In this blog, we speak to Keri Watkins, about how she overcame bullying and work-related anxiety, her career and becoming a virtual assistant.
My name is Keri, I am 36 and have worked in Marketing since I graduated from university 15 years ago.
My first job was at Experian. It started as a temporary contract as I was only supposed to be covering the role for three months while another person was on secondment. That person decided to move on, and I was offered the position permanently.
From there I moved to Alliance & Leicester (A&L). I was given fantastic opportunities while working for them. Such as managing all of the campaign activity for A&L’s celebrity masterclasses, featuring Danny Cipriani, McFly and Denise van Outen. The masterclasses were created to inspire 16-21-year old who were looking for career options, introducing them to sprint coaches, music producers and roles in TV production. As well as giving competition winners the chance to meet those celebrities too.
Once A&L became Santander, I mentioned to my boss that should an opportunity ever come up to work on the Grand Prix sponsorship, for what was back then known as the Santander British Grand Prix then I would love to be considered.
A couple of months later, I was told by my Head of Marketing that there was an opportunity, and it was mine if I wanted it.
I was slightly terrified but couldn’t turn it down and had some of the most stressful but also fantastic few months working on it. Getting to grips with a new brand, a new team of colleagues and of course a high-profile sporting event watched worldwide. That had to have all elements of the Santander brand perfect across the whole Silverstone site is still one of my absolute career highlights.
I left Silverstone on the Sunday after four days on-site. Having been part of the team managing the private hospitality areas for Santander’s high-profile guests, exhausted but wishing I could do it all over again.
Since then I’ve been part of putting E.ON back on the high street with their pop-up shop, managed the stand design and build plus event management at EDUCAUSE in California for a leading global digital platform provider. Worked with digital agencies to learn how to develop microsites and now set up my own Virtual Assistant business. I support small-business owners in the Wellness industry with their business planning and email marketing activity.
Being a Virtual Assistant is excellent. I work with Wellness small-business owners who have turned their passion into an income-generating business but now need support to build on their success and expand. Either through increasing the number of classes or turning it into a franchise.
So, on any given day I could be working on content for a website to include a new service, improving the branding and imagery and content or putting campaign plans together to promote the business. Or simply taking on the tasks that are forever on the business owners to-do list but just aren’t getting done and are holding them back from being able to focus on their business growth and income generation.
I love that I get to work with a variety of companies in one day. Their success is my success so I treat all of the work I do for their business like it's my own.
I chose this industry because I am a big fan of Yoga / Pilates, Mindfulness and Hypnobirthing. It may sound a bit too ‘woo’ for some, but what you can achieve when you are feeling strong within not only your body but your mind is incredible.
Mindfulness techniques of staying ‘present and in the moment’ stopped me from catastrophizing when I was struggling with stress and work-related anxiety.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I turned to hypnobirthing to help me mentally prepare for labour and delivery. For those unfamiliar, it is a form of mindfulness that allows you to frame the experience positively and without fear. Having now had a second child, I used the techniques to have an honestly amazing, drug-free experience with both deliveries.
You may want to use every pain-relieving drug the wonderful NHS can offer you, and that's your right. You do you.
However, Hypnobirthing practices can still help you to go into what can seem a scary and fearful experience. Instead, you feel confident and empowered, in not only your ability to deliver the baby but also your rights over your own body at such a potentially vulnerable time. I am a huge advocate and recommend every pregnant woman investigate it.
All these experiences meant it felt like a natural fit for me to work with businesses in the Wellness industry. Offering my organisational and marketing expertise in a flexible and scalable way that is attainable for small business owners.
It hasn’t all been easy, I faced a few challenges along the way, such as a few redundancies, one which totally blindsided me when it was announced. I have also been bullied by a previous manager, and it can be a very unnerving and isolating experience.
However, when I handed in my notice and told a couple of people why I was leaving. Suddenly I found out colleagues, and a senior manager had experienced the same behaviour from that person. But no one had talked to anyone else about it. It made me realise that I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t my fault.
The bullying experience and knowing that the power of a bully comes from you staying silent has in the years since made me speak up and confront behaviour I am not happy with. Thankfully I haven't experienced or witnessed anything like that bullying since then.
What I learnt from redundancies is that when you are aware or suspect, it’s on the horizon. It’s a great time to reevaluate where you are and what you want out of your career so that you can start to put plans in place for your next step if or when it happens.
But when redundancy comes out of the blue, although it may feel like it, the sky very rarely falls. I was able to get a short-term contract quickly when it happened to me. While its location wasn't ideal, I gained some great experience in a University marketing team. At the same time, I looked for something more permanent.
Flexibility is an important thing that I feel strongly about in terms of work. Today, technology allows us to work with almost anyone and from anywhere on the planet. If you need to grow your business or bring in an expert to handle something you can’t or don’t want to, they don’t have to sit next to you in your office every day 9 am-5 pm.
I have always been career-focused and ambitious, but a few years ago I would never have thought that I would set up my own business, that was something other people did.
While on maternity leave after having my second daughter, I felt like I need to have a rethink career-wise. To look to do something new that would also allow me to work around my children.
Deciding to create a business while also having a newborn and a pre-schooler isn’t easy, but it was something I knew I’d regret if I didn’t try.
Having children, specifically, daughters have given me the push to go for it, to hopefully inspire them. I would love for them to surpass me into bigger and better things. I want to be able to tell them that if nothing else, I tried.
The thing that is great about being a female in my role is the ability to empathise with female business owners in the Wellness industry. The juggling act they are managing every day around their families as well as the desire to succeed and make their businesses a success.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is to not compare yourself to others. Social media is a great way to promote and build your business. Still, it can be easy to slip into comparing yourself negatively to someone else’s seemingly perfect little squares.
I find it better to focus on my own work, not feel pressured into continually being online or posting every day. Especially as now I am often busy with client work or my children.
Many years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of colleagues. Just before it started, I went to get a coffee and asked if anyone else wanted one. It was what I considered to be the polite thing to do.
Afterwards, one of the male managers took me aside and suggested I shouldn’t do that in the future. His advice was that I was positioning myself as a junior and inconsequential to the meeting. He didn't directly refer to the fact that I was a woman too, but it was inferred.
Since then I have kept true to my own principles, but I have been aware of how women self-represent but most importantly are represented in companies.
Marketing teams are, for the most part, predominantly female-heavy, but in my career, I have only had a couple of female Head of Marketing lead the teams. With women most likely to be responsible for childcare and caring responsibilities, it suggests that this influences career progression.
My top three tips for young females starting out in their careers would be, experience, experience, experience. Get as much of it as possible, don’t be afraid to go for something new and challenging. Talk to people more senior than you, tell them your aspirations and keep in touch with them as you never know when you may be able to call on them for support.
What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?
The same as I would give to other younger women. Get experience. I changed my university choice just weeks before I was due to start as I was advised to go for a degree course with a year in industry instead.
The first time I visited my new university was the day I turned up to enrol. It was pretty nerve-wracking to move to a new city at 18 that I had never visited before. Still, it was the best decision I made and that year in the industry led to me getting my first job after uni.
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
No, I think more women need to be promoted to senior levels for that to happen. Most women I know who have asked for flexible working hours deliver a comparable amount of work in that time to that of their full-time colleagues.
Still, flexible working is often viewed negatively and as if they aren't fully committed when usually it’s the complete opposite. Maybe if more men considered working flexibly around their family commitments, they would appreciate more exactly what it takes to manage that level of organisation and compartmentalisation.
What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organisations?
To value their worth and be clear of their own boundaries. Find people in the business who you admire and ask them for their time and advice on how to succeed.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
It's important to let your team shine, don’t let all the same people work on the big projects or deliver the presentations. People can surprise you if you just give them the encouragement to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
What's the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
To focus my business on the areas of marketing that I enjoy and deliver well. When I started out, to secure my first client I felt I had to be offering all things to all people. It wasn't an enjoyable time, and I struggled with my business identity.
Someone who has a similar company but with their own specialism gave me a bit of a pep talk and the confidence to focus on the area that I have the most experience. Meaning I have instead enjoyed what I do and found the niche that is proving to be successful for me.
What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
You don’t have to have it all figured out. It's ok to change your mind but take all the opportunities that come your way. You never know where they may lead.
If you enjoyed Keri’s story and want to be further inspired, check out more of our blogs!