In this blog, we chat with Sarah Canning, Marketing Director of Student Roost. Sarah talks us through how she got to where she is today, the best advice she was ever given and key leadership lessons that she has learnt!
I left University with a degree in English Literature and Media Studies but what I realised I really enjoyed was actually sales and marketing (although I didn’t realise at the time that is what I was doing!) Whilst studying I worked in a gym selling membership and then when I left Uni, I got a job as an estate agent – I figured that I liked property and I liked selling so this was a logical step.
What I loved about both of those jobs was dealing with people, building great relationships, promoting the product in the best light possible and working towards that all-important sales conversion. After a few years, a position was advertised for Taylor Wimpey for a Marketing Executive which I was successful in applying for and that has pretty much been my career trajectory ever since, bar a sideways move working agency side at Rightmove. Since then I have worked for different property developers – Berkeley Homes, iQ Student Accommodation, Global Student Accommodation and now Student Roost. Student accommodation has been my working life for the last twelve years. At Student Roost, we build and operate 50 buildings across the UK in 20 cities – almost 20,000 students live in our buildings and I lead the marketing function to ensure they are filled every year.
My work is very varied which I love – I might be travelling to visit some of our properties around the UK, meeting potential business partners, suppliers, universities or international agents. Or I might be in the office leading my team of marketeers – getting campaigns progressed, brainstorming ideas, working with the revenue team or wearing my other hat as part of the Executive Committee.
I chose this industry because I like how varied it is, I enjoy the fact I am not tied to a desk all week, I enjoy meeting different people and ultimately I am a creative person who loves to see results because of marketing my team has put into place. From a construction point of view, I have really enjoyed being part of the design process and seeing buildings develop from a plot of land to a building full of students enjoying their new home.
I always want to contribute positively to any situation so I make sure I challenge things and offer solutions.
I have always been ambitious and determined which set me in good stead early in my career. I always want to contribute positively to any situation so I make sure I challenge things and offer solutions. I never want to be invited to a meeting that I do not contribute to. So on this basis, I think everyone I have worked for has appreciated my input. I also use my breadth of experience – I do not stay in my lane.
The challenges I have had to overcome include redundancy, restructures and working under new ownership. But I am resilient and try and stay focused on the end goal which is marketing a product that I am passionate about.
At each fork in the road, it is an opportunity to look at the options available and potentially take a different path. I pride myself on the relationships I have made on my career journey so I will always contact people who I know and respect in the industry and talk through my options. At the last junction, I set up my own marketing consultancy and did that until I found a job I really wanted to do. I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t had affirmation from my contacts that it was the right thing to do. Resilience and time I think are key – always make sure you have some financial security so you don’t have to rush (I learnt this the hard way!)
Everything we do is for the benefit of the students who live with us, so at Student Roost we try and break down barriers to students being able to book with us. It sounds simple but that isn’t how the industry has done things historically. Every conversation we have from Exec level down comes back to the student experience. For me, that means I can be passionate about marketing our product because I strongly believe in it. And being an award-winning company, voted for by the students is testament to us doing things the right way.
Working hard is necessary and rewarding
I grew up in a tough time – during the recession my family lost their home, we didn’t have a car or even a phone and we lived a very basic life. My parents worked incredibly hard to keep us fed and a roof over our head, but I saw from that moment that I would have to work for everything I wanted in life and be independent. So, I started working as a babysitter at 13 and have been in continuous employment since I was 16 and also got a degree. So, my drive comes from a place that I want to ensure my family is secure but also see that working hard is necessary and rewarding too.
I have always enjoyed working in the construction industry – turning up on a building site to survey for signage in a high vis jacket and a hard hat always raises a few eyebrows. But other than that, I don’t think my gender has impacted my career.
Marketing is a traditionally female function, so I have the privilege of having worked with some amazing women. But I would like to see more men in marketing to give it more balance. I didn’t find coming back from maternity leave very easy because of the changes that had happened in my company whilst I was off – I came back into a restructured department and felt quite marginalized. I realised I didn’t fit anymore and I don’t know if I would have felt that had I not spent 9 months away from the office.
My biggest achievement in my life is my son – he is an amazing, energetic, talented, curious eight-year-old and he makes me proud every single day. I still look at him with wonder at the incredible human being he is becoming.
Relationships are everything. You never know when you will need advice from someone, or a helping hand or even when you might end up working for an old colleague at some point. So, spend time nurturing relationships – both in your professional and personal life. Giving someone time and kindness goes a long way.
In my spare time, I love running and have been pounding the streets for almost two years now and have worked up to doing half marathons. I supplement this with strength work in the gym and just love pushing myself physically and leading a healthy lifestyle. I also love walking and did the National Three Peaks Challenge for charity last year with Student Roost.
I also enjoy cooking and baking, I take great pleasure in feeding my family tasty, nutritious meals.
My partner and I enjoy exploring whether that be UK cities or further afield – the older, the better! I am always looking to learn things from places I visit, books I read or podcasts I listen to.
Later this year I am embarking on the Orbis Women’s Challenge in Malawi where I will be going with a team of other women to support female entrepreneurs and school children. There is also a mountain hike so it will challenge me intellectually and physically.
What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?
Look out for each other and support each other
There are no limits to what you can do
Leave a legacy
What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?
Challenge the status quo.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
My mum – she was resourceful and resilient even when her mental health issues made this hard for her. She passed away eight years ago but I still think about what my mum would say when I have a question or a challenge. She raised four children and cared for her mother in later life, you can’t get stronger than that!
What are your key motivators?
Career satisfaction is key for me – if something takes me away from my son, it must be worth it. So, am I making an impact, am I contributing, am I respected and appreciated and ultimately is what I am doing making a difference?
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
Although I don’t think there is an issue in the function I work in, I do understand this isn’t the case in lots of businesses. I still think that businesses are cautious of ‘parent age’ females and what this means for them financially and operationally.
What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?
I think it’s the organisations that need to realise that a mother will be more determined and focused in the hours she has at work, that keeping a roof over her child’s head will ensure she works hard, that being a parent gives you skills others do not have such as empathy, patience (lots of that!) and multitasking. Women shouldn’t apologize for being a parent (or wanting to be one) or sneak around pretending they aren’t. So speak up, lean in and be present.
What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
Make an impact in everything you do – don’t fade into the background.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
As a leader, you need to protect your team and listen to them. So, they don’t need to know everything, but they need to know enough to enable them to do their jobs well and have context and meaning to what they do.
And listening to what they are saying – or even the things they aren’t saying.
What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
Work life is hard and relentless, but if you are in the right place in the right environment it will be rewarding. Be kind to people and treat others how you wish to be treated.
Sarah’s story is really inspiring to us at YesSheCan, if you were inspired too, why not check out more of our blogs here!