Q&A with Sarah Nicholas who rapidly progressed from an Account Executive to an Account Director in just 4.5 years at Gong. She left to finish her Masters Degree in Environment and Development and now works for DEFRA as a Senior Policy Advisor.
How did we first meet you?
I saw a job ad on my university careers page at Oxford for an Account Executive position, but by the time I’d got in touch, you’d already hired someone. I had a coffee with Frankie (former Head of Ops) and we kept in contact and next time a role came up, she got back in touch to see if I was still interested.
What was it about Gong that appealed?
Before I started working, I interned around the world. I did 3 months in Uganda working on a water and sanitation project and 5 months in Mumbai working with an education charity. I’d also been to Madagascar on a gap year. I came back to London to do a crisis management internship and was hired. That’s where I was almost a year later when you got back in touch. Africa and sustainable development were a big pull. I also liked the fact that although Gong was relatively small, you talked about giving people plenty of responsibility which would stretch me and enable me to prove myself more quickly.
What was your formative experience of Gong?
The global agribusiness, Olam was the most formative account I worked on. It was challenging in terms of ways and speed of working and the big international thorny issues that it deals with related to global food security and sustainability. I also really enjoyed the Economist events, they were good fun to help publicise and exposed me to so many different people and topics in a really short period of time.
What did you bring to the business over and above client service?
I met Sara Leedom when we worked on the Oxford Said Africa conference where she was one of the organisers. After she graduated, she invited us to a launch event for her initiative, The Africa Entrepreneur Collective (which was based in Rwanda). She had a lot of MBA students doing summer placements and volunteer mentors from big 4 accountancy and consultancy backgrounds, but she hadn’t got anyone with communications experience which was relevant for her cohort of entrepreneurs. Sara and I worked on a proposition which I brought back to Gong, that we would send someone out to be a communications advisor as part of our CSR work. And luckily for me, I was the first person to go.
What did you get from that experience?
I arrived in Rwanda when they were in the middle of their first international expansion. I was thrown in the deep end by being flown to Tanzania to train a group of people without any time to prepare. It ended up being a blend of PR 101 and media training. Everyone recorded a short intro on themselves and I taught them how to engage with a camera. It was a confidence building experience to swim, not sink in that situation.
Where else did you travel for work?
I went back to Madagascar for a client, on what felt like a flying visit and a very different situation. We were expecting to deliver a strategic comms workshop with a new CEO and top team, but when we got there, we realised the real challenge was generating internal buy-in and culture change for the CEO’s new direction. We flipped our approach on the hoof and invited the wider management team in to co-create the new comms strategy and branding. It was challenging because only one person had English as a 1st language, and for the majority, it was their 3rd language and none of them had comms experience.
What skills did you hone at Gong?
I learned to think on my feet, be flexible and change tack if necessary. I also learned about people and cross-cultural collaboration; without shared experiences, you have to engage and get people on board in other ways. My time at Gong helped me develop emotional intelligence (EQ) and resilience. I honestly think it gives me the edge over my civil service background colleagues in what I’m doing now. Also, uncertainty and a constantly changing backdrop is part of being in a small business where things happen quickly. I’m comfortable with change now that I’m working in the context of Brexit where you can’t write a new script fast enough before the political situation has changed again!
I need work to feel challenging but I have learned how essential it is to be able to really switch-off regularly. The downside to being a lynchpin in a company where you have wonderful responsibility is that it can be sometimes be hard to focus on other things.
Did working at Gong help crystallize what you wanted to achieve in your career?
I found stuff that I could spend hours getting lost in that would probably feel dense and dull to 95% of people, like food security and the link with water security, REDD+ and agro-forestry.
Career-wise, I had the opportunity to speak to really interesting people and had a reason to be in the room at events that would otherwise have been behind closed doors. I got to see the inner world of business and gained an understanding of the nuances of things that can otherwise seem pretty black and white.
Most unexpected experience?
Sitting in a hot tub at Soho Farmhouse post Christmas dinner with my colleagues! Didn’t expect to be doing that through work!
What’s been your legacy?
Introducing Gong to the B Corp movement and leading the business through certification is still my proudest career achievement. I think it took us 18 months from the first conversation to certify Gong as a B Corp. Every time I see a post on social media I have a smidge of pride that it’s going so well.
Now that I’m working in an enormous organisation, I can see the impact you are able to have in a small, nimble company and the fact that you can actually change things as an individual.