Professional Development

Career advice that resonates

To commemorate its tenth anniversary, Wayne Reynolds, founder of independent search consultancy Birchwood Knight, asked ten respected corporate affairs directors for the best piece of career advice that they had ever received

Greg Sage, communications director, Greene King
Always say ‘yes’ to the things you don’t think you can do. If something feels scary and you want to progress your career, say ‘yes’ and give it a go. Whether it’s applying for a new job that feels a big stretch or putting your hand up for a new task, it’s natural to feel daunted. Don’t let that stop you and do it anyway. A good boss will support you to develop in new areas, have your back and give you the opportunity to shine when it goes well.

Janine Mantle, corporate affairs director, HS2
The best career advice I’ve had was from Sir Roger Carr when he was chairman of Centrica, Always hire people as good, or better, than you. It’s great advice for any leader confident in their own abilities and value, and who welcomes challenge and original thought. Rather than feeling threatened by talented team members, leaders should find only empowerment in having the strongest team, and best delivery, possible. I’ve always followed this advice and sought the brightest and best people for any team I’ve led.

Jonathan Oates, corporate affairs director, London Stansted Airport
Be patient enough to learn, but impatient enough to take risks. In this day and age, organisations can be full of people who are paid to present two sides to every issue but those driving a company’s reputation must be prepared to regularly dip into their experience and use it to make fast decisions and try new things. When you stop moving, you’re done.

Katja Hall, director of corporate affairs, Capita
You can’t pour from an empty cup. It may be a bit of a cliché but it’s true. You can’t be a good leader if you are exhausted and have nothing left to give. Leadership starts with taking care of yourself, being clear on your priorities and what matters most of all to you. I once went to an excellent lecture about ‘daring to be bad’ – the speaker suggested that women in particular often feel they have to be good at everything but that’s impossible. Instead we should play to our strengths and decide to be bad at some things.

Louise Shield, director of corporate communications, Santander
A great CEO I worked with had a saying, You can’t make an omelette if you don’t break a few eggs. He accepted that we would make mistakes from time to time and that change was often messy but necessary for the longer term good.

Lucy Jenkins, director of communications and marketing, Pinewood Group
Embrace ‘radical simplicity’. If you can’t explain your idea in one sentence, you don’t have one.

Maxine Taylor, international and UK external relations director, King’s College London
When choosing your next career move, think about the money but don’t be driven by it above all else – culture, chemistry, excitement for the role and the sector are all important too.

Thom Thorp, UK corporate affairs director, National Grid
The former chairman of Unilever once said to me, Change is constant, if you don’t change, you will be changed! I love this – don’t be afraid of change, it’s incremental and to keep up you have to keep learning. So that’s what I do!

Tori Cowley, group chief communications officer, Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing
Don’t follow the money… was the best piece of advice I ever received. Be good at what you love to do and the money will follow you. If you move just for the cash, it will almost certainly be the wrong decision.

Victoria McKenzie-Gould, corporate communications director, Marks & Spencer
At Tesco I was lucky enough to work for Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe. Overall, working for Lucy was a great learning experience in showing you how to be yourself – your full self – at work and not feel you have to fit in to any preconceived ideas of what operating in corporate life means. It didn’t have to mean dressing, talking or behaving in a certain (typically male) way. Lucy was always herself which is why everyone – from the shop floor up to the chairman – liked her so much, as well as respected her.

I have always felt a responsibility – particularly as a female and working in corporate relations with the link to culture – to be authentic and not feel a pressure to fit in. Lucy was also very perceptive and took huge interest in how you were personally, as well as professionally, and, during one conversation, she remarked, You are always looking to do better and be better. That means that you have a tendency to focus on what you did less well, and you don’t celebrate all the good things you have done. Why don’t you write down three things every day that have gone well or have made you proud.

Whilst I don’t write them down, I do try to think about the things that have gone well every day as, particularly in communications, often the days you shine the most are the ones which have felt the toughest. It’s also a great way of making sure you praise your team enough as giving them confidence, particularly on the more difficult days, is a key part of what you have to do.