I walked up to the podium, spotlights almost blinding me, in front of an audience of about 2000 people including ministers, family, friends and most importantly, fellow graduates. It was 2004 and I had finished my undergraduate degree in Marketing & International Business at one of Middlesex University’s partner institutions in Egypt. I had graduated top of the university and the dean asked if I would give the graduation speech on behalf of the faculty of management. Not one to turn down a challenge, I agreed – despite the fact that they only gave me 15 minutes notice!
I improvised (as one does) and for ten minutes I talked about the possibilities, opportunities and challenges yet to come. This was my first experience of public speaking (with such a large audience) and I loved it!
Don’t Miss Out on an Opportunity: Improvise
I learnt an important lesson that day – some of the greatest opportunities in life can easily be turned down because we think we aren’t ready for them. At University we are taught to plan, strategize and carry out detailed risk assessments but often in life, decisions are based on intuition rather than solid evidence that the outcome will be a positive one. Sometimes you just have to take a calculated risk, listen to your gut and just go for it. If the worst-case scenario is one you can live with then embrace the opportunity and improvise. It will work more often than you think!
Resilience and the Art of Coping with Rejection
Once the hype of graduation was over, it was time to come back to planet earth and start job hunting. I was motivated, incredibly ambitious and ready to take on the world. My plan was to join a large multinational company in Cairo and climb the corporate ladder. I naively assumed that this would be fairly straightforward but was in for a shock. After months of filling in application forms, sending my resume (repeatedly) to every multinational in Cairo and being rejected (or ignored), I finally landed a job at British American Tobacco as the Trade Development Executive.
Resilience isn’t something they taught us at University so it was a skill I had to acquire with experience. When you are rejected for a job it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you (obvious to me now but back then I started to question my self-worth rather than how well I was articulating my skills and experiences in my applications).
Be True to Yourself: Adapt don’t mimic
Working in the tobacco industry was challenging, particularly being in Africa and the only female and youngest person in the department. I was working with a broad range of people – from the sales reps to the senior management team and it was my role to analyse the company’s sales data with the aim of identifying growth opportunities to increase sales and market share.
I worked closely with the trade teams on adapting their trade marketing approach and trained them on the analysis of sales data and route planning to optimise sales. I learnt an important lesson the first time I stood in front of a room of 50 (all male) sales reps and supervisors to run a workshop: sometimes you have to fake it to make it! I put on my poker face, ensured I controlled the tone of my voice (I had a bad habit of sounding screechy when I was nervous) and took a moment to ground myself (little did anyone know a part of me was hoping the ground would actually open up and swallow me!). The workshop went very well and they all bought the act – eventually even I did.
It is so important to be true to yourself, be authentic and don’t try and be someone else when you are working in an environment when you are the odd one out. It is absolutely imperative to adapt to the various people you work with, but don’t mimic. This really is one of the keys to being happy at work.
Building Relationships and the Power of Small Talk
Two years after joining British American Tobacco, someone at Nokia approached me for the role of Sales Operations Executive to manage the launch of the company’s field force agencies across six markets in North Africa. I accepted the offer and had to hit the ground running, travelling every other month across Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and the UAE to get the agencies in operation within planned timelines.
After two incredibly exciting years in the role, it was time for a new challenge.
In 2009 I was promoted to Marketing Manager and was tasked with managing all the above-the-line marketing campaigns across North Africa. I managed three agencies – media, creative and digital – as well as the marketing planning process, which involved months of market analysis, competitor activity reviews, sifting through hundreds of pages of research on target market media consumption and lengthy negotiations on budgets (which were always entertaining). With a vast array of stakeholders to keep happy, I quickly learnt the importance of building professional relationships. Sometimes we forget that stakeholders are actually people who have families, hobbies, problems, ambitions and fears just like us! Genuinely asking someone how they are or how the family is or whether they had a good weekend really can go a long way. It is human nature to appreciate recognition and taking a few minutes to have a conversation with someone and keeping it about them works wonders.
After six years in the corporate world, it was time for change and a new challenge. I moved back to London in 2010 and signed up for a full-time MBA at Westminster Business School. ‘Better busy than bored’ is my motto so I took on a number of consultancy projects with the University ranging from Marketing Strategy Reviews, to a market sizing study for the Institute of Promotional Marketing to CPD Portfolio Development while I was studying.
After graduating with an MBA, I took on a full-time role with the Business School. As the School’s Market Development Manager, I work on business development, project management, client management (NHS, House of Commons, Royal Court of Bahrain and partner universities in the far east), marketing management and account management for our short courses and executive education offerings.
Higher education (HE) is a far cry from the fast paced worlds of tobacco and telecoms. The shift to a completely different sector has been an interesting experience and an incredibly valuable one. Marketing higher education (particularly short courses and executive education) is still a very green area. The upside of this is that there is a great deal to learn and an opportunity to really contribute to the sector.
Resourcefulness and Creativity
There were many things I took for granted in the corporate world – the efficiency with which things got done, millions of dollars of marketing budget and of course the fact that everyone in North Africa wants the latest mobile phone so demand wasn’t a problem!
Things are not as straightforward in HE. There are no readily available decks that map out the media consumption habits of our various target groups, we don’t have millions at our disposal to spend on 360 campaigns and in many instances our customers don’t realise they have a skill/competency gap (in a way we are selling services to people who don’t know what they don’t know!). But these challenges are what keep things interesting and force us to be reactive and resourceful.
As with any role, I have had my frustrations but these often lead to the ‘aha’ moments that then result in some sort of innovative approach to how we work.
Enjoy the Journey: you only experience it once
Like I said to the 2,000 people I spoke to in 2004 during my short, improvised graduation speech: don’t get too obsessed with the destination because even the best laid plans sometimes don’t work out. There will always be difficulties, challenges and set-backs, but if you really reflect on your experiences in life, you will realise that you are much more resilient, creative and resourceful than you think. So always stay true to yourself, embrace the opportunities life throws at you, make sure you learn from the experiences and most importantly, enjoying the journey!
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