On meeting Sara, I could see immediately how she has managed to achieve so much in her career and built up a reputation for getting stuff done. Her energy and enthusiasm is infectious. Following her through BBC's new Television Centre, she not only knew everyone’s names but specific projects they were working on, enquiring about progress and offering words of support.
Sara suggested splitting our mentoring into three, one-hour sessions, meaning I was lucky enough to be able to discuss subjects in-depth, as opposed to just touching on each. The three subjects I chose to focus on were: career-planning; how to handle the step up; and brand-building.
On top of this, she also invited me to an event where she was part of a panel called 'Myth Busting, Women in Tech'. The opportunity to learn was vast.
I was previously a member of a leadership team for an SEM agency. However, my ambition was to move client-side, starting at a small start-up to learn quickly about running a marketing department from the inside, prove myself and secure a leadership role. Then, once the start-up has come to fruition, step into a similar role at a major brand. I wanted some feedback about whether this was the best route and what additional experience I’d need to achieve my goal.
Sara felt this was a good strategy, but was keen to point out that career paths aren’t always linear. Her advice was: don’t be afraid to zigzag; if getting where you want to be means taking an 'outsider' role in between, don’t fear these steps, embrace them as a learning experience.
She also flagged up the importance of being aware of what stage you’re at in your career. Pulling from an article written by author and academic Karl Moore for Forbes, Sara outlined three clear steps for any ambitious person.
Never network when unhappy. Instead, I should focus on attending events when I’m excited about my role. That way I’ll naturally speak passionately
First is the learning phase, which usually takes place in our 20s to early-30s. This is when you’re finding the path you want to take in your chosen profession, as well as building your skills to suit.
Second is typically during your 30s to 40s and is all about building on your strengths, honing your existing skills, as well as building leadership capabilities.
The third stage is to become an authority in your field, generally during your 50s to 60s. This is when most career-driven people will either lead the C-suite of a business, consult, or work as non-exec board members for several organisations.
I’m in phase two, and Sara was very clear on how to approach this. "You need to pour gasoline on the fire," she told me. "Now is the time to become an expert in your field. Take every course, go to every conference, ask to be part of every relevant project, learning as much about your chosen area as possible."
In addition, she told me to network, as there is nothing more valuable for personal branding, helping me to learn to talk ‘big business’ and boost confidence when faced with 'heavyweight' C-suite members.
However, Sara was quick to point out some rules:
- Never network when unhappy. Instead, focus on attending events when I’m excited about my role. That way I’ll naturally speak passionately.
Use networking as an opportunity to meet big brands, both for business partnerships and my personal brand. This means going to events outside my ‘standard territory’. For instance, as I work for a tech start-up, I could go to some more-traditional marketing institution events to widen my reach, such as The Marketing Society's annual conference.
How to handle the step up
Once you reach a certain level, the skills needed to lead at a senior stakeholder level take longer to develop, requiring trial and error. Also, styles differ dramatically, so Sara advised looking to those already in these roles. Observe them in meetings, see how they handle their team, as well as interact with their peers and seniors. Most importantly, learn from those you admire. There is absolutely no point in trying to be a person you’re not, so learning from like-minded leaders is key.
Sara also told me to immerse myself in the corporate side of the business – the "business of the business". If you work in the public sector, spend time understanding the financial standing. If you’re part of a private holding, offer to help with business cases. This will provide greater scope to develop ideas that truly add value.
I’m in the midst of launching a new brand in the UK, as part of the global branding team. Having been involved in the launch of taxi app Hailo, Sara was able to apply her personal experience and advise on the pitfalls to avoid.
Breaking it down into three phases, the first hurdle is selling the power of the brand to start-up leadership. As you’re working with entrepreneurs, not marketing CMOs, this is an education process that needs to be done over time. Sara warned me not to be surprised if this takes more than a year to achieve, as the business will need to grow to a certain level, as well as find its natural competitors in the market.
The second is securing investment. The key here is to select other successful brands that your founders feel a connection to and map their evolution over time. This will help demonstrate the value of a brand in a real-life situation.
Once this investment is secured, engage an agency. Depending on the size of your budget, this could be a branding or creative agency. However, the critical thing is to work with a team with which the founders identify. This sounds like a no-brainer, but, as founders of the business, your main stakeholders will have strong opinions on what the brand should be and you’ll need an external third party that’s comfortable with pushing back.