After graduating in 2007, I packed my possessions into two bags and flew to the US to join Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Iowa. Working from a cramped Des Moines office full of empty pizza boxes and hope, I watched him rise from a relatively unknown politician to a global sensation.
I came back from the US inspired, but with an empty bank account, and I took a temporary job recruiting student nurses for the University of Southampton. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the role, but every day I got to meet extraordinary people and help them on their journey into higher education.
Many of our prospective students were in their 30s and 40s, and we saw that they were daunted coming to information evenings at the university or a local hospital, so we took our events out into the community, encouraging them to speak to us in shopping centres and town halls.
This experience taught me that small improvements can make a big difference to people, and, in part thanks to these changes, recruitment increased by 11%.
That summer, I was invited to join the Vice-Chancellor’s office and work as an aide to the University’s senior management team. The role was meant to feel like a graduate scheme, but it was actually much more fluid and gave me a terrific insight into the running of a £500m per year organisation at the beginning of a period of massive change in the higher education sector.
Over the course of my two years in the office, I became increasingly interested in employee engagement and communications. In 2009, I helped to coordinate the induction of a new Vice-Chancellor, and when he announced an immediate restructuring of the University, I asked to be seconded to the programme team and work on the internal communications.
This was an in-at-the-deep-end introduction to change communications. The programme was busy, complex and unpopular, but I was proud of the quality and quantity of work that we produced to help people stay up to date.
At the end of the programme, I decided to join the University’s relatively new internal communications team, rather than return to my old role. Here, about half of my time was spent on the day-to-day management of internal channels, and the other half was spent helping teams across the University talk about their work.
In 2011, I made the case to my bosses that I should dedicate more of my time to sustainability communications. The environment team in the estates department had set some ambitious targets and I felt there was an opportunity to positively engage the University community. We thought about all the different touch points for students and staff and within just 12 months created a full suite of communications that became one of the most recognisable campaigns on campus.
Early in 2012, I started to consider the possibility of going freelance. Working on projects as a ‘trusted communications adviser’ had become the most enjoyable part of my role and I wondered whether I could build a career out of this if I were self-employed.
In a cafe in France in September of 2012, full of post-Olympics positivity, my wife declared that she thought I should take the plunge. I returned to the office the following Monday and handed in my notice.
In my first year of self-employment, I faced many challenges that will be familiar to other freelancers: I had to work out what to charge, how to manage my time and how to find clients. Seven years later though, I’m pleased to report that the business is healthy and I have no regrets. Freelance life continues to be varied and interesting, and the flexibility gives me the space to develop my skills and pursue other interests – including a growing sideline…
About 18 months into my freelance journey, I was approached by Solent University and asked to work with students who were thinking about starting their own businesses. Enterprise education had been an important part of my time at university (in fact, it took more time than my degree), but I hadn’t considered that it could ever form part of my work.
This has gradually developed into a thoroughly enjoyable sideline, and I now dedicate time each month to mentoring, running workshops and advising organisations that encourage enterprise. I can envisage this being a bigger part of my work in the future, but for now I am embracing the incremental approach and seeing where the next year takes me.
You can read more about my communications and enterprise education work on this site. I’m always keen to hear about interesting new projects, so please get in touch if you’d like to discuss something you’re working on.