In my last post I wrote about the importance of surrounding yourself with pivot guides - people in your not so obvious network that will help you unlock new perspectives and opportunities in your career journey. For me, meeting Seri last year at the Spikes Festival of Creativity was one such serendipitous encounter that fundamentally shaped how I think about my career. It was also the stimulus I needed to eventually start Rising Sideways. That’s why I’m super excited that she agreed to let me interview her!
When I first met Seri, she was my Lego Serious Play facilitator for the See It Be It leadership program for female creatives that I’m part of. It’s one part of her overall practice which includes 15 plus years of experience in coaching, design, strategic branding and innovation. Her rising sideways story started with leaving the world of WPP to start Affinity, a boutique consulting agency, and becoming a certified co-active coach. In our interview below, we speak about the importance of entrepreneurial learning in challenging conventional job titles and taking ownership of your career.
Tell me about your career journey. What do you do?
I started Affinity because I’m passionate about building human connections. I was also curious about how I can evolve as a practitioner in brand and design. I felt there was more to life and work than just wearing a brand consultancy badge my whole life. I wanted to see how I could expand or grow beyond brand consultancy.
So if I have to answer the question, what is it that I do? I think it has always been about liberating creativity and facilitating collaboration. And designing ways for people to collaborate, discover new ideas, and create value by thinking differently.
Interesting. Normally when I ask people ‘what do you do,’ they answer with a job title. But I noticed that your answer wasn’t like that. It was more action oriented. Was that intentional?
I was trying to think of how to answer this question without confusing you. The truth is that I’ve had 20 years worth of working under various career titles. I started as a project manager, then became a client director, then someone who weaves different design disciplines to innovation. And now I’m like ‘what’s that?!’ Am I a researcher? Am I a brand consultant? Am I a strategist? Am I an innovation person or what?
I think what’s interesting is that the journey of entrepreneurship really challenges you to think beyond job titles and the way you think about what you do and the areas in which you can actually create the biggest impact.
Personally, the area that I can make the biggest impact is when I can work with teams and be able to design processes that liberate ideas and creativity. So when I looked outside the agency world and its fixed job definitions, I discovered that what I actually love doing is being a facilitator. It’s a simple word that means ‘to make things easy for others.’ Then I started exploring what being a professional facilitator could mean outside of brand and design.
So If I could sum up how you re-calibrated your job title.:
Your starting point wasn’t the job title. It was asking yourself “Where’s the greatest area where I can create impact?”
After identifying that area, you then experimented your way forward and embraced the mindset of a design thinker. That’s how you landed on a functional role which is that of a facilitator and coach.
After identifying the functional role, then you used that as a new lens to explore new industries that you can apply your functional skills and competency too. In a way it’s finding how ‘facilitation’ is named differently in other industries.
Yup that’s correct. You have to acknowledge that your understanding of your career is informed by the world that you grew up with, which in my case is design and brand. So you have to explore what that could mean elsewhere.
What moved you to change?
I didn’t want business as usual anymore. I was ready to challenge my assumptions and the roadblocks that were getting in the way of growth, and finding a job that is challenging and meaningful. I was ready to have an honest conversation about which parts of me I was ready to leave behind and explore.
What myths have you encountered in your journey that really changed your views on growth and career development?
Author Herminia Ibarra who wrote ‘Working Identity’ really pulled the rug under what we as a culture cherish and hold to be true, which is the idea that we have one true self and one ideal career. Instead she advocates to explore the possibility of our many possible selves.
Discovering this completely opened up my world view about my work, about what I can do in the world and that I’m not crazy for wanting to do and explore so many things. She had a wonderful model that says that you should flirt with your many potential selves. She proposed that instead of looking at the perfect job in your mind, that you should go out into the laboratory of the world, explore, experiment and flirt.
She challenges the norm that this potential does not come from looking inwards but exploring outwards and experimenting. Then you can build and sculpt the competencies needed to become that person.
Not everyone finds that exciting. What do you think is scary about it? Did you find it scary?
100%. I think we don’t realise that identity change and change in general is a difficult process. And identity change, i.e. changing the notions of who we believe we are, is unsettling. Because if I'm no longer this, then who am I? What makes me, me? That can open up questions that can be unsettling.
If I hadn’t done that in my own journey then I would be stuck in an old self that I was ready to leave behind.
What was your aha! moment in that process when it became less scary and more exciting?
It’s when I discovered that my background in strategy did not need to live solely in brand consultancy or design. It can be broader than that. Generally speaking it’s about finding direction and where you want to go. This definition opened up my mind about integrating strategy with a more human way of looking at the world. To help people harness their own creative capacity and move towards what actually draws us. To help people find dreams inside of themselves that might have been buried by corporate jargon.
This was such a basic realisation, but I discovered that you actually don’t need to change your job title. You just need to mine your job title and integrate more skills and what you value so that what you can do becomes more enriching as you evolve.
Linear career progression is easy to measure through promotions and salary increase. What’s success for the messier pathway of rising sideways?
I think success is about taking a risk and making a stand for yourself and what you believe in. I think that has its own intrinsic benefits. It releases greater energy, inspiration, and creativity for you to throw yourself at different challenges. It gives you a sense of confidence that a job title can’t. That’s when people will start looking for you. Once you open that doorway to your own potential, the projects will open itself to new opportunities for growth.
You spoke a lot about the importance of entrepreneurship in career development. But usually people think that means quitting your job to start your own businesses which doesn’t appeal to everyone.
That’s one part of it. But I think at the heart it’s a philosophy about going out into the world and creating your own opportunities. This is what entrepreneurial learning is about - being curious about yourself and where you can create impact.
Do you think that your career evolution is happening to people at a younger age or do you think that people should be thinking about these things much earlier?
This question is not that easy to answer. I think mainly it's because we’ve steered away from having conversations that requires us to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves, our sense of identity and who we are in the world. Generally we tend to spend more time looking at our career progression in “functional” terms rather than holistically in terms of our life direction and centering it around our own north star. However, it’s something that we need to engage with as we embark on our career journeys as part of taking ownership, self authority and authorship over our own lives and not surrender it to organisations.
You’re right. Confronting yourself is not an easy thing to do. However, my hypothesis is that because of how fragmented and uncertain the world is right now, people are forced to confront themselves at an earlier age.
I see it slightly differently. We are all living through this at the same time at different ages. And the ability to navigate this uncertainty and change is vital to everyone of us. Who doesn't need a coach?
I would reframe your observation slightly because ‘confrontation’ may be a scary word, which is what puts people off from coaching. It makes it feel like there’s something wrong with you and that you need to be fixed. Maybe it’s not about confronting ourselves but about reframing it as a creative process for growth and being aware of the need for re-inventing ourselves throughout.
What does Rising Sideways mean to you?
Covid is inviting us to think that the future is not a timeline. It’s now. It’s personal. And you have to mine that personal space and find that self authority to be curious with what's happening and experiment in the laboratory that these times are presenting you.