encouraging her to lead presentations in front of big audiences.

“We’d talked about that step up so when the time came that Charlie started talking about his move I felt ready to do it, whereas a few years previously I didn’t,” Miller explains.

“I had a good oversight across the directorate about what was going on. I had worked very closely with Charlie on Visit Scotland’s strategic framework, the planning and budgeting process, so it didn’t feel like the big leap it could have been.”

Miller now heads up 120 people across marketing, digital and technology, which includes an in-house digital development team and the Brand Scotland team, responsible for marketing Scotland as a place to visit, work, live, study and invest.

For Smith, the move to Scottish Enterprise was a chance to tap into the skills gained during his time working at the likes of Ovo Energy, RBS and Vodafone. He was seconded to help new CEO Steve Dunlop through a period of transition, reviewing the operations and implementing the wider strategic framework.

“The secondment offered the opportunity to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before, use some of my skills from the private sector and combine those with an understanding of the public sector to look at how we’re working with the Scottish Enterprise community to grow the economy,” Smith explains.

He and Miller meet once a month to talk about their experiences and share ideas about how the two organisations can better collaborate. The expectation is that when Smith returns to Visit Scotland he and Miller will share responsibility, whether they go back to their old titles or take on new ones.

READ MORE: One marketer on how a sabbatical helped her reset mentally and professionally

Gaining diverse experience

Trying different disciplines, taking on a secondment or working on a side project makes for more fully rounded marketers and better leaders, according to Deborah Dolce, group brand and marketing director at TJX Europe, owner of TK Maxx.

Having been poached by the TJX team from communications agency Jackie Cooper PR in 1994, Dolce assumed a series of marketing roles over the next decade before being asked to take on an 18-month rotation in the buying department. At the time she was the most senior marketer in the business.

“I thought I might love [working in buying], and how will I ever know unless I try it? I thought I’ll never get a chance to try it anywhere else. As it turned out I still loved marketing more and I was lucky enough to be able to go back,” she explains.

“I do my job now much better because I had 18 months in buying, which is at the heart of the business because we are in retail. I could bring that experience to bear, so I can really see the value of other experiences.”

Rotations are common in the TJX business, with its deep-rooted culture of supporting and upskilling internal candidates, Dolce explains. The marketing department includes people with diverse experience such as merchandising, operations and IT.

The secondment offered the opportunity to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before, use some of my skills from the private sector and combine those with an understanding of the public sector.

Charlie Smith, Scottish Enterprise

One marketer, for example, started working in-store during her A-levels before moving into store operations after graduation and then taking on a role within the German arm of the business. A year-long secondment followed in TJX’s learning and development team and then a role in store operations in Poland, before joining the marketing team in 2014 to head up the loyalty programme.

While on a personal level going on rotation gave Dolce a more profound understanding of the TJX business model and an appreciation of the cross-functional, collaborative leadership style needed to succeed, she recognises that secondments might not suit people who prefer to specialise.

“If you do this journey with people you must be invested in helping them succeed and offer the right training, giving them the space to learn. On their side they have to be prepared to be a good student of their new discipline,” Dolce explains.

“Where it makes a difference is, I have four brand and marketing directors working for me and they are all generalists, because to be in a leadership role you have to be a generalist. We also have very senior roles that are specialist, so I think it’s a personal career choice about where people want their overall career to go.”

Startup culture

In 2018, beauty giant L’Oréal launched its secondment programme offering employees the opportunity to experience innovation outside the business. Working in partnership with startup incubator Founders Factory, L’Oréal employees get the chance to spend six months, fully paid, working on a passion project they have pitched to the business that is not linked to their day-to-day role.

Alice Scholes stepped away from her role as head of brand marketing for Lancôme UK and Ireland in September to take on a secondment as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Founders Factory.

After nearly nine years working on established beauty brands, Scholes has been given the opportunity to develop a company from scratch, responding to a particular pain point.

“Throughout a career in marketing the one part I have found most challenging is meaningful measurement of digital media,” Scholes explains. “The platform I’m building with Founders Factory allows brand teams to make better, more informed decisions about the campaigns they run – who to work with, what to pay, robust results and what the most efficient digital campaign for their brand looks like.”

READ MORE: Helen Tupper – Cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ at work

While it took a few days to adjust, Scholes says she is loving the speed of the work and the general sense that you can build anything, fuelled by her ability to work with designers, engineers, data scientists and marketers, many of whom are former entrepreneurs in residence.

“What I’ve also discovered is that though the vocabulary is different (tech and AI, instead of cosmetics and EPOS data), the basic skillset is the same – clarity, energy, vision, discipline and strong communication skills,” she adds.

Crucially, the secondment is providing Scholes with new skills to bring back to her role at Lancôme, from agile ways of working and pitching to investors, to building a pricing structure for a new business, attracting talent and defining culture.

While taking time out from your role might seem counter-intuitive from a career development perspective, the experience and knowledge marketers are gaining from broadening their horizons is proving invaluable to their long-term growth.

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