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Aston in conversation with...

Sam Lythgoe, Head of Business Development EMEA at Hill & Knowlton Strategies

20 Jan 2016

Aston’s own lecturer in Marketing at Aston Business School, Dr Laura Chamberlain, caught up with Aston alumna, Sam Lythgoe, following her recent recognition in the 2015 Power Part-Time list by Timewise.

The 2015 list showcased the inspiring stories of 50 men and women who exceed profit targets, drive innovation and manage large teams – all whilst working a contract that strikes a healthy balance with the rest of their lives… whether that’s family commitments, voluntary work or other pursuits. 

Sam graduated from Aston in 1992 with a BSc in International Business Management and French.  After graduation, Sam joined Hill & Knowlton (H&K), an international PR and Communications agency, where she has risen through the ranks to lead the business development team across Europe, Middle East and Asia.  Laura caught up with Sam to see how she manages it all!

How did you approach your employer about flexible working?

For a long time, and before I had children, I worked one day a week from home on a fairly frequent basis.  I work in a really busy, fast paced open office environment, so this was really useful time to get my proposals and planning done.  When I became pregnant with my first son, Bailey who’s now 7, I became a bit more systematic about working one day from home.  My boss at the time was female and she was absolutely fine with it.  It worked well because I was physically visible when in the office but also on the phone and email when not.  Then when I came back to work, I wanted to do four days a week and work one of those from home.  So we started this on a trial basis.  A couple of years later, I had my second son, Flynn, I then had a new (male) boss, who is still CEO and I went back on the same terms of one day home, working four days a week.

When Bailey was ready to start school, I realised that I felt very strongly that I wanted to be part of school life.  I remember my mum was very much present during my own time at school.  I’m certainly not making a judgement on those who have a different approach, as these are very personal decisions and I respect people for that.  It was just what felt right for me  

So it came that I needed to talk to my boss and I presented him with what I saw were the options.  I gave him a number of suggestions including leaving, working school hours only, and working more frequently and systematically from home.  My boss admitted he didn’t really know where I was anyway but that the work was always done, so we may as well just give two days in, two days at home a go and try that for a term.  We’re now three years on and it’s working really well.

So overall this was a moment by moment process, I hadn’t started thinking out my career in this way.  I’d been a very ambitious career person and had never really given children a second thought,  before I had my own children I had never held a baby, but it’s just so different with your own and you feel so responsible for them.

What do you think you have to do differently from peers who work full-time in order to be successful in your role?

I really don’t think there’s anything I necessarily have to do differently.  If you were in the office every day, then you still need to be flexible and responsive to things.  I don’t think anyone can have it all, it’s more about what’s important to you and working around to make that work for your own situation.

What are the business benefits for allowing flexible working? 

I knew I would feel massively conflicted if I wasn’t part of school life and that would then impact on my performance.  So really work has gotten so much more out of me by allowing me to work in this way as I have better piece of mind with my family.

What are your top tips to juggle a busy home and work life?

I mentioned earlier about being visible in the office and I think this can work out of the office too.  It’s about being responsive and acting quickly.  The whole world operates on email/skype/messenger now and it’s not as if I’m out drinking tea!  I actually get more work done at home than I do in an environment with people around me and meetings happening throughout the day.  It’s a different rhythm, people know they can reach me and I think you have to make the effort early on to be visible; such as when dialling in on conference calls and to schedule your day so you’re not missing meetings you can join on the phone and it can be done if you stick to your diary.

I also make sure I’m flexible, so if I have to do a big pitch on a certain day, then I’ll manage my diary around it and plan ahead.  I also look for different approaches, so if I can’t do something on a project, then can someone else in the office do it just as well and I’ll think about those options rather than thinking I have to do it all.  The way my week maps out is Monday at home, Tuesday office, Wednesday home, Thursday office and Friday I’m off, although I do check my emails and pick things up.  The key to this also is that my colleagues know this routine and we have international remits, so I’m on conference calls regularly which means it doesn’t matter where I am.  Even when I’m in the office I’m often on calls and having to go into a meeting room out of the way!

What needs to change to increase the number of women in senior positions in the UK?

I think the whole key to it is about making active choices. I think with motherhood, you constantly feel guilty, but also you have to know what is right and do something about it.  I knew I had to talk to work about it and that work weren’t going to talk to me about it.  Be proactive but also be prepared with some solutions.  Perhaps wanting to be a CEO of a company might not work on a four days a week basis, but if you want that role bad enough, I’m sure some people could get a nanny for example.  It’s about knowing your choices.

In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve noticed that there was an issue in the workplace.  Last year, when we did a project about the lack of women directors in film that we started to then look at our own company.  When we started the conversations it was surprising what things started to come up about gender differences in the workplace. 

I am now part of a steering group that runs a mentoring programme at work for women; not because I have to, but because I want to.  I’m interested and intrigued at what point women feel that they play second fiddle to men in work. Maybe its when you enter the workplace in an established environment that your context begins to change and confidence becomes knocked.  I didn’t get the impression at university, certainly at Aston, that there was any difference whether you were male or female.

You have broken the ‘glass ceiling’, what advice do you have for young female graduates wanting to do the same?

I made the decision to go hard and fast as soon as I graduated and my thinking was that if I was able to get to quite a senior position early on in my career then I’d have more options and choices ahead of me if I decided I wanted a family.  Again, just think about what you want in life and go and make it happen, make active choices and don’t be distracted by what others have, make things work for you.  Focus on the best you can be, not what’s the best you can be as a woman, but what’s the best you can be as a person?

What is your fondest memory of your time at Aston?

I’ve got lots of fond memories of Aston and I still hang out with the friends that I met at Aston and we’re best friends and a really tight group.  Then Facebook is a great thing for keeping the broader group in touch.  I was listening to a song recently that I remembered from my time at Aston and it took me straight back.  I messaged my friends telling them about it.  Einstein’s, the VD, the Freakers’ Ball on the first night…it was just such a lovely time.

Equally it also taught me how I managed my time – I remember friends who would leave assignments to the day before the deadline, but I was never like that and I’ve carried that on into the workplace.  I can still spot the people that leave things to last minute at work and there’s only so many times you can get away with it.

At university you learn to be yourself.  It’s the first time you’re away from your parents and you learn those important life skills.  Many of the things that happen during your time at university are formative to the adult you become.

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