During my single days I assiduously managed to avoid speed dating – the prospect of a mass rejection event frankly never appealed. Nevertheless, on the basis that we all should do what we can to help those behind us on the career path find their way, I agreed to do a speed mentoring event for NABS, the support charity for the advertising and media industry.
It was an illuminating experience. Lots of relatively new entrants to the industry, not all of them in their 20s, with lots of great questions about how to thrive in marketing. Talking to some of the other mentors after, it struck me that effectively the same half-dozen questions were being asked.
First out of the blocks was: “What do you think is the most important skill for someone like me?” There are so many possible answers: be entrepreneurial, be flexible, work hard. But for me the answer is to listen. Listen to your client, your boss, your colleagues, to everyone.
It is hard, really hard sometimes, especially when you feel under pressure to come up with creative, innovative ideas. But until you understand what your boss or your client is looking for, how can you possibly give your best?
In my experience, the most creative thinking comes from curious people bouncing ideas off each other. Curious people listen. They listen to the radio; to people on the bus, in shops and cafés. They learn. They understand. They ask questions and listen to the answers.
What does success look like?
There were lots of questions at NABS around being successful. My biggest piece of advice here is not to mistake career advancement for success. The two aren’t the same. Promotion is but one KPI of success, and by no means the most important. Better ways of judging our accomplishments include feeling stretched, learning new things, earning respect, winning recognition for a job well done.
Not all of us want to be, can be or should be the CEO, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not ‘making it’. It is perfectly legitimate to decide that for the time being – or indeed for the rest of your career – you don’t want further advancement. That doesn’t stop you seeking further challenge at your current level or changing your mind further down the line. Not being the ultimate boss doesn’t mean you have failed, it could just mean you have made different choices.
There were a number of the mentees who were struggling to prioritise workloads. I think there are two things at play here. The first is inexperience on the part of the junior staff. The temptation to do the work you enjoy over the work that needs to be done stays with you throughout your career. Over time and with good guidance you learn how to balance the two. In my case the secret is the keeping of lists.
My biggest piece of advice is not to mistake career advancement for success. The two aren’t the same.
The second is more challenging and we see it more in agencies than anywhere else: exploitation. I have said it before and will say it again: the fee model, which most agencies operate, means that far too much work is placed on junior, cheaper staff. There is an expectation that they work long and late consistently. It isn’t good for anyone and needs to change.
Which brings me to the next most common subject of discussion: in-house or agency? Personally I have had great experiences in both environments. I think when making a decision about where you go next (because these days nowhere is forever), you need to think about what you are really seeking from a job, or more importantly an employer.
In our industry it is very rarely simply about making money. So what is the workplace culture? Will there be opportunities to learn and be challenged? Do the values of the organisation align with mine? Can I respect my boss and/or the organisation’s leadership team?
The fifth topic was: “When is the right time to move on?” My short answer is when you are bored or frustrated and see no further scope for fresh challenge in that role. But remember that doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the organisation. The perfect new role might not be at another address but on another floor.
Thinking about all the questions I had that evening, I realised that they were the ones I had when I was at their stage and was too afraid to ask. It has made me consider that I should reflect more on how I can coach more junior colleagues, anticipating their questions and creating a culture in which they feel comfortable asking more of them
The eagle-eyed among you will notice I have only listed five of the half dozen. The sixth question was: “What is your career mantra?” My answer: “Why not? What is the worst that can happen?”
Tanya Joseph is director of external relations at Nationwide. She will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which takes place on 10 and 11 October at Tobacco Dock in London. For more information on speakers, the agenda and to book tickets go to www.festivalofmarketing.com.