"I wanted to own my purpose and to be on the hook for achieving it."
I think it's fair to say I didn't have the most conventional childhood. My father was in the Royal Air Force and that meant we moved around a lot. By the time I was 16 I had lived in about 10 different places, and changed schools five times. My parents were both incredibly loving, kind and very committed to family life, it’s just that the location of that life changed a lot.
I got really used to starting friendships anew. I was lucky in that I found school quite easy. This meant the constant shuffle didn't hold me back. At an early age, I got used to being a fairly independent learner and relying on my ability to 'wing' things.
And when I reflect now on this constant cycle of change, I think it’s actually had a profound effect on my career and life choices.
An early glimpse of my superpowers
At school I was an all-rounder, generally good at most things but with no real stand out subject or passion. I wasn’t interested in maths or science, so anything in that direction was easily disregarded but aside from that, I really had very little clue of the direction I should take at university. So I picked something I’d never studied before: Philosophy.
That didn’t turn out to be the wisest choice, especially when I realised there’s actually quite a lot of maths in Philosophy! Luckily I’d also had to pick a subsidiary subject - Politics - and I had enough first year credits to switch completely and never worry about logic or shadows in caves again.
I kind of cruised through university if I'm honest. Those early childhood traits of being comfortable as an independent learner and able to pick things up quickly helped a lot. I spent way more time socialising than studying. At the time I remember thinking that I was 'lucky' to graduate with a good degree despite not doing that much work and being a bit lazy.
It's funny looking back at that feeling of ‘luck’. Now I have a different explanation. Where I genuinely feel I excel is when I'm under pressure. Give me something to do, a cup of coffee, and a looming, unrealistic deadline and I’ll smash it. I now recognise this as one of my superpowers and see, in reality, my approach to study came pretty close to creating a perfect environment for myself, where I could be at my best.
Don’t get me wrong, leaving things to the last minute isn't always a good idea and it definitely doesn't work for everyone. But at the same time, I think it's important to recognise that we all respond differently to tasks and challenges, and the key is to find the formula that works for you.
It’s probably a common emotion, but graduating can be pretty underwhelming. You pass through the education system with the view that when you finally start your career, you'll land some amazing opportunity to change the world or be a huge success. Maybe you’ll be a writer, a lawyer, an artist, a leader. In reality it's often a heavy bump down to earth for many graduates. It certainly was for me.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Despite enjoying my degree, it wasn’t vocational in any way, and I couldn’t see any clear path to actually use it in my career. I had a vague idea about doing something in the media, but wasn’t really sure what. But I knew I was ambitious and I wanted an impressive job, I just didn’t know what that job was.
So I let the world come to me for a bit. As a student I had sold phones part-time at Carphone Warehouse, and this led to a chance encounter with the company’s Head of Media Relations. I quite fancied the idea of working in a press office, and before I knew it, I was doing just that at Carphone’s London HQ. And that was the start of my 20 year career in communications.
A chance meeting with a friend-of-a-friend opened my eyes to a new possibility. He was a political lobbyist, and I realised there was something I could do that would make better use of my degree. I moved to be part of a two-person Public Affairs team in a small tech PR agency, and while the endless research tasks bored me, I loved the feeling I got every time I walked through the halls of the Palace of Westminster, drinking in the history, being close to power.
Serendipity struck again. I wanted to move to a bigger, more high profile agency where I would get more exposure to challenging clients and political machinations. It felt like the right, conventional choice for my career and I had an offer on the table from a big brand name agency. Then I got thrown a curveball. A recruiter called and asked if I wanted to have a chat with a guy who was expanding his fledgling political communications agency.
So I found myself in a scruffy office in Bloomsbury talking to a former senior advisor to Tony Blair. This still being the heady days of New Labour, I was intrigued by the chance to learn from someone who'd been schooled by Alistair Campbell. The interview was unusual. I remember asking questions about the plans for the agency, but I can't recall being asked much about my experience, and I left feeling partly puzzled and partly inspired. An offer came and I became employee number nine at Portland - an agency that would go on to be one of the best regarded PR-shops in the UK.
In some respects this was one of the biggest risks I have taken in my career. I turned down a big agency for a then unknown one. It turned out to be one of the most defining moments in my career, as the agency grew to be a power house, and I grew with it. Amidst the sharp political minds, I honed my craft, focusing on storytelling and reputation management. I liked spinning plates, keeping lots of clients happy, having a voice in the direction of the agency.
Working in an agency is an incredible training ground; you learn so much, so fast. I got exposure to a huge range of organisations and sectors - from transport, homebuilding and luxury goods, through TV and radio, to government departments, tech companies and charities - and managed an ever-growing team of people, all passionate about delivering for their clients.
As was foreshadowed by my initial interview, Portland was an unconventional place to work, it blended a traditional corporate agency approach with the speed and scrap of a start-up. But without a doubt if there is one person I credit with 'making' my career, it’s the founder, Tim Allan. It wasn't always easy, the pace was relentless and the learning curve steep, but I can now see the impact it had on me and the opportunity it created for me.
Once in a lifetime
My childhood background of constant change made me restless, and as the agency got increasingly more complex and competitive, I knew the time was right to move on again. Throughout my career I’ve tended to act on my feelings, making a swerve as soon as I feel something isn’t doing it for me anymore, or if I feel I’m not making the progress I want to see.
It’s a tendency that’s generally served me well. I moved on to work for one of my clients - Coca-Cola - in their in-house communications team. After almost a decade in agency, I was keen to see the ‘other side’ and spend some time getting deeper knowledge of one organisation, rather than taking a limited view of many. After initially accepting a general press office role, I scored the job of a lifetime: running Coke’s communications for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Three years later, it was 2012 and I was sitting in the London Olympic stadium watching the cauldron being lit, the culmination of a role that had defied all expectations, and taught me confidence and resilience in equal measure. It was an unreal moment. My somewhat meandering career had brought me to this point, working on the most important thing to happen in my hometown for a generation. A collection of intuitive, at times slightly impulsive, decisions had come together to put me in this seat.
Into the heart of the media
All good things must come to an end, and the Olympic torch made its way onwards to Sochi, and I took a job as Head of Communications at the Guardian. It felt amazing to be surrounded by people who lived for news, who cared about making the world a better place. It was fast paced, dramatic and dynamic, as the editorial teams broke huge stories such as the Edward Snowden revelations and the Panama Papers.
The role itself had its ups and downs. The media industry was - and still is - going through huge digital and commercial disruption which put pressure on all elements of the organisation, especially when combined with the Guardian’s unique funding model and purpose. So there was a lot of stress and a lot of internal politics. But it had me gripped, while also offering the variety I always craved, as after a couple of years, I transferred to New York to run communications for Guardian US. I was part of the leadership team there through some big expansions and then subsequent downsizing (see my earlier point on the challenges faced by news organisations…) and I lived and breathed the 2016 US election cycle in all its chaos. It was pretty wild. But then my world changed again.
My mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2017. I left Guardian US and moved back to the UK when the prognosis became clear; 3,000 miles was just too far away. In every dimension this was a clear and easy decision. I would make it again in a heartbeat and have no regrets, but it was hard from a professional and personal perspective. I absolutely loved living in New York, I loved news media and the Guardian, and I can still see myself there in a different life.
I ended up back in London working for a tech company disrupting the energy sector, OVO. It's a great place with amazing, passionate people, who really supported me through some dark times. Ultimately it wasn't the right fit but it gave me hugely valuable insight into how young companies scale and the challenges they face. But more importantly, it also gave me clearer focus on the reality that I need to have more purpose and I have to really care about the subject matter of what I do: the energy sector just wasn’t my thing.
My search for purpose took me - via a short sabbatical in Berlin - to an international NGO, MSI, a provider of reproductive health services across the globe. I was excited to raise MSI’s voice in the abortion debate which had really heated up following the election of Donald Trump and to gain experience in a non-profit setting. I travelled a lot, met loads of incredible, inspiring people - mostly women - whose realities were so different from my comfortable London life. It gave me a new perspective, although I found the pace of the non-profit world slow after media and tech.
I think my childhood experience of frequent change and new beginnings has taught me to be really adaptable, which in turn led me to some incredible places and gave me hugely broad experience; but I increasingly felt an emptiness at the heart of my career. I didn’t want to talk about what other people were doing anymore, I wanted to actually do something myself.
This feeling crystallised on a long drive to a garden centre with my now co-founder who rightly identified that my empty feeling was coming from a lack of truly owning my own purpose and outcomes. I had worked for some great organisations but at every single one of them, I was docking into someone else's purpose. At places like the Guardian, that purpose felt aligned with my own values and interests; at others, less so. I was proud of what I achieved in each of my previous roles, but I wanted more impact. I wanted to own my purpose and to be on the hook for achieving it. I also realised I cared hugely about how people approached their careers, the decisions they made and how happy they were at work.
Thus, Voco was born on that drive to the garden centre. I think I bought some succulents if you’re interested.
Advice to my younger self
Trust your instincts when it comes to switching things up. What you may perceive at the time to be emotionally charged, impulsive decisions about changing jobs may work out to be the best decisions you ever made.
Know that the ability to wing things and to do things at the last minute is a superpower, not something to be apologetic about. Embrace it and structure the way you work around the power; use pressure, deadlines and bursts of intense focus to get things done.
Don’t get hung up on job titles or whether others are progressing ‘faster’ than you. Yes, some people will always be better or luckier than you, and some will benefit from their privilege and connections, but ultimately you’ll find your place and purpose.