Women in agencies

4 Influential women who shaped my career

And what I learnt
And what I learnt

Janine – the one who took a chance on me

My first influential women – after completing my Honours Degree in South Africa, I boldy hopped on a plane and moved to London. The plan was to stay for a year, saunter into a well paid job, save a fortune and then return to South Africa with my pockets full of pounds.

As it happened, my first job in London came about through sheer luck and a healthy dose of pity.

The luck was mine. The pity belonged to Janine, a lovely lady who worked at a small recruitment agency in Wimbledon, where I was sleeping on a friend’s sofa whilst job hunting.

Armed with the confidence and naievty of most 23 year olds, I marched into Janine’s recruitment office expecting her to shower me with job offers immediately. Janine took one look at my CV and kindly explained that I had no experience. None at all. And that this might make it difficult for me to find a job. She also explained that the format of my CV was somewhat underwhelming (i.e. terrible)

Instead of chucking me out and telling me to return once I’d sorted out my CV, she pointed to an unoccupied computer in the office and said I could use it to try and fix my CV. She sat with me and helped me reformat it and construct something that focused on the skills I had and omit the less desirable ‘no experience’ part.

As I was busy applying a second layer of glitter to my turd of a CV, the phone rang. A busy energy procurement company in Hammersmith had lost their receptionist for the week due to illness. Without skipping a beat, Janine launched into a description of the ‘fabulous’ candidate who was literally sitting next to her (aka me!) and said that I could start the next day.

Despite my stunning lack of experience or any work smarts whatsoever, Janine staked her reputation and put me forward for the role.

That week of reception cover resulted in a promotion to Office Manager and finally landed me a position in Digital Marketing, the area I still work in, 15 years’ later.

All because Janine took a chance on me. She showed me that in any role, it’s important to seek out and promote potential, a practice that I continue to apply when recruiting for roles on behalf of clients today.

Personality, willingness and aptitude can go a lot further than experience alone. I too have taken chances on slightly less experienced candidates in the past, simply because I liked the candidate and could see great potential beaming from within their bones. It’s something I’ll always be thankful to Janine for teaching me so early on in my own career.


Margot – the lifestyle aspiration

In a word, Margot was FABULOUS and I learned a great deal from her in quite a short space of time.

Margot was Editor of a wedding magazine at the media company I worked at back in 2013. I had never met anyone like her – she was unmarried, in her 40s and subscribed to the type of lifestyle that I’d previously only ever seen described when referring to single men deemed eligible bachelors because they hadn’t been ‘tied down’ to a wife, kids and a second hand Volvo.

From one week to the next, Margot could be bathing on a beach in Barbados whilst writing a honeymoon destination feature for the magazine, or interviewing a recently engaged celebrity. On a Monday night, she might be out till the early hours watching her musician boyfriend performing a gig in a busy club in Soho. She was very cool and showed me that the classic representation of unmarried women in their 40s as miserable, desperate Bridget Jones-esque characters could not be further removed from her reality.

What I found most inspiring about Margot, who employed a very senior role within the company, was that she was a very strong, firm and even slightly intimidating figure within the company, but she managed to achieve this whilst retaining all of her femininity.

She wore beautiful floaty dresses and her make up was always perfect. She spoke with a soft, quiet voice that nonetheless commanded attention and respect from colleagues. She was extremely good at her job and had progressed rapidly through a very competitive and cut-throat industry, without needing to be a ‘ball-breaker’ to get there.

I’ve always tried to remember, when completely outnumbered by male colleagues in technology teams, that I have distinct strengths as a woman. I need not attempt to ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ in order to succeed. Instead, I can use openness, emotional intelligence and damned hard work to be recognised alongside my male counterparts.

I also appreciate the importance of a lifestyle that excites and engages me. As a wife and a proud mum, I don’t expect less of myself or my career, simply because I choose to split my time between working and looking after our young daughter. I don’t take on work from clients that is of less value or worth than I’d accept as a full-time worker with no dependents.

I feel energised, capable and expectant of my clients to recognise that as a highly skilled and experienced working mum, I have certain requirements for flexibility and an understanding that fits around my family.

Margot taught me that I can choose the lifestyle and career I want, without changing who I am.


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Annie – The revolutionary thinker

Annie was ahead of her time. She remains the smartest person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and definitely one of the bravest.

I worked with Annie for a number of years and throughout that time, she was a passionate advocate of the mobile revolution. This was back in the mid-2000s, before mobile had really taken off and Annie faced a LOT of opposition to her claims that mobile was going to be exponentially big.

Annie wasn’t fazed. She continued to do her research into how online consumerism was changing. She continued to face her critics head on, always employing her calm, evidence based arguments when the naysayers tried to stay rigid to their historic ways and views.

She worked so hard to build her case for how the business needed to respond to this rapid change. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone, signing up for speaker slots at countless events, even though the thought was terrifying to her at first. And as her evidence and experience grew and her hard work began to shape a strong and compelling case for change, people started to listen.

Senior stakeholders, external suppliers, and industry influencers started asking for her opinion, requesting for her to speak at their events or contribute to their plans. She’d done it.

And, when the mobile revolution did explode, in the exact way she had predicted, she’d already moved on to her next venture – a huge new role in Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, far from her comfort zone and once again something she took up without hesitation.

Annie showed me how to be brave and bold in the face of criticism. She taught me to hold steady to my views when I really believe in them. Most of all, she taught me the value of concrete evidence as a far greater tool to win any argument than force or emotion.


Sarah – the great manager

Throughout my career, I’ve had 9 managers.

But, despite having so many managers to choose from, I’ve only ever had one genuinely brilliant boss.

Sarah headed up a small digital marketing team within our large company and I kind of fell into her team after a restructure. She already managed someone else in the team and they’d worked together for a while. But she made me feel welcome immediately.

And the kind of culture she’d created within the team meant that my fellow teammate welcomed me warmly too, because Sarah’s leadership style meant that he was confident, secure in his job and unthreatened by someone new joining the fold. I had so much fun working within that team – there existed a perfect balance between light-hearted banter and serious head down hard work.

Sarah’s greatest attribute as a manager was her consistency.

I always knew where I stood with her – she gave firm but constructive feedback on my work and happily doled out praise when it was due. She was friendly and fun but managed to keep the line between manager and direct report clearly established, without ever being dictatorial.

Best of all, she was genuinely good at her job and because of this (or perhaps just because she was a nice person) she inspired the kind of collaborative culture that I try to create within my own teams and working environments today.

Sarah showed me that a good manager wants the best from their team, wants to see them excel, is honest, supportive and fair. They care about the well-being of the people around them and seem completely comfortable in their own skin. In my experience of reporting to some less than great managers since then, nobody has ever come close to inspiring me the way Sarah did.

Importantly, a great manager also possesses a sense of humour about themselves. Sarah used to laugh the loudest when someone recounted the time she snuck into what she thought was an empty meeting room to grab some leftover biscuits off an unattended plate. As she crept out again, chanting “Coo-kie, Coo-kie, Coo-kie”, she heard someone clear their throat and looked up to see a handful of senior execs who’d stayed behind after the meeting and witnessed her entire show.

I loved that she had a sense of humour about it and still believe that a healthy dose of humour and introspection is a key ingredient to great leadership!

I’ll always be grateful to these four women for the knowledge, skills and life lessons they imparted to me. They also remind me that, whilst the media often likes to portray women in business (or women in general) as a particular stereotype, this simply isn’t the case.

Whether you’re a working mum, a career driven executive, single, married, divorced, University educated, an apprentice, a CEO, an intern, a manager or anything else, you are an individual with unique talents to bring to the workplace. Rock that individuality and don’t ever feel the need to assimilate to a stereotypical picture of what a working woman should be.

Beth Hellowell
Founder of Women in Agencies and co-founder of Signify Digital. Mother, social media scroller and frequent pasta eater.