2020 is the age of personalisation. Micro-targeted advertising, AI-driven virtual personal assistants, on demand viewing prioritised by preferences… the list is endless. But personalisation extends beyond the automated to how we approach the opportunities we choose to pursue. Gone are the days of milkround-based graduate careers generating ‘lifers’. Instead, the 2019 Millennial Manager Workplace Survey revealed that 75% of millennials believe that constantly changing jobs advanced their career. Is this advancement inherent to chopping and changing though, or is it because we’re building on what we’ve learnt and feel empowered to stop and think – what do I really want?
This week I asked Graham Hutchinson, Sports Lead at executive search firm Forsyth Barnes, to answer some questions for me. Interestingly, the conversation wasn’t to get advice on my own journey (as I’ve written plenty of times over the last few months, I’m happily ensconced in a new role that ticked all my carefully crafted career criteria and am doing my best to match or top what I get from the business with what I can offer in return). Instead, I asked him to share his own fascinating career history, from his first inspiration:
Growing up I had the same dream as so many other kids… becoming a professional athlete. My sport of choice, football. Why football? The honest answer: I had terrible hand-eye coordination, so racquet sports or basketball were out the window, and I wasn’t the toughest kid so rugby was never going to happen.
When I first started playing football, aged seven, I played every position available mainly because I was so bad the manager had to keep moving me around to stop the destruction I was causing. What makes this story more amusing is that the manager was my dad. Even he couldn’t bring himself to keep picking me, so I took up residence on the bench.
That’s the first lesson I can remember in what it feels like to experience a setback and need to come back from it stronger – something I would quickly learn is a big part of both life and progress. My solution to the setback on this occasion was to develop a relentless work-ethic. I would spend every spare moment practising, finding ways to get better and to push my way into that team.
Sport’s power to inspire and shape futures is one of the reasons I love working in the sport industry. The values, discipline and lessons we learn from sport as children – as players or spectators – transcend a pitch, field, court… or racetrack. Football in particular is known for being a sport that anyone can play anywhere any time – many would say that if you can find a tin can to kick around and someone to play with then you can play football. Not all of us manage to make our childhood dreams of the lights and heights of becoming professional sportsperson a reality though:
Over the next nine years I managed to get pretty good at football (despite countless more knockbacks). I was about to finish school when I started as a full-time ‘apprentice footballer’ with a lower league division club. My wage was £40 a week – £25 of which I had to use to get six, 30-minute buses daily to and from training. I spent around 10 hours a day at the training ground; two hours playing football and the rest making tea, coffee and cleaning up after the first team players and staff. I complained a lot at the time about everything I had to do other than playing football, but it turns out it taught me some valuable life lessons that I still hold onto today, particularly humility.
Within three months, I earned a call up to the Scottish National Youth Team and off the back of some good performances with some important people watching I got a chance to join a Premier League Football Club. Here I was, 17 years old, long-term contract with a Premier League side, big pay rise, rubbing shoulders with players I’d admired my whole life… I’d made it, right? The only way from there was up, right? I definitely thought so. But no! I was in for a shock. I signed in the January transfer window, had a strong end to the season and then decided to spend my summer on holidays most 17 year olds could only dream of, travelling to some of the most amazing places in the world, rather than working hard in the gym and getting myself ready for pre-season. I couldn’t have imagined how much I would regret it.
The flip side of being presented with a talent-based opportunity of a lifetime is being physically and mentally ready to seize it with both hands before it slips through your fingers. Equality of opportunity isn’t and may never be absolute but there’s a clear rise in meritocratic entry level schemes across multiple industries. More can be done, in particular for underrepresented groups, but we’re moving in the right direction and consciously engaging with a desire to define our own non-linear, personalised futures. Yet carving out that unique path demands determination, tenacity and grit, which we sometimes have to learn the hard way:
Day 1 of pre-season training always tended to be a slower day compared to the rest of it, easing the players back in. Not this time, and not for me. I found it so tough. I knew five minutes into the first session that I hadn’t done anywhere near enough work over the summer. I came last in every fitness test, lost every competition in the gym, I was ‘miles off it’ and it killed me inside. I’d rested on my laurels and not only was I paying the price for that daily, but looking back years later I was also about to miss out on some big opportunities that you can’t afford to lose in an industry where success is built on the smallest of margins.
Day 9 of pre-season and the manager couldn’t handle giving me the silent treatment anymore. He called me into his office and let me know exactly what he thought, which is to this day one of the most brutal conversations I’ve ever had to be on the receiving end of (and rightly so). It probably lasted three minutes, but it felt like hours. Exactly what he said to me probably isn’t fit for purpose to share here, but if you let your imagination run with it you probably won’t be far off. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve ever learnt in my life. Work ethic is a minimum expectation and is important 100% of the time, and even more so when you don’t think it is. Each pre-season that followed I was at the front every time, no questions asked!
I’ve said before that I’ve learnt more from my failures than my successes. If you’re ever feeling insecure about having made a mistake at work, feel free to get in touch, because, like Graham, I’ve got plenty of them to share. But I don’t regret them. The times you fall down are often the make or break moments in your career. What happens next is defined by how you pick yourself up again. Ironically, the instances where I’ve got things right first time had led to far less reflection and growth:
Turning 21 was a big moment for me. I realised I needed to be sure that with success an unknown, my love of football was enough to make it the thing I wanted to do for the next 15 years. Coming to the realisation that it wasn’t was difficult to admit to myself. When you dedicate not just your own life, but that of your family to something, to then do a one-eighty and decide your long-term future is elsewhere is a tough conversation to have. But I had the conversation, and everyone was supportive of whatever decision I made – which was a huge relief. I then had to figure out what to do next.
Now working in executive search, I get to trade in what we call human capital. The terminology may sound harsh, but it isn’t. It’s my job to understand the behaviours, knowledge, social and personality attributes of people and use that insight to match them to the right company, creating mutually satisfying partnerships that add value to the individual and the organisation. I get to speak with dozens of executives daily and what I love is that everyone started their career in such different ways then went on unique journeys.
Looking back my career is no different. When I stopped playing football, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to be in business, having grown up around it my whole life. But what, where and with whom I had no idea so my first step was just to get into a business environment and experience what is was like, knowing it would be completely different to running around a pitch for work.
Luckily, around this time I had a conversation with a family friend who owned his own boutique search firm in our city. He suggested I joined him at the firm to ‘see how I get on’ (his exact words). My first thought was that business plus people sounded interesting and like something I could be good at.
I’m lucky enough to know both Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis who founded Amazing If and host its Squiggly Careers podcast (if you haven’t listened, I strongly recommend you do, it’s quite moreish). The term ‘squiggly career’ is one I can’t top to describe the lack of uniformity in modern working life. A career is no longer a commitment you embark upon at the end of formal education, but a journey on which we test and learn from experiences to develop, grow and course correct en route to our ever-evolving career destination.
After two years, I’d progressed quickly and loved my new career. I could even draw parallels to the skills I needed in football. Comparing the two is difficult to put into words, but there are many similarities. Both are intense, results-based, require hard work and an ability to work as part of a team (as a leader and teammate). I definitely wouldn’t liken the feeling to ‘fun’ which is what most people would probably think, but more to an addiction to competition; that feeling of never being good enough, never being satisfied, always wanting and needing to improve. Whether you win, lose or draw, even if it’s by the smallest percentage, there is always an area for improvement and often it can be the difference between winning or losing, progressing forward or going back.
Pleased with my new world, there was one thing that wasn’t quite sitting right. I was struggling to get motivated about the industry I was recruiting in: financial services. I have the utmost respect for other people’s areas of passion, but what’s always inspired me is the business of sport. When I met the two founding partners of Forsyth Barnes at an event, they told me about their fast-growing, award-winning and entrepreneurial recruitment business – with no sports division. As we talked over time, they decided to create a practice specifically to service the sport and entertainment industry and gave me the chance to join it. As they say, the rest is history. Two and a half years later it’s now the fastest growing practice in our group, operating globally with two UK offices and a third soon to open in New York.
It’s funny because on a daily basis, I advise people on how to write their story in their CV. Being forced to reflect on my own story has helped me realise what I’ve learnt and how I’ve got to where I am. I’m a huge fan of simplicity and am fascinated by what fundamentally motivates people. When you do something you’re passionate about it makes everything simpler. A good friend of mine, who is also one of the leading Presidents in the NBA, recently told me “Our business is a simple one. A hard one, but a simple one. It’s about people, and if you can figure that out you can achieve great things.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Katie Traxton is an ESA Board Director and Chief Communications Officer at Formula E. She was previously Managing Partner at WeAreFearless, ESA’s 2020 Pan-Europe Sponsorship Agency of the Year.