18th November 2018
What would I tell my younger self about a B2B marketing career?
Photo by Kristen Sturdivant on Unsplash (edited)
I’ve just returned from lecturing to a group of young MBA students at the University of Southern California, where my book – B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement – is being used as a main text for their B2B marketing module. My last post looked at the reasons why B2B marketing is a great career choice, and creating the case for this choice was one of the objectives for my lecture.
It was such a fantastic experience to speak with these bright and talented young people. And while they may very well choose a career other than B2B marketing, on my flight home I started thinking about some of the questions they asked in the context of the wider working world. Back in 2015 I wrote a short blog in response to a series that LinkedIn was running around the advice we’d give to our younger selves. I’ve dusted off that post and reworked it here.
1. The job description really does not describe the job: too often it’s an aspiration rather than a reality. And too often it’s written by someone in HR who doesn’t actually know what the job entails. I’ve even worked for companies where I’ve written the job description myself, only to have HR rewrite it into a ‘vanilla’ version. To this day I still don’t get that. But be prepared to create and re-create your role throughout your career. Since we all bring our own unique personalities, skills, knowledge and perspectives to whatever job we take on, the job ultimately becomes what we make of it.
2. It’s OK not to know everything: your education is, in fact, just beginning. You are talented and capable, but some things can ONLY be learned through experience. Marketing is a blend of skills – technical, theoretical, experiential, interpersonal – many of which are learned over time. And one of the great joys of a career in marketing is that there is always something new to learn.
I know, there is an awful lot of pressure to ‘perform’ from Day 1 and it can be quite scary asking questions. After all, you were presumably hired because of what you know or have demonstrated in a past role. But this is not a reflection on your adequacy or lack of it. The best marketers, and those whose careers progress, have a real thirst for knowledge, understanding, and continuous improvement, with the ability to constantly renew and reinvent themselves because of the questions they ask.
3. It’s not beneath you: get used to it, you’ll be the one doing the grunt work. In your first marketing role, you’ll likely be the most junior and youngest member of the team. It’s rare during the interview that you’ll be told about all the mundane tasks you’ll actually be doing, especially at first. Accept it, you’ll be doing those mind-numbing tasks that are a part of the job and no one else wants to do – packing up and shipping the boxes for that trade show or conference, updating CRM and probably every spreadsheet the team uses, taking the notes at meetings and every other brainless task that exists. But this is a rare opportunity to listen, watch and learn from those around you.
I once had a new marketer on my team who I seated next to me in our open plan offices. Even while they working on that spreadsheet, I quickly noticed that they were openly and avidly listening to every telephone conversation and desk meeting I had. It was a little disconcerting at first, but eventually I got to the point where I became worried if they weren’t listening in! They weren’t being nosy, they were just so curious and wanted to learn; they always followed up with questions on what I’d been talking about, why I made certain decisions, could it be done this way, on and on.
4. Change happens: and most of it you can’t control. The boss you admire and respect leaves and is replaced by someone you can’t seem to connect with; there’s a marketing restructure and you’re moved into another team, in a part of the business you’re not interested in; your company downsizes or is acquired by another and you’re made redundant. Or suddenly you feel you’ve outgrown your role yet there’s nowhere else for you to go in your organisation. It happens to all of us at some point in our careers. What’s important is that you anticipate and respond positively to change.
You will work for many different companies throughout your career, either by chance or by design. While you absolutely must do the best that you are capable of for your employer, you also have a responsibility to yourself. Have a plan, think about the next step you might want to take, what that next role might be and what you want to happen in your career. Make absolutely certain that you are getting what you need to enable you to take that next step. And if you’re not being offered those learning opportunities, be sure to find them elsewhere.
5. Just doing your job is not enough if you want to progress: and your technical skills will only get you so far. You may love what you do and that’s fine, you won’t get bored and those skills will likely be in demand in some form or another, especially as you continue to learn new skills and hone your existing ones. But you won’t get promoted for just being good at your job.
This is the one of the hardest and harshest lessons that I learned in my career. I naively assumed that promotion would just happen if I was superb at my job. It doesn’t. You have to have a plan. Understand what the expectations and requirements are for that next step, cultivate the right relationships to support your progression, and actively target, learn and demonstrate not just the required skills but also the behaviours that are expected at that next level.
6. Never stop learning: while marketing fundamentals remain the same, our commercial environments and ways of working constantly change, as does the technology that enables us to better do our jobs. This often means doing things differently, and doing very different things, in ways we may have never tried before.
Critically, be open to the new: attend marketing conferences to hear what other professionals are thinking and doing; take a class to improve a skill; take a further marketing qualification; or even go for an MBA if you can.
7. Read and write as much as you can: the clarity of your language reflects the clarity of your thinking and it’s your thinking that will ultimately take you further along that career path. Reading will make you a better writer and writing skills are the core competency for every marketer. In one way or another, the written word forms the foundation for every type of communication, even if the final output is visual or verbal.
Read everything you can get your hands on. And I mean more than just your social media feeds! Read business books, newspapers, industry publications, fiction, non-fiction, online or offline, it doesn’t matter, as long as you read! It will help your critical thinking skills as well as your writing, open you to new perspectives and possibilities, and is the most cost-effective way to learn from the best and brightest. I know, we’re all so busy all the time but I really recommend that you make the time – even if it’s just a few pages on the tube or bus every day – I guarantee you it will be worth it.
8. Get out of that marketing silo: network extensively, both internally and externally. Marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not something that’s done to the business, it’s done with the business. It’s critical that you deeply understand your organisation’s wider goals and objectives. Talk to your salespeople, go on a customer call with them if you can, shadow one of your business stakeholders – it will help you better understand the world in which you are building your career and how marketing fits into that world. Building these relationships internally will also strengthen your credibility across the wider business.
Networking externally is equally important; it provides you with opportunities to engage with your peers and build relationships across a wide variety of industries and sectors as well as discuss the challenges we all face. These external relationships can also offer objective, on-going support throughout your career, be a sounding board for ideas and a reality check for career plans, and they often turn into that next big step in your career.
9. Marketing is your job, not your life: it’s so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day demands of your job, no matter how much you love it. Marketing is too often under-resourced, both at a human and budgetary level, and in many industries the number of hours you work in a day or a week is perceived as a statement of commitment to the job and thus necessary for career progression. This has become increasingly pervasive as technology has created an ‘always-on’ work environment.
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to turn off from work. There’s an over-used saying that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. I just don’t buy into that. The vast majority of us have a life that has nothing to do with our work and I personally believe this is healthy. From your first day on the job, be very clear about your workplace parameters, no matter how much pressure there is to do otherwise. Turn off your work phone after hours and don’t even think about checking your email on weekends and holidays. You are not doing life-saving surgery. In my entire career I’ve not found a single thing that simply couldn’t wait.
10. Go on secondment to another country. And while you’re at it, learn the language. No matter what you end up doing in your career, if you ever have the opportunity to live and work in another country, absolutely go for it. Immersing yourself in another culture will influence the ways in which you see yourself and what you do in completely different ways. Whether it’s for the short or long term, your work will benefit from it and so will you.
In March of this year, a team of social scientists from Rice University, Colombia University and the University of North Carolina published the results of a wide research programme that explored the impact of living and working abroad. They conclude that living abroad not only provides us with a stronger sense of self, but also brings greater life satisfaction, less stress, and improved job performance. The research also suggests that living abroad leads to clearer career decision-making.
Finally, if I could say only one thing to my younger self, it would be this. Time passes. Ambitions change. Family and friends, health and fitness, fun and relaxation and purpose in whatever form that takes – these are the things that give our lives meaning and make us happier people. And if you choose a career in marketing, you will be a better marketer because of them.
Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.