Katrina Andrews
Oct 21, 2016

Balancing risk and reward in comms career moves

Katrina Andrews explains the choices made by top-level APAC communicators to advance and diversify their careers.

Katrina Andrews
Katrina Andrews

After years of relative political consensus, we are living through an age of revolution. From pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong, to Brexit in the UK and the rise of Trumpism in the US, a nationalist surge is sweeping the planet; new voices are demanding to be heard.

In many ways, that narrative of social flux—and our perspective on risk versus reward—mirrors the story of our individual lives and careers. In any working lifetime there are always long periods of stability, then, through frustration or a desire to grow, we precipitate sudden change. We challenge, we diversify, or we just leave.

In our recruitment practice, we often meet senior communications professionals paralysed in these moments. They fear the risks, the fallout, how it will look on the CV. Most of all, when faced with making a truly revolutionary change—diversifying out of communications into new professional areas—they fear the risk of exposure: “Can I even do that job?”

But over the last two months, we have conducted research into how high achievers in the region have made that very leap. Having once been head of APAC communications at a large corporate, all have transitioned into new disciplines. They are now in major group roles, running agencies, working with NGOs, or taking on CEO and general management jobs.

All shared insights and outlooks, and none more so than their collective certainty that risk is its own reward.

Development comes from risk

The people we spoke to for our Pathways study were adamant that being prepared to make bold, even rash, job changes over the years had been the single most important factor in their ultimate career success.

Over 25 years, for example, Mark Devadason did almost everything there was to do at Standard Chartered Bank, from corporate and retail banking, to corporate affairs and sustainability, to employee training, to country CEO positions. “Moving between functions and disciplines like that just gives you so many new skills, and that gives you more options,” he argued.

Today, he has a new career off the back of it—a portfolio of non-executive directorships with various NGOs. “I couldn’t be doing that if I didn’t have that great diversity of experience in my background.”

Adversity is an opportunity

Our interviewees were not only intensely comfortable with the idea of throwing the cards up in the air, they were evangelists for throwing them as far as possible. Even when choices turned out poor in retrospect, they were seen not as career roadblocks but career launchpads.

Wesley McDade, now group head of communications at Morgan Stanley, took an executive position with the company very early in his career, before recognising it as a step too far. “But as tough as it was,” he told us, “if I had said ‘no’ to that opportunity in 1998, I would probably still be in Hong Kong today, still head of communications for Asia-Pacific. I wouldn’t have progressed any further. So although it was well outside my comfort zone, I now look back on it as developmental and necessary.”

The greater the risk, the greater the reward

Did failure mean nothing? Our interviewees took a more composed view—that the risks of big changes were always more minimal than anticipated, and the potential rewards always greater.

Ruby Fu

Not least because no experience is lost. “Yes, I’ve taken a calculated risk,” said Ruby Fu, of the process that led her to become China CEO at Burson-Marsteller. “There are not many people who move to the agency side after 13 years in in-house communications, so I’m an unusual case. But what is that ‘risk’, really? Only that, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to corporate communications.”

For others, it was simply about remembering the intrinsic safety net you carry as a professional in this region. “Asia is where every multinational is looking for their international growth to come from, and you have first-hand experience of that,” said Tim Cobb, who left Hong Kong in 2013 to step up to group level communications at UBS.

“Multi-lingual, multi-jurisdictional, multi-cultural, Asia is a huge scope of peoples, timezones, regulators, languages and media. What more do you need in your locker?”

Take opportunities as they come

Finally, all our interviewees had been decisive when presented with left-field opportunities. Rather than say, “That’s outside my comfort zone” or “I’ll have to think about it”, these high-achievers had all leapt at the opportunity impulsively.

When, early in his career, a chance conversation with one of Standard Chartered Bank’s directors led to Devadason (pictured) being offered the job of global head of training, for example, he hadn’t dithered for a moment. “By that weekend, I was already on my way to Singapore to start the job,” he said. “I had no experience in the field, but over those three years I learned a phenomenal amount that I would never have otherwise learned.”

Clearly, pivoting careers is not a straightforward matter and taking major risks with your livelihood is easier said than done. It still requires good judgement and careful consideration. But the lesson of our research couldn’t be clearer: Wait too long and you miss the best opportunities. Fear the risk and you will miss the rewards.

For more information on the Pathways research, visit: www.andrews-partnership.com

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