Alex Kent, Strategy Director at Restless Development, shares a few tips and words of encouragement for anyone starting out on their career (even if you don’t know ‘where you want to get’).
On International Education Day I headed back to UCL’s Institute of Education. As an MA graduate I’d (flatteringly) been asked back as an alumna to speak to students on the topic of ‘How to get to where you want to get?’
At times I’ve been asked for similar advice, especially by young colleagues and volunteers starting out in their careers. So I’m sharing some of my own personal reflections and offering advice as I see it today.
Firstly, if you don’t know ‘where you want to get to’, don’t worry about it.
Unless you know exactly what you want to aim for, then that’s the wrong question. I’ve only known two people who had that sort of certainty. One wanted to be a doctor, the other had a ten year plan to become an MP. Chances are ‘where you want to get to’ will change along the way, and the joy of the job market in 2020 is it’s 100% set up for ‘squiggly careers’ (there’s a great podcast all about it). Bare in mind instead the kind of place you want to work—the culture, location, hours and team. (There’s another brilliant podcast on that called Eat, Sleep, Work Repeat). So many of us shift sectors, institutions, and themes and have career breaks along the way. It’s incredibly freeing as it means you can enjoy each journey, and job, for what it is—it doesn’t have to be a stepping stone to the next thing.
Secondly, focus on what you’re good at (and make it brilliant).
It’s so easy to look at the list of required skills & experience and think ‘oh all those things I don’t have, how will I get them, or become all rounded’. The reason we have teams is that someone else will be great at the thing you’re not great at. You will most likely be recruited because of what you’re great at. (Sure, don’t be rubbish at something essential, just don’t focus on being an all-rounder. Know your strengths and what you have to offer, and focus in on that.
A note to women on this—most of us go for jobs we think we can do comfortably, and can meet all the criteria, compared to men, who way more frequently shoot for jobs they don’t have all the relevant experience for. So don’t think “Who’s going to be interviewing me? I can’t prove myself”, but instead “Who else maybe going for it? [And you may think] yes absolutely I can do better than them!”
Thirdly, be authentic.
Bring your whole self to work. We don’t want everyone to be the same, it’s your difference in perspective and experience that makes you an asset. I used to keep my personal and professional work miles apart. I’d go as far as possible to conceal that I am gay, but now see it as such a critical part of who I am and the world I want to live in (where everyone has equal rights no matter their sexuality, race, class or age).
Now, getting super practical, what can you do to kickstart your career?
This includes advice from younger colleagues who have recently started at Restless Development.
Volunteer – I’m not advocating for unpaid internships here (unless you want to work somewhere that discriminates against everyone without a cash cow). However there are still lots of opportunities to engage, alongside work or study. Be it ICS, running a university society, volunteering group, or committee or being a spokesperson. This speaks volumes and if you think you don’t have relevant work experience, this voluntary experience will set you apart.
Network – you will already have one, be it your school, college, previous jobskeep them on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Insta. Go to lectures or talks on areas you want to explore, ask a question, and follow up with anyone you want to connect with. Most of us in the development sector are very happy to share or introduce you to other relevant people.
Prepare – if you’ve got an interview you’ve already succeeded. Now practice, practice, practice. You know the questions in advance: “Why do you want the job?”, “Why are you the best person for the job?”, “Which area of the job will you most need support?”. From the job description you can guess the others. Write down 6 or 8 questions and get someone to ask you them. Answer as if you were doing an interview, get feedback and do it again. Or do it in the mirror, speak out loud—honestly, you can’t do this enough.
And lastly if you’re stuck, not sure what to do or go for—have a coffee, chat or call with someone you find inspiring. You don’t need an agenda, but the chances are they may spark off a new idea, or connect you to others that you can follow up with.
We are all part of a global ecosystem of changemakers in which we all connect and play our part and the chances are your part and passions will change along the way.
Alex has over 20 years working in International Development. After completing her MA (Education & International Development) she’s worked at Comic Relief, the Global Campaign for Education, Save the Children and WaterAid before joining Restless Development, where she’s now Strategy Director. After seven years in Johannesburg she now lives in Hackney with her wife and 2 year old twins.