How one business bridged the leadership gap by inviting 12 young marketers to take over for a year

Embracing Scotland’s national year of young people strategy, Visit Scotland invited 12 young marketers to experience their first taste of leadership.

Visit Scotland’s Nikki Sherret in her role as a young director. Credit: Simon Williams Photography Edinburgh

As a young marketer, imagine getting the chance to take the reins and lead the marketing team at your brand for a month. It’s not often junior marketers get such an opportunity, but it’s something Visit Scotland’s director of marketing and digital Charlie Smith was keen to do after hearing 2018 was going to be the ‘year of young people’ in Scotland.

It’s a theme defined by the Scottish Government to celebrate the achievements and contributions of those aged under 25, and it instantly sparked an idea in Smith, who saw an opportunity to bridge the leadership gap between young talent and senior teams.

Smith, who is currently on a year-long secondment as chief transformation officer at Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International, came up with the concept of inviting one young marketer a month to shadow the marketing director.

Inspired by the development of Visit Scotland’s internal marketing academy over the past two years, the idea was fuelled by a desire to unleash untapped potential and accelerate young marketers’ routes to the top.

“It’s about how you accelerate people’s learning and give them the opportunity to show what they can do, while creating as much of a meritocracy as we can,” Smith explains.

“The big thing when you’re young is you don’t always feel like you can make a contribution or it’s right to make a contribution. But I think a lot of times when put in these situations, young folk realise ‘I’ve got something to say and it’s valid’.”

Being involved in the year of young people gave me the confidence to speak out about certain ideas I had and to feel more confident with public speaking.

Rachel Woods, Visit Scotland

To select the 12 young marketers, Smith and Vicki Miller, who took over as marketing director in July to cover Smith’s secondment, asked applicants working at Visit Scotland to submit 100 words on why they wanted to be involved in the experience.

Once selected, the young directors had to decide which aspect of the organisation they were most passionate about and which projects they would initiate during their month. Ideas ranged from exploring new opportunities for secondments and shadowing across the directorate, to looking into the principle of T-shaped learning and the key skills all marketers need.

The winning marketers were invited to every meeting in the marketing director’s diary, from board meetings and catching up with external stakeholders, to meetings with government ministers. Smith was keen that nothing be diluted so the experience for the young directors was totally transparent.

At the beginning of their month each of the 12 directors gave a presentation on the projects they intended to take on and at the end of the month they shared their insights with the rest of the 120-strong marketing and digital directorate.

A calendar of all the young marketers taking part in Visit Scotland’s Year of Young People.

January kicked off with senior content editor Nikki Sherret, who after eight years at Visit Scotland was looking for new opportunities to challenge herself personally and as a manager. By taking on the role she had to balance the responsibility of attending high-level meetings with the board and gatherings of Scotland’s Tourism Group, with the day-to-day responsibility of managing her team.

The young directors were all given an incredible amount of creative freedom and trust to explore their ideas, says Sherret. One of her ideas was to hold an “un-conference” for the entire marketing function to get everyone talking about how to make the department better. Another highlight was speaking at the Scottish Parliament as part of Visit Scotland’s parliamentary reception.

“I was asked to speak to an audience of a few hundred people. To be able to say I’ve spoken at the Scottish Parliament is something I’ll carry with me for a long time,” Sherret recalls.

Perhaps her biggest takeaway from the process, however, was the network of colleagues she created across the business, including from other directorates outside marketing. She also really valued the opportunity to meet up with her fellow group of young directors to talk through the experience and give each other support.

“The other thing was learning how to look at things more strategically,” Sherret adds. “In all these high-level meetings there’s so many things they have to think about. It just kind of highlighted not to get caught up too much in the small details and always remember the bigger picture – why we’re here, why we’re doing this and how that effects things.”

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Confidence building

Involvement in the young directors’ project took user experience executive Rachel Woods, who was in charge in August, in a new direction beyond the boundaries of her role within marketing.

In her capacity as a year of young people ambassador, Woods delivered a TEDx talk in Glasgow, which encouraged people to rethink ‘ability’ and consider what it’s like to live with high functioning autism in the working world. Showing her determination to overcome the challenges, Woods advocated for employers to see the positives of having autistic people in their teams and not see their condition as a barrier.

“Being involved in the year of young people gave me the confidence to speak out about certain ideas I had and to feel more confident with public speaking because prior to coming to this organisation I was very quiet and reserved,” she explains.

“For somebody who’s got a disability it definitely helped me become a bit more confident interacting with others and large groups of people. For somebody with autism that’s very nerve-wracking, but it’s been a fantastic opportunity.”

Working closely with the marketing director and the board has also given Woods confidence in her day job to speak out in meetings and forget about the anxiety, rather than second guessing what she is going to say beforehand.

From a practical perspective, Woods is also working on introducing a series of official Scotland emojis that work across all smartphone devices, one of the core ideas she developed during her directorship.

Gaining a promotion

For Marion Cosse, the opportunity to take part in the year of young people programme offered a real chance to develop her career. After becoming a young director in July, she was promoted from assistant market manager for France to market manager for Southern Europe.

She has always worked on the B2B side of the business, managing Visit Scotland’s relationships with partners and tour operators in markets across Europe. Becoming a young director helped her get closer to her B2C colleagues, opening up her eyes to the way different departments work.

“It was good to share that with our marketing director [Vicki Miller]. When I was a young director in July she was recently appointed the marketing director and she comes from a B2C background, so it was great to chat to her about more B2B activity. It was an exchange of knowledge and best practice in our different areas,” says Cosse.

Miller explains that learning more about the challenges and opportunities in the B2B business gave her a fresh perspective, crucially informing the way she approached the wider marketing strategy and activity.

“Marion was the first young director who shadowed me and actually I learnt lots from her, because previously I had been involved a lot in the consumer side of the business,” Miller adds. “We took a train journey to a meeting in Inverness and it was a very valuable couple of hours for me because I got into her role and that part of the business.”

Cosse says the best thing about the experience was the extended network she developed across the company, which has informed the way she implements projects going forward.

“I involve more people, I ask for advice from more people than I would have before. I can’t help but think that it helped me get a better understanding of B2C marketing, which maybe led to raising my profile and getting the new job I have now,” she adds.

Creating a legacy

The year of young people work at Visit Scotland has created ripples of attention across other organisations.

Katie Black first heard about the project when she joined Visit Scotland’s marketing away day while still on her graduate scheme at Scottish Enterprise. Now HR advisor for organisation, development and change, Black was instrumental in helping Scottish Enterprise define its strategy for implementing the year of young people with an added economic development slant, taking inspiration from Visit Scotland’s young marketers.

Young director Rachel Woods on stage during her TEDx talk. Credit: Pete Copeland Photography.

The result was the Scottish Enterprise Chairman’s Challenge event for young people aged 18 to 24. Taking place on 12 November in Glasgow, the event opened with a talk from NASA astronaut Colonel Douglas H Wheelock, before breaking out into project groups with mentors from Scottish Enterprise debating the latest challenges facing society. This was then followed by café-style conversations with representatives from the likes of BBC Scotland, Rolls Royce and Police Scotland.

The event was a success, attracting around 100 young people from across Scotland. Black explains that working on the event has shifted thinking at Scottish Enterprise in terms of teamwork and collaboration, as well as the value of bridging the gap between young people and leadership.

“Being able to have those open conversations and that two-way dialogue between the youth and the leadership team has been amazing,” she adds. “Throughout the whole organisation having those types of conversations is conducive to a really successful business environment.”

As the Scottish Government’s annual theme moves on to a focus on coasts and waters, Visit Scotland is determined that the year of young people movement will live on beyond 2018. The young marketing leaders will report to the board in January with their proposal to instigate a new future leaders group starting next year, which will broaden out beyond the marketing directorate.

The group will be 50% young leaders and 50% representatives from more junior roles who want to be part of a group that will have influence on strategy across the organisation.

Miller is convinced year of young people initiative will have a lasting impact on the wider business, which can only be beneficial to future young leaders.

“It’s been really good for the wider team to see young people stand up and not be afraid to have a voice. Some have not been afraid in board meetings to give their thoughts on what they’ve heard or contribute to a conversation,” she adds.

“It’s been a huge eye opener for a lot of their colleagues who may have been a little inhibited and not wanted to speak up. They can see that there are young people who are prepared to do that.”



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