Career paths to retain talent
Editorial

Career paths to retain talent

A decade ago (that’s before the iPhone, to put it into context), the skills needed by marketers were more tightly defined and job titles were fewer, making it much simpler for marketers to develop a career and for recruiters to identify the best talent.

Today, an explosion of niche skills has led to both disrupted roles and fragmented specialisms and career paths, which many argue has made marketing far more opaque. But Jenny Ashmore, president of CIM, disagrees. “Opaque sounds negative, whereas I think the changes are positive,” she explains. “Rather than this relentless pyramid that meant only a few people could ever make it to the top, we’re now in a situation where there are loads of peachy roles out there – far more than we could ever have imagined.”

To understand the changes, she suggests imagining marketing careers as a T-shape, with the vertical line of the T representing depth and the cross at the top representing breadth. “In the last two decades, what we've seen is the vertical bit get much deeper as a result of all the science coming in around data and digital. In addition, the cross at the top has got broader, as marketing has become more involved in the likes of HR and recruitment, more integrated into the operational side of things and more involved in regulatory affairs. So rather than becoming more opaque, there is this deeper, specialist, technical depth in many areas, along with a much broader spread. 

I would argue that combination makes it a really exciting time for the profession.” 

The challenge, she says, is for marketers to work out what they love, where they can add value, and then charting a path towards that. It can also be particularly challenging for career marketers at certain points of their career – managing a team of marketers in their early 30s, for example - to figure out what to do next.

What’s particularly easy, she acknowledges, is for marketers to get trapped into a specialism, almost unwittingly. 

“What I encounter quite a bit are people who – because they are so good in their specialism – have never really get the chance to get out there and do broader things. The further they develop in their career, the harder that leap has become. It’s a challenge for employers too because you get people in a job for five, 10 or 15 years who are fantastic contributors to the organisation, and you really want to promote them, but the higher role requires so much more breadth that they would drown without more time to develop wider understanding.

Time and time again, we hear employers saying, ‘How on earth do we develop career paths to retain people?’

"How on earth do we develop career paths to retain people?"

Her advice for such marketers is to be clear with their line managers that you want to take on projects and sit in on meetings that broaden your knowledge of what the wider business is all about and how marketing supports and drives its growth.

“Also consider a marketing qualification. Not only does it open up whole new areas of learning, but it is a real demonstration to the business that you don’t just want promotion, but that you’re serious enough to give up some of your own time to learn more and bring it into the business environment. Then you can have a quid pro quo conversation, asking to observe more in meetings, work with finance to share insights you might have missed and go beyond your specialism.”

Ashmore’s own career began 25 years ago, working at big corporates including Procter and Gamble and Mars. “What’s striking about academy companies like this is that you move through a lot of assignments in a very short time, the benefit of which is you gather quite a lot of breadth, as well as learning to assess situations very quickly

The bottom line is that you know you need to make an impact in 18 months, so you start out thinking ‘Right, how do I assess this marketplace? How do I get into what consumers really want? How do I understand the financial P&L and where to find the levers for growth?’ Then you shape a plan, implement it, measure and improve it, all very quickly. That all helps build both generalist skills and indeed specialisms because you learn through doing what tools are needed to get solutions at speed.”

Although many of today’s marketing graduates don’t have such opportunities, she still advises trying and start out in a company they can imagine spending at least three to five years. “It’s good to go through at least a couple of business cycles so that you can think, ‘Ok, the business did this and did or didn’t grow’ and assess why. It’s about finding somewhere you think you can learn those things and get the breadth of roles to generate enough learning. I know it’s hard when there aren’t that many jobs around, but it is possible and far more preferable to relentlessly progressing from a junior digital role to senior digital role and so on. Also be sure to find somewhere that fits your personality.

Some people are happier in a start-up environment, where they can have a go at everything and learn really fast and the lack of structured learning environment is a plus, whereas others would find that terrifying.” 

The other big learning curve for Ashmore came from learning through doing. “I didn’t always get the things right and learned a huge amount, for example, from line managing people from an early stage,” she admits.

“That’s such an important skill, working with people and harnessing what is uniquely them and then melding it into the wider team, and there were times I got it wrong and had to apologise and learn from it. But I learned at triple speed during that phase and still tell people now when they are going through a stressful time at work that although it’s tough now, the experience is accelerating their learning enormously.” 

Probably the biggest change since her pre-digital beginnings, believes Ashmore, is the speed at which things change. “This obviously makes keeping abreast of the significant change of tools and technology in marketing all the more important. It’s right at the core of continuing professional development,” she says, citing three pieces of advice that she tries to live by herself. 

“First, in your day-to-day job, keep a tiny bit of time and money aside to experiment. If you keep doing exactly what you’ve always done, you can be sure that it isn’t going to work at some stage in the future. To those people who say they don’t have time to experiment, I’d say somehow those who are curious do find the time.”

Secondly, get out there and network, she says. “You can’t work everything out on your own. The world is too big and too complex, so tapping into the collective intelligence of your sector is essential. It’s amazing what can be shared for the collective good without compromising on competitiveness.

Just come out of your day-to-day environment to grab a coffee with someone and step back to see your world through different eyes. Thirdly, there are some brilliant marketing digests that trawl the internet for you, so make sure you set up those alerts, as well as following the right people on Twitter.” 

Ashmore also has three top tips to becoming a well-rounded marketing professional. “Maybe it’s because I do lots of sport and train for endurance events, but I think you’ve got to be disciplined enough to have a plan of the destination of where you want to go and the route to get there,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be complex, no more than a few bullet points that you look at a few times a year. Nor do you have to stick to it rigidly. But the danger is that you amble along and before you know it, time has passed and you’ve got distracted into other things.”

Secondly, be curious, she says. “It’s really striking to me how people behave when they’re brought into management meetings to present and the previous agenda item runs over. There are those who really listen and soak it up, thinking, ‘It’s not quite to do with me, but it’s my organisation.’ They may even quiz the boss afterwards about why there was so much concern and discussion around that issue. Then there are those who stare into space, thinking, ‘We’re not on yet.’ This is a great example of living the ‘T’ bit of marketing I talked about earlier – capturing both the depth and the breadth. There are so many opportunities in your day-to-day life to find stuff out, whether it’s in a meeting like that or through someone you bump into at the coffee machine. Grab those chances, particularly as most people are really pleased to share what they are doing and talk about the big issues.” 

Thirdly, Ashmore advises always listening and learning from those around you. “Everyone has something about them that is absolutely brilliant, so get into a mindset of thinking, ‘Wow, look at the way they do that,’ ‘Look at that idea they had and the power it could have,’ and so on. All three things can be done within the day job and they can all be really powerful.” 

As for reaching the top, Ashmore says you can always tell a great marketing leader because they are the kind of people who, if you sit down or grab a coffee with them, can articulate within a couple of minutes the mission of their own organisation in simple terms that anyone – your mum or gran – could understand and think, ‘Oh wow, that’s cool, I get that.’ In addition – and this is the important bit - they are able to mobilise the wider organisation to deliver against that. It’s almost like a golden thread that translates the mission statement in the annual report through to what the organisation does every day, so that it empowers the organisation to live it without getting confused. What lies behind that is having an absolute passion for the marketplace, the customer and consumer and what they want plus an ability to work out why they are prepared to pay the money they do in return for the service, product or outcome they get.”

Meanwhile, for any undergraduate seriously thinking of marketing, Ashmore is clear about what we should be saying to them. “Brilliant, you’ve made a great decision!” “One of the things that saddens me is that too few people tell them what a great career marketing is, and as I said the fact that it has got so much broader and deeper makes it more exciting than ever.”

Looking for your next marketing challenge? Then sign up to CIM Jobs, our official marketing jobs site, where you can gain access to a wide range of roles across various sectors and disciplines.

Jenny Ashmore President CIM

Career paths to retain talent

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