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The only way is not up: why career zig-zagging is good

11 Dec 2018  |  Anna Hickey 
The only way is not up: why career zig-zagging is good

Wavemaker's Anna Hickey never had a master plan, but sometimes that's the best way to forge a career

Donald Trump did it. Jeff Bezos did it. My parents did it. And I did it, too. Taking a zig-zag career path, daring to jump into different roles and learn new perspectives, will enrich your experience and almost certainly benefit you in the long run.

Most of us start out thinking we will go in at the bottom and work our way steadily to the top, but the most satisfying careers (and, I believe, the best leaders) are built by working in a variety of fields, and that’s not going to happen if you accelerate too quickly in one direction.

My dad was a trainee accounts clerk and my mum worked in the box office of a local theatre when they bought a nearby pub and made a huge success of it.

Jeff Bezos was a ranch hand, a founder of kids’ summer camps, a programmer, an investment banker, a bookstore entrepreneur, and is now an e-commerce pioneer, a technology producer, a media mogul, and a space travel innovator who’s worth $48 billion.

My own path might not have quite reached those heights, but it has been similarly varied. I fell into media by accident after my non-Oxbridge degree locked me out of creative agency grad schemes and instead started as a TV buying assistant at Zenith. I moved into general broadcast, became a manager, moved sideways into comms planning and sideways again into a strategy role.

Then I was promoted into more client-focused roles, and later took on international responsibility running a group of markets in the Nordics. So by the time a job came up as MD at Maxus, I had a very broad perspective on how an agency runs, which gave me a strong competitive advantage.

I never had a master plan. I was always thinking about learning and grabbing opportunities as they came up. It’s only human to want progress and promotions, but the people I see coming into senior roles now are more likely to have career paths that look like a random platform game than a straight-up hill climb.

They’ve been brave, encountered different people and obstacles along the way, jumped on chances to move around, tested themselves enough to discover their unique talents, and have a clear idea of the value they can bring in the long run.

We are still at heart a people business, and the more you move around, the more empathy you build. The most successful individuals are the ones who work brilliantly with others, and can put their own agendas aside when necessary: never mind if you’ve spent a whole week preparing a client presentation, if you get into a meeting and see your client looking stressed, it might be time to put it to one side and find out what is troubling them.

For me, the most challenging jump was moving to a broad general management role like the MD role at Maxus. Before that I’d been leading a single client business, a broad international portfolio business admittedly (Johnson & Johnson across Northern Europe), but I knew their business back to front.

As MD touching all the agency’s clients, at first, I felt uncomfortable going into meetings where I was expected only to have surface-level knowledge of the client, but my teams helped me appreciate that they were there with the in-depth knowledge and I was there to bring other skills – perspective, challenge, leadership.

Getting a handle on the commercial and financial running of the business as MD prepared me for my most recent jump into the COO role at Wavemaker. Running the operational side of the business has rounded my circle of experience around the agency.

Some people joke that the COO role should in fact be termed ‘Chief of Other’ because of the broad and varying spread of responsibilities that end up falling into it. But I love having such an unpredictable and diverse role, where I work with everything from clients, revenue, people, culture, and new business to making sure the company is functioning properly.

Wavemaker isn’t a traditional media agency – it brings together a wide and deep pool of specialists across media, content and precision marketing, and so as its COO, no two days are ever the same. But it’s the range of experience I’ve had over the past 20 years that has prepped me for dealing with that breadth and unpredictability.

We are all different and will all grow our careers in a different way. As our industry continues to evolve my experience has taught me that there are some golden rules that apply to everyone: be brave, be open-minded, show flexibility and resilience, and always be in learning mode. The only way is not up - if you can place as much value on the opportunity to learn as the opportunity to accelerate, you’ll be well placed to succeed.


Anna Hickey is the UK’s chief operating officer, Wavemaker

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