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Brain trust: what’s the best (and worst) career advice you ever received?


Brain trust: what’s the best (and worst) career advice you ever received?


What are some of the best and worst pieces of career advice you’ve ever received? Business and marketing leaders from The Guardian Australia, VMLY&R, Energx and more share their thoughts with Marketing.

This article originally appeared in The Nurture IssueMarketing‘s current print issue.

Lauren Cain, founder, Jaycaino

Lauren Cain BW

The best career advice I have received was to overcommunicate, underpromise and overdeliver. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming people have the same level of skill and knowledge as you on a subject or project, but often this is not true.

If you’ve been working in social media for three years, senior execs are unlikely to know the reality of social channels and how consumers are interacting with them right now. They are unlikely to have your knowledge of which channels are worth investing in, and they are at greater risk of getting carried away with the hype the sales team sells them.

At the same time, if you’re a senior exec and you’ve been in marketing for more than 10 years, managed teams and delivered presentations to tough audiences, you have a breadth of knowledge and skills that have helped you on your path that the rest of the team would be so enriched to learn about. From how to centre yourself before a big meeting, to the mindset you have when approaching difficult performance conversations. Underpromise and over deliver go hand-in-hand, especially in marketing.

We can get carried away with the opportunity to build a fantastic campaign, a comprehensive content strategy or sponsorship deal. However, this is also the very best way to cause yourself and the team anxiety and long nights and nearly always delivering below expectations – especially your own. That then leads to feelings of disenchantment and demoralisation. The opposite of this is to underpromise, making for happy teams, leaving work at a reasonable hour and then, with a bit of hard work along the way, being able to deliver not only the project or piece as expected, but with added extras that make the work sing.

Margy Vary, marketing director, The Guardian Australia

Margy Vary 150 squareI started my career as a graduate trainee in a big London ad agency, way back in the days of the fully-integrated Mad Men-style behemoths. I’ll never forget the advice I got from a very ambitious female account director who was tipped to be the next big thing. She said ‘This is a man’s world and if you want to get ahead you have to make a choice now. Either be one of the blokes or a be a whore’.

At the time I thought, ‘yeah sadly that probably sums it up, you have to play the game to get to the top before you can change the system.’ But of course, it was the worst advice ever. You can’t change the system by being the system. You might start slower and go sideways sometimes, even backwards, but finding a different way means refusing to accept the status quo, and as you do that you find and attract others like you who help you build something better. 

The best personal advice I got was from one of my Marketing Academy mentors, who said ‘Don’t accept other people’s definition of success.’ Success means so much more than title and pay packet. It can mean ‘are your kids happy?’, ‘are you healthy?’, ‘are you trying something original, creative and interesting?’, ‘are you helping society or other people?’. It can also just mean saying ‘no thanks’.

I found picking my own definition was the most liberating moment. Also I have to tip it to my former boss Richard Branson whose mantra was ‘treat your staff they way you want them to treat your customers.’ So obvious, so frequently ignored. It still helps me every day.

Sean Hall, founder, Energx

Sean Hall BWIt’s funny because I think one of the worst pieces of career advice led to one of the best, so I’m actually grateful for both. The worst was that perfectionism was a good thing, which came from within a culture where it also felt dangerous to admit you weren’t at your best. Ultimately, both of these things along with being a ‘yes’ man and not knowing how to ask for help, led me to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The best was from a ‘friend-tor’ who, when I was at a particularly low point, asked me a simple question: “Have you thought about managing your energy, instead of your time?”

This one piece of advice changed my life and gave me a way of thinking that enabled me to research and design the strategies that led me to heal myself.

The second equally powerful piece of advice was to develop a profound understanding of the responsibility we all have for our own wellbeing and how we impact the wellbeing of others. Whether you love him or hate him, I tend to agree when Tony Robbins says “if you’re relying on other people for your happiness, you’re fucked.”

It’s powerful because every single decision we make in life impacts our energy and potentially the energy of others. Yet so many of us are on autopilot, making mindless decisions which often lead to physical and mental illness. Through Energx, I’ve made it my mission to pay forward everything I learned so that others don’t have to go through what I did. In doing so, I hope to help everyone have enough gas in the tank for themselves and then a little extra to do good with.

Alison Tilling, CSO, VMLY&R

Alison Tilling 150 Square BWThe gems I’ve really hung onto weren’t delivered as advice. They came as asides, as anecdotes, as living demonstrations. I don’t always manage to follow them myself, but I try.

‘You’re not presenting ideas, you’re selling them.’ This reframed everything. We talk about ‘the presentation’ as if everything we do has to be mediated through keynote. Thinking about selling makes you consider not only the value – still the currency we deal in – of your idea but also how best to keep those delicate little bastards alive. Often Powerpoint is idea killer numero uno.

‘Know your tics, they can be your tac-tics.’ The best boss I ever had was great at this. It wasn’t delivered as advice; it was demonstrated as a daily practice, a celebration of knowing who you are. It wasn’t about never growing or changing, but rather an acknowledgement that being told how to be is being told how to be, even if it’s disguised as empowerment.

The best piece of advice, however, came clothed in the worst. Early in my agency life in London, I saw a careers counsellor through my work. His words at the end of session three: ‘You come across as a very sexual person, have you thought of wearing more clothes to work? I can see a lot of your flesh.’ That moment is seared onto my brain. I can see the paint behind his head and the place where it was chipped. I can feel the hairs standing up on my (uncovered) arms. I can remember blushing and hating the blush and, to my eternal shame, I remember nodding and saying something like ‘I’ll think about it.’

Well, I’ve thought about it. And here’s the thing: how you present yourself is something others notice. That’s a fact. But it’s more important to clothe your intent, rather than yourself, in a way that doesn’t belittle or embarrass others. Aim for that. That’s my advice.

Nicky Bryson, head of strategy, TBWAAustralia

Nicky Bryson 150 square BWWhile it makes for a tougher ride, in my experience it’s often the bad advice and leadership experiences that teach you the most. Some of the following have come from reframing those, or from the brilliant people I still fangirl daily.

The easiest and most useful piece of advice I’ve ever received is ‘be a learner, not an expert’. It sounds simple but we’ve grown up in a system where authority makes us unquestionable and safe. This isn’t playing out anymore. As a strategist or advisor there is a misguided perception that you have to be the expert.

Yes, but do you have a healthy ability to readjust and reframe? The world that has traditionally valued experience, dependable frameworks and processes need changing. Experts suffer at collaboration, listening and adapting. Build a team of learners. 

Second: have patience. Impostor syndrome is often a result of pressure to be perfect in the absence of experience. It’s an outcome of hiring young-for-cheap without readjusting expectations and a ‘fail fast’ corporate attitude that doesn’t allow for the time to lick wounds, recalibrate and grow. It’s taken me a few hard knocks to realise I hopefully still have 30 years of career ahead, and must stop rushing for the finish line now.

Third: your values matter more than your purpose. We have an existential angst and short-term frustration around knowing our purpose. Define your values first. They will guide daily meaning, behaviour and choices. Don’t be okay with working in toxic environments, don’t over compromise, define what matters most to you and work to align those values with your daily experience and environment.

Jayne Andrews, director of marketing, Carnival Cruise Line

Jayne Andrews 150 Square BWMy first role was as an account executive at a small advertising agency in London. I had no advertising degree or diploma, was totally green and just wanted to just make the best impression (not stuff up!).

If I wanted to get noticed, I was given the advice to ‘volunteer for the jobs that nobody else wants to do’ and use it as a way to make myself less dispensable. I took that advice from the get go. In my first week, the MD of that particular firm threw out a particularly arduous task to the new-starters. The task was to organise his little book of more than 500 business cards (yep, it was the ’90s) into alphabetical order. A pretty pointless task, but I jumped in and did the deed with enthusiasm.

And it was noted. He realised I was happy to roll my sleeves up and get involved. I later found out the task was a test to see who put their hand up to do it. The following week, he took me along to a networking event. An added bonus was I now had a little insider knowledge of ‘who was who in the zoo’, as I’d read every business card he owned!

In my early career, I made sure this ‘do the undesirable jobs’ mantra was a little more strategic – from volunteering to help update the agency website, to drafting the award entries, organising lunch-time lessons and even making sure the fridge was full on a Friday evening. It helped me move up the ladder from account service into more managerial roles, as I also gained a working knowledge of all facets of the business, not just my client work.

In my current role I still do a whole heap of ‘undesirable tasks’ that I won’t name (for fear of offending my employer!). While nobody in this industry is indispensable, when you become the ‘go to’ person in areas that sit outside your official job description, you do become a little more valuable and valued.

The philosophy also has a few downsides. I think it is sound advice early in your career, when you’re trying to stand out but haven’t yet built a career on which you can lean. As you climb the ladder, you do need to keep it in check and make sure you are 99.9% focused on your KPIs and things you are being paid to do.

You can get distracted by being ‘too helpful’ on tasks which you could delegate, or get caught up spending time in areas that distract you from the reason you’ve been employed. However, I do still encourage my junior team to put their hand up and volunteer for things from which everyone else shies away. I’ve noted over the years that the ones that do soon start sitting in the most secure seats in the building. 

Tracy Hall, marketing director, GoDaddy ANZ

Tracey Hall 150 Square BW

Worst advice: don’t trust anyone
Best advice:

  1. You can have and do it all, but probably not at the same time. Be selective and be at peace with your decisions.
  2. Don’t make policies and decisions for the 1%of people you don’t trust.


Further Reading:

Image credit:Nik MacMillan


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