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Progressing your career: your questions answered

Progressing your career

Careers advice

For our first Questions for leaders topic, you asked us to line up alumni leaders from the creative, finance, technology and entrepreneurship sectors, happy to answer your questions on Progressing your career.

Thanks to all of you who submitted questions, including how to remain an attractive job candidate at 50, making the most of global opportunities, avoiding making the wrong decisions in your career journey and key skills for leadership. Our great panel of alumni leaders share their answers to help with your career journeys.

Finance

Jim Buckle (English Studies, 1988)

Chief Financial Officer, Gousto

How did you choose risks to avoid making the wrong decisions on your career journey? – From Aliyar, Azerbaijan 

I don't think you can ever eliminate risk from career decisions. Our working life is likely to be a multi-year journey – maybe over 40 years – and so it’s almost certain that during that time you will make some wrong turns (take the wrong job, join the wrong organisation), or you may fail to take a turn and stay too long in one place. The important thing is that if you find yourself in the wrong place, take whatever learnings you can and work on how you can get back in the right direction. When I started my career I didn't really know what I wanted to do or what sort of work I would enjoy and so it took me a while to discover that. From each experience, I have learned more about what I enjoy and what I don't enjoy and that has helped me make better decisions. Overall, think about the things that give you satisfaction and enjoyment and look for opportunities that match – don't take a job just because it pays you more money or because it gives you a fancy job title. Don't take a job that disrupts the other things you enjoy in life, unless you have thought deeply about the consequences and conclude it’s a price worth paying.

What advice would you have for anyone looking to build back confidence after a serious professional setback? – From Anonymous

To some extent this depends on the specific circumstances but here's a few things I would suggest. First of all, be patient – if you have suffered a setback it may take you one or more steps to work your way back to where you want to be. Secondly, spend time with people you have worked with when things have been going well – this will remind you of the positives in your career, help re-build confidence and (if you are looking for a new role) can often lead to new opportunities. Thirdly, persuade someone you trust to be a mentor, to help you formulate your ideas for developing your career. At Gousto we encourage everyone to write down a personal development plan and this can be a good way to get your thoughts in order – write down your strengths that you want to amplify; your development areas (particularly if they contributed to the set back) and talk to others about how to improve; and your personal and professional goals. This will help you focus on what you want to do and how to get there.

In my career, I joined a start-up when I was 35 after 13 years in corporate roles. Unfortunately we ran out of cash and had to close and I was left without a job. I spent a year doing two interim roles while looking for a permanent job. At the time, I felt like I'd messed up my career but actually without that first experience working in an entrepreneurial environment, I wouldn't have got any of the jobs that I have done since. So it was a set back and it took time to get back on track, but it was worth it in the end and I learned a lot from the experience.

At my age, 50 years old, how can I continue to stay an attractive job candidate? – From Anonymous

I'm 54 so you are still young :). I am one of the oldest employees at Gousto and my boss started his career when I was already in my 40s.
Firstly at 50, you have around 30 years of work experience and that's a hugely valuable asset for any organisation. If you are a candidate for a role, it’s worth thinking about the different experiences that you can bring that someone much younger may not have. Also, more enlightened organisations are conscious of the benefits from diversity in their workforce – if everyone is the same age, gender, ethnicity, then companies are less likely to thrive. You have a lot to offer.

Secondly, nevertheless, it’s important to stay relevant. Broaden your network to include people who are at earlier stages in their career and learn from them. I do a lot of mentoring of people in earlier stages of their career and that's a great way to understand how someone 20 years younger thinks about life, their career etc.

Finally, remember that you are approaching the latter stages of your career. You don't need to do a job to get a certain type of experience for the longer term. Focus on what you think you will enjoy and what you have a passion for. That in itself makes you more attractive to an employer because increasingly companies want to hire people who have a passion for what they do. In my role at Gousto, I am focused only on how I do the best for Gousto. I am not bothered about building experience for future roles as I don't expect to have many or any more future roles. I can just enjoy the moment.

Creative and entrepreneurship

Becky Yeung (Spanish & Chinese Studies, 2010)

Regional Head of Brand Partnerships, Warner Music Asia

Hello Becky, I would like to know how you identify your interests and manage to find different opportunities in your career path? – From Xiaohan, UK

I am a people person, who has always loved languages and team sports. It’s a chance to communicate and build relationships with new people from different cultures and backgrounds, which played a huge role in the type of industries I gravitated towards – primarily focusing on client facing, communication roles. I started with short term roles and internships to build up my CV. After a number of internships, I felt advertising was where I wanted to focus and was determined to find a role in a top agency. I started researching, connecting with friends in the industry and continuously applying. As your experience grows, I found opportunities naturally started presenting themselves, and instincts kicked in as to whether I was on the right path, or if it’s time for a change. This is how I ended up in the music industry, which was not originally on my radar, but ticks all the boxes for me in terms of role and work culture.

I am looking for a job that allows me to work from home and stay safe during and beyond the pandemic. Now that many people are working in different ways, i.e. remote working, how far do you think we can specify these sorts of requirements when job seeking? – From Monalisa, India

The pandemic has definitely forced companies around the world to rethink their ways of working, and create more flexible and safe working environments. Most companies who are committed to creating a more flexible environment are already quite vocal about this – Spotify being a great example. So research before applying or asking about the work culture during interviews is worthwhile. At the end of the day, it ultimately depends on the role and whether remote working is feasible. Human interaction will always help to build closer relationships more quickly in my opinion, as well as being able to get a better feel for company culture. Just as long as it’s enabled in a safe environment where staff feel comfortable.

How did you find work opportunities across the globe and navigate the visa restrictions? – From Anonymous

Many of my short term opportunities in cities across Europe and China were found through networking and research whilst living in the country for months at a time. The roles themselves were less important, it was just a way to support myself whilst being in the city, and an opportunity to learn more of the language. Although the short term opportunities weren’t career building roles, the experience ultimately made me stand out, and landed me my first international role. From there, all my roles have been global or regional. Moving from the UK to Hong Kong came as a result of a transfer I requested. If working in different countries across the globe is important, I would advise looking for opportunities with global companies, which definitely helps facilitate transfers or identify openings around the globe. Global companies also help when it comes to navigating the visa process.

Entrepreneurship

Aramide Abe (Computer Science, 2005)

Founder, Naija Startups

I often lack the confidence and conviction to put ideas in motion. What was it that made you take the plunge to walk away from the security of any role that you had before and to set up your own business? – From Anonymous

For me, it was the risk of never trying it out. If I did have a business idea and never explored it, I would always wonder and have the questions at the back of my mind. At the same time, this is easier said than done and taking calculated risks is so important. At the time, I had also saved up from working and could afford to sustain myself for up to a year, so I think it is important to try. If you are able to even test out your idea while working, that's even better.

When you do experience a failure, how do you pick yourself up again? – From Anonymous

I speak to mentors and also learn from other failure lessons but the most important for me is the self talk and inner victory that needs to be won mentally to rise up and charge forth.

What do you see as the new developments in the field of Marketing and what opportunities do you think this will present for professionals in the sector? What can I do to put myself in the best position to harness these new opportunities and be a good candidate? – From Anonymous

Today, we cannot speak about marketing without technology and this wasn't the case before. With the evolution of technology and the 4th industrial revolution, AI, IoT and digital technology are so critical to customer engagement and targeting. While the conventional marketing principles continue to exist, technology provides additional means and layers of reaching customers where it didn't before. At the same time, older marketing methods may even prove less effective as we evolve digitally. It is important to be well equipped, learning and staying abreast of new trends, tools and methods – this also helps you to be more marketable as we rely more on tech.

Technology and entrepreneurship

Murray Callander (Chemical Engineering, 1999)

Chief Executive Officer, Eigen

Hi Murray, I want to start my own business about chemical recycling, my project and interest in Nottingham. At the same time, I have no patent about it so far, neither the funding. May I know whether I could begin my start-up without a patent? Also, how could I get funding or find a co-founder? – From Yanjun, China

Hi Yanjun – it sounds like you have a very interesting project and it is certainly an area where there is a lot of interest at the moment. You can patent an idea yourself and you don’t need much funding – £60 to apply for one in the UK*. There are various funds and incubators in the UK to help get good ideas going, such as Innovate UK (https://www.ukri.org/apply-for-funding/), though most (if not all of these) are only open to organisations or businesses. Your best option at this point is probably to seek further research funding in collaboration with the university with a view to getting the technology/business to the point of commercialisation such that it could be spun out. Honestly though, there’s no getting around the reality that getting funding to build a company is extremely difficult – investors don’t invest in ideas, they invest in the people who can deliver them. Getting funding is not about convincing someone you have a good idea, it’s about convincing someone that if they back you, you will deliver them big returns on their investment. In reality investors rarely invest in individuals but in management teams that have a good track record. So the first thing you need to get is a track record of delivering something, and through this process you will meet people that might be interested in becoming part of your management team. I had been working for eight years in the industry and built up a good reputation before I started Eigen and was fortunate enough to be able to build it without seeking investment.

What are the leadership qualities you are continuing to work on? What are resources you would suggest to develop these qualities? – From Aliyar, Azerbaijan

Hi Ailyar, great question! I feel that one of the most important qualities of a leader is to be at peace with who they are so that they can be honest and objective, act with integrity, not seek to gain personal validation from situations and instead focus on building up others. In terms of resources – for these qualities I would recommend Wild at Heart by John Eldredge or Captivating by Stacey Eldredge but I am sure there are others. For leadership development in general just read all you can read, go where leadership is taught, lead something and get around people better than you.

What skillset does one need to acquire, alongside the technical skills, to get into the world of tech entrepreneurship? – From Anonymous

Hi, a big subject! I don’t have all the answers but I can certainly recommend communication skills – being able to communicate your ideas in such a way as it inspires people and makes them want to be part of or buy what you are building is essential. Then add to that a healthy appetite for risk, a high degree of positivity, an unquenchable desire to succeed, mental toughness and a dogged commitment to keeping going and you’ll be doing pretty well! Oh, and do something outside of work that expands your mind. It’s amazing the lessons on selling that I have learned from going fishing

Technology

Hilda Sekyi (Biology, 2016)

Digital Transformation Consultant, Deloitte

I have been lucky enough to hold a senior position early in my career, however, I now want to change sector and am finding that this is hampering opportunities.  Do you have any advice on taking a sideways step, or a downwards move in order to progress your career? – From Anonymous

Careers are often a zigzag, not a straight path. You have made great strides achieving the feat of a senior role so early on in your career. However, this does not have to remain your only pinnacle or mastery. There is no such thing as a downward step, only new learning experiences. Gone are the days (or at least very numbered) when individuals would stay in a career for several decades. We live in an ever-evolving world where people take on many different careers over the course of a lifetime. Your story may not need to differ much from these. Employers are no strangers to a move across industries. My advice to you is to be very clear about your motivations for desiring such a change and highlight the transferable skills and that make you suitable for a role outside your current remit. I cannot promise every interview/role will be a success; but stick to these and you will surely pull through. The world is truly your oyster.

My job is an important part of my life, however, it's not everything. What is your advice on how to achieve the balance between having a successful and/or satisfying job, or potentially a less high powered/satisfying role that enables greater work life balance – even if the pay isn't as great? – From Anonymous

There are no ‘right’ formulas on the often personal choices we make regarding our careers. Currently, you may feel at a crossroads on making a choice between ‘a successful/satisfying job vs. a less high-powered role that enables greater work-life balance’. At this stage of your career, you need to evaluate what is important to you that will be beneficial to your future self, yet without ‘regret’ in hindsight. For example, is it financial reward, power in the workplace or flexibility to do non-work activities you desire? Achieving a balance whereby you feel fulfilled both inside and outside the workplace does not have to be an either-or decision in the right role for you. I would urge you to evaluate what you holistically need to thrive; seek after it, do it and success in all its forms will come alongside naturally.

As a `Top 100 Future Leader' what do you see as the key skills for young leaders to be learning or championing for the future? – From Anonymous

Curiosity is the question that starts everything. All that is great around us began with a question. Questions trigger new ideas as well as bring connections between individuals. Opinions are often divided on how to become a great leader; yet one necessary trait of all, young or old is curiosity. Key pillars of leadership: confidence, compassion, and courage are underpinned by curiosity. Firstly, being curious on who you are is how you truly begin to know yourself, grow in confidence (what you stand for) and shine this to the world. A great leader is one whose curiosity opens them up to the perspectives of others; one whose compassion enables stepping into the shoes of another and helping them be their best self. Finally, curiosity is what encourages courageous leaders to challenge the status quo and spark innovation. To tackle our challenges in a world of constant uncertainty, curiosity needs to remain a strength of all leaders, current and future.

Chris Loake (Industrial Economics with accounting, 2001)

Chief Technology and Operations Officer, C. Hoare & Co.

How do you balance feeling settled in a role and not moving frequently, with ensuring that you continue to feel like your inspired and stimulated in your role? – From Anonymous

Try not to get settled in a role! Once you start feeling settled your learning and growth slow down; I always try to make sure I either take on a new responsibility, a new role or a change of some kind once every 18 months to keep learning and feeling energised by what I do. That said, I stayed at one company for 11 years so there is no need to jump companies all the time to keep making adjustments to your role – most companies want you to develop skills and try different things as that will ultimately make you more productive for them.

How will 21st century technology change the banking industry in the coming five years, and what should leaders prepare their teams for? – From Aliyar, Azerbaijan

Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms will play a larger and larger part in the colleague and customer experience. Technology teams need to build out more skills in data and automation, customer facing staff will be emphasised more for their relationship building and things that technology can do less easily; processing roles will diminish in parallel with the rise of more sophisticated technology. Underpinning all of this will be a constant evolution of technology and skills so leaders, first and foremost, need to build agile and curious teams that can adapt to the changing times.

Are you able to provide advice on how to move between industries in your career? – From Anonymous

If you want to move industries you need to be open-minded about taking a sideways, or sometimes backwards step, as a lot of companies value industry experience as much functional expertise. Look for roles that emphasise the technical skills that you have and try to bring out the diversity of thought that you bring to the table, with your different background, when in the interview. Also make sure you highlight your awareness of the challenges of moving industry when you are interviewing as most hiring managers are ok with people having gaps, so long as they are aware of them and have a plan for how they will address closing them.

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