At #YesSheCan we got the opportunity to have a chat with Sue Owen-Bailey, Assistant Comms Manager of Nottingham Building Society. We chatted to her about starting your career as a young woman, the challenges she faced and how to overcome things that don't go to plan.
“Never give up. We all have bad days, or even weeks or months. But feelings are only temporary and tomorrow is another day.”
I started my career in marketing straight out of university working for a local utility company. I learnt a lot about managing time and budgets as well as paying attention to the detail in planning. After a few years, I hankered after a ‘gap year' and got myself a TEFL qualification and went to live in Lisbon for a year which turned into two.
I returned home in 2004 and moved to Nottingham where I started working in financial services. With my background in utilities, I made the transition fairly easily as I was used to working within strict frameworks. I also had a brief spell back in utilities doing international trade events and PR, then a point of sale projects for a number of retail brands. In 2008 I joined Nottingham Building Society’s Marketing team. I have had a few different roles over the last 12 years but for the last five, I have managed the society’s Corporate and Social Responsibility programme. It is one of the most interesting areas to work in and I love the variety.
“I am also lucky to work with some fantastic charities across Nottingham and I have volunteered my own time to support everything from fundraising events to marketing planning.”
My days can be varied as I work right across the organisation and with a number of external stakeholders. I am a planner so I always have a ‘to do’ list to keep myself on track as well as several project plans for the various schemes I may be running simultaneously.
I could be meeting colleagues internally to discuss a request to do some volunteering, reviewing reports of activity to collate data on the society’s impact, or meeting with one of our charity partners to discuss an up and coming campaign or collaboration. I also work closely with colleagues in sponsorship, PR, social media and internal comms to link partnerships and activity plus messages internally and externally.
Financial services was a natural fit after working in another heavily regulated industry. I have some fantastic networks and really enjoy putting the pieces together to make something happen. I have always had strong communication and organisational skills so this seemed like a sensible way to utilize my broader marketing experience for a specific niche role. As I have a background in commercial and traditional marketing, I am able to build on that experience to work effectively across the third sector. Although CSR and charity partnerships probably have a bit of a reputation for just being a bit of a tax write off or something to report back to shareholders, responsible business, particularly in the financial services industry, is a way of life now. I worked in this sector all through the financial crash and the industry recovery has been fascinating to work through, particularly as a marketeer specialising in ‘brand values'.
I joined The Nottingham in the product team on savings and mortgage products, then after a brief stint setting up a few of the third party owned product lines, I had the chance to work on the communications side, specifically PR and launch. It was a steep learning curve as my experience until that point had been limited mostly to trade, but I learnt a lot and gained a lot of experience really quickly. When the opportunity came up for a six-month secondment in the PR team, I jumped at it. I had a lot of transferable skills and really detailed product knowledge which I put to good use instantly in building and delivering PR campaigns to industry and consumer press. It was from here I started working on Internal Comms, then CSR and ended up in my current role full time in 2014.
In school I was never the most driven academically and dare I say it, perhaps a tad lazy, I was always naturally quite bright, always did well with minimum effort and ended up in the top sets for everything, something which at the time I completely took for granted! I am fairly competitive and as I grew older, and certainly by the time I went to university, I realised I would have to put a bit of effort in. By the time I left university, I was fairly driven and determined that having had the opportunity of being well educated, I would put it to good use. Living independently is always a great life lesson and having had that freedom, I wanted to keep that independence through earning my own money. My mum was of a generation where few had an opportunity to have a career (she did until she married and had children). So I took it as a privilege to be responsible and accountable for my.own success.
During my career, I have achieved many things on the professional front, in 2017 I was invited to Downing Street to meet the then PM, Theresa May, part of a celebration of civil society in the Midlands. This was a huge honour as I was the only person in the business to be invited and attend across the region after a number were nominated to discuss how businesses could do more in supporting the third sector. Sadly, Ms May was late delivering her Article 51 papers so I got to chat to her business advisory team instead. Going through the iconic polished black door and up the stairs of the yellow hallway dotted with former PM portraits was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I still have my invitation framed and on display.
“You are here for a good time, not a long time. Life is so precious and short, it goes waaayyy too fast so I firmly believe in making the most out of each day. I am incredibly grateful for all I have in my life and truly believe in making the most of what you have. Health is wealth.”
Don’t be shy – don’t be afraid of asking questions, learning and looking for opportunities. Experience is so important, both for a CV but also in interviews so even if it is a few days here and there you can keep building on, it gives you something to talk about, showcase your skills and network plus demonstrates your commitment. I always try to help young people wanting work experience.
Nature not nurture – go with what fits. Gone are the days where women have to conform to a particular career or pathway. Take counsel from those around you but definitely follow your natural interests and passions rather than trying to be something you aren’t.
Learn to be employable – turn up on time, dress appropriately, behave appropriately and ask for feedback. Sounds obvious but you would be surprised at how few candidates are capable of this. It’s not normally taught in schools and it’s something most adults take for granted.
Starting my career
I had a teacher in sixth form college who had a successful business career under her belt before embarking on her teaching career to fit around family life. I guess in today’s world, that may not have been the case other than by choice but 20-odd years ago, it was a necessity and as she confided, she liked the hours and it wasn’t too stressful. However, I remember saying I wanted to work in marketing – this was after a school careers adviser had recommended a career as a stained glass designer (!) or teaching – and she just looked at me bluntly and said ‘OK'. I think it was the first time I hadn’t been responded to with ‘Why don’t you be a teacher? Good holidays!’.
A few months later I found out I had been selected to take part in an exchange to the European Business School in Italy during my second year. I learnt so much on that trip and it gave me lots of experience to talk about in early job interviews. That teacher was on that trip and she pointed out how much better I could do if I put some effort in. I listened. I also dropped my art A level just before starting my final project (having decided that a career as a stained glass designer was not beckoning after all) and I took sociology instead, completing my A level in 7 months. I got a B. Not an A but understanding how to understand people has definitely helped in my marketing career probably more so than art.
Being a woman in business
I think businesses should do more to encourage young women and men to follow their dreams. Gender stereotypes still exist in society and from a young age, we are conditioned to think about police ‘men', and teachers and nurses that are women. It really only matters that the individual can do the job, gender doesn’t come into it.
I remember being asked in several interviews early in my career in my twenties what my personal ambitions were and about my ‘set up' at home. At the time, it felt like a standard interview question however, with hindsight it was probably aimed at ‘are you likely to have children imminently and leave'. Unfortunately, I still think there are lots of employers who look at women with the prospect of families unfavourably and yet, no one would dream of referring to a man as a ‘working dad' as it’s irrelevant!
Many organisation nowadays have positive discrimination policies around recruitment and promotion particularly where women are underrepresented but I don’t always believe this is necessary. Behaving professionally and with integrity and challenging behaviour that is inappropriate will help all women be recognised for their achievements and potential rather than gender.
I’ve been in a position where I have actively challenged unacceptable behavior regarding gender diversity and I am proud of myself for doing so. If you say nothing, nothing will change.
“Be bold – I bucked my ideas up in terms of effort between leaving school and university but still had a little too much conformity and expectations of myself hence I went straight to work after uni. With hindsight, I wish I had had a gap year straightaway and been a bit braver about doing what was not expected of me.”
Enjoyed this blog? Why not read another blog about an YSC inspirational woman?