Lessons in leadership from a 40-something graduate trainee

Wavemaker UK's new Chief Growth Officer, Katie Lee, on squiggly careers and how learning is a necessity

It’s January 2022, I’m in my 40s and I’ve just started a new career. It’s not the first time, in fact it’s probably the third. But it appears I’m not the only one. According to new research published in the Financial Times last year, most of us can expect to have as many as four career changes during our working life. 

As someone who already has three career shifts under their belt, I am a huge fan of Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper’s writing on ‘squiggly’ careers. Their book argues that not only is the concept of a ‘job for life’ a thing of the past, moving frequently between roles, industries, locations and careers is now the new normal. Indeed, with the right attitude and skills, a squiggly career offers huge opportunity for personal development. 

I for one, absolutely relish the opportunity to build my experience and to keep learning. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions what this breadth of experience I’m accumulating is leading towards — what’s the nirvana role at the end of all this learning? But for me it’s not about an end goal. I simply love to learn. 

Daniel Pink is fascinating on the topic of motivation in the workplace. He argues that people aren’t motivated by reward (once they’re paid fairly for what they do) and instead outlines the three levers of motivation as autonomy, mastery and purpose. I have always argued that belonging also ‘belongs’ in this framework and I massively overindex on belonging. However, it appears that I also overindex on mastery.  I get a real thrill from learning new things.

But learning isn’t really a choice, in an industry as disrupted as ours, constant learning is a necessity. It’s a case of the Red Queen theory of evolution (going back many years to my science degree) where you have to run to stay still. 

I’d wager that it’s actually pretty easy to learn the transactional tools of a business if you’re surrounded by experts. For example, when I joined Gravity Road my learning curve in tech, content and social was steep but I could hold my own in some pretty deep SEO meetings (although I always joked that I was one question away from disaster). Similarly, during my time running the Clementine app (a wellbeing app aimed at women), it wasn’t too long until I became proficient (enough) in the workings of an app, especially surrounded by expert developers and product directors. 

What then, as I embark on a new role in media as Chief Growth Officer at Wavemaker, has a ‘squiggly’ career and a relentless focus on learning taught me?

It’s taught me leadership skills that are transferable: empathy, vulnerability, humility and integrity. This year, WACL’s theme is Leading for Change and Kate Waters, our President, talks about the importance of these skills especially as a leader in these disrupted times and I’d argue that it’s these skills that will help me make an impact in my new role as a ‘40-something graduate trainee’. 

I have the vulnerability to lean on the brilliant experts around me to help me build up the skills and knowledge I need to keep apace with industry innovation. I have the humility to ask questions — lots of them — safe in the knowledge that those questions will make clearer the work that needs to be done. 

I have the empathy to nurture the growth of those around me. Your empathy radar can be exceptionally high when you’re feeling like a fish out of water yourself and this means that you can work hard on building an inclusive environment where all types of diversity flourish. 

And I can also lead with integrity, in the confidence that I’m working somewhere that celebrates difference because they hired me into a C-suite role, knowing that I’m new to the industry.   

January is a time when many businesses look to engage fresh new talent as they focus on their ambitions for the year. If you are one such business, then I urge you too to champion new leadership archetypes. I’m proud that Wavemaker see the value in diverse leadership, because I can’t wait to show you what we achieve next!

Featured image: Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay

Katie Lee

Katie is Chief Growth Officer at WaveMaker UK.

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