We love to hear from Step Alumni. With so many folk having participated in the Step Programme over the years, their personal stories provide a real insight in to how a short term placement can open up all sorts of graduate career pathways.
Earlier this year, I was able to make contact with Paul Fleckney who is currently living and working in Melbourne, Australia. Paul, a graduate of the University of Nottingham, did a Step placement in the summer of 1998. In fact it was the MD Robert Ashton of Marketing Catalyst who we ran in to at an event in London and who started to recount his experience of Step as a host business, telling us that he was still in regular contact with Paul. It’s great to know that such strong bonds were formed over a period of just an 8 week placement.
Here Paul tells me his story
What were your career aspirations and interests before and during University?
I graduated in 1999 with a BSc in Chemistry and Management Studies. I didn’t really know what subject to study initially. I have always had multiple interests but at that time I felt under pressure to do a ‘serious’ course which would give me good job prospects on completion. However, I quickly realised that I did not want a career in Chemistry! I also didn’t find the management component of the course all that interesting at that time however subsequently I have developed an appreciation of the subject and I have come back to several of the concepts taught throughout my career.
What was the company called and what did they do?
I did my Step placement at Marketing Catalyst, they were a marketing company offering graphic design, publication and marketing consultancy to their clients. The company was based in Sutton, near Attleborough in Norfolk.
What did you do for them? What were the highs and lows?
I was effectively a management consultant, although I did not realise it at the time! My job was to review their internal processes and IT systems and to recommend improvements and implement changes as required. Much of the work revolved around updating their existing Excel spreadsheet based project and client management systems to make them more rigorous and user friendly.
The office had a relaxed atmosphere which I enjoyed. I also loved the exposure to an industry that I knew very little about. The team, and Robert in particular, were highly supportive of my efforts and their assistance was instrumental in helping me to win the local Step placement awards perhaps the only low was the reality of the 9-5 and the loss of freedom that entails, something I have continually struggled with throughout my working life.
Why do you think this placement worked for you and the employer? What advice would you give someone on placement?
I think this placement was successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was a good personality fit between myself and Robert (the MD). We have remained friends and catch up whenever I’m back in the UK. Secondly, the placement gave me my first exposure to the business world and it was both exciting and highly valuable in terms of setting me up for my future career. Thirdly, the whole team was very supportive and friendly and provided a fun environment to work in. Fourthly, and I think most importantly, the placement was able to successfully match my skills and personality with a defined business need. I am by nature a methodical, details-oriented and logical person and at that time there was nobody in the office who had the time, capability and/or enthusiasm to take on what was a very analytical, systematic and detailed task.
How did undertaking a Step placement influence your career aspirations?
I ended up working for a management and IT consultancy (Accenture) and I have no doubt that my time at Marketing Catalyst gave me some confidence that I could succeed in such a field. The work experience was also a valuable contribution to my CV and gave me something to talk about at interviews. However, it was probably not the primary driver for following my chosen career path. Where I feel the Step placement was more valuable was in teaching me how businesses work and what the key drivers of success are for any business. I learnt and understood concepts and skills that I have repeatedly applied throughout my career and personal life. It was also valuable in introducing me to Robert, really my first career mentor, and an inspirational business leader.
How did you go about finding work after University and what was that like?
It was a daunting experience! I felt like I had been immersed in a whole new world. The country boy from Norfolk approaching these prestigious London-based professional services firms, who did I think I was?! I attended some careers fairs at Uni and started applying for graduate entry positions. I had several interviews and quite a few rejections. I will never forget one interviewer who asked about my volunteering activities and then somehow managed to infer from my response that everything I did was for my own personal gain and not for altruistic motives. The cheek! Fair to say, I didn’t get that job! I had to wait nine months after graduation before I got a job offer. Interestingly it was from a firm (Accenture, then Andersen Consulting) who had previously rejected me. I started as an Analyst in May 2000 in their Communications & High Tech practice in their London office and spent the first couple of years programming and testing computer code, something I had no prior experience of.
I spent four years with Accenture in London and then moved to Melbourne, Australia in March 2004 for personal reasons. I was able to secure a transfer with Accenture and continued working for them until May 2009. By the time I left, I was a Senior Manager responsible for managing multi-million dollar systems implementation projects as well as running the Communications Networks Community of Practice in Australia.
In 2009, I went back to University to pursue a career change in urban planning. I had known for some time that I was unhappy at Accenture but could not work out what it was that I wanted to do until one day it just came to me. I completed a Masters of Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne in 2011 and have worked as an urban planner since 2010. It has been a seismic shift for me and a huge risk in terms of my career and I have effectively had to start again from the bottom. That said, my only regret is that I didn’t make the change sooner.
What do you do today and what are the best bits?
The best bit of my job is knowing that I’m doing something I love and that in some small way I’m making a meaningful (and hopefully positive) difference to the lives of people around me. It’s not always easy to achieve this balance and there are many days when I don’t feel this. I’m firmly of the opinion that you have to take the rough with the smooth with any job.
What advice would you give the younger you at University?
Follow your heart and passion! It’s difficult at university because it’s easy to be blinded by the pressure to get good grades, get a good job and earn good money when you leave but I would highly recommend to undergraduates today to spend some time thinking about what it is that you really want to do. What excites you, enthuses you, challenges you and rewards you? What career path would give you both enjoyment and meaning? I can now say looking back from experience that I wish I had taken a lower paid job that I loved over a prestigious high-flying career that ultimately left my soul feeling empty. I don’t regret my time at Accenture and it gave me some invaluable skills and experiences that have enriched my life and subsequent career. However, if I could have my time again I would do it differently.
What about your plans and aspirations?
My future is a little uncertain right now and that’s both exciting and a little scary. I’m considering going back to university and doing a PhD. I’m not sure that working in ‘industry’ holds any real fascination for me anymore and maybe I’m ready to step into the field of academia. I want to work in a job which gives me autonomy, is challenging, makes a positive difference to the world around me and has a tangible relationship between effort and reward. I’m not consistently getting these things at the moment.
I think it’s likely I’ll stay in Melbourne for the time being at least. I’m fortunate to be with a wonderful partner and I love the lifestyle here. Maybe one day I’ll return to the UK but I have no plans to at the moment.