Leadership isn't rocket science

So why do we make such a big deal about going to university, asks advertising boss Amanda Farmer.

by Amanda Farmer
Last Updated: 24 Apr 2019

When I started my career in advertising, I had a secret. As colleagues eulogised about their alma maters, I would try and extract myself from the conversation before I was asked the question I knew was coming – "which University did you go to?" – because I didn’t go to one. 

In my early career, not having a degree made me self-conscious. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to become proud of my choice not to follow the pack. I realised that advertising (like most careers outside doctor, lawyer and rocket scientist) isn’t rocket science; that if I put in the hard yards, I’d thrive. 

You can teach someone the ins and outs of getting a digital campaign out the door, but you can’t teach the right attitude. It’s easy to say that people who haven’t been to university have been rolling their sleeves up and learning on the job, but there’s more to it than that. As they’ve been through real successes and failures, they’ve been learning about who they are as businesspeople. This is vital, as self-awareness is the key to leadership.

Building a career without going to university has given me a special appreciation for training and regular appraisals. It’s not just about courses in a classroom and learning theory. Offer your staff vocational on-the-job training, give them the opportunity to work in other areas of the business and make yourself available to them. It will make them more committed to you and your company and build their understanding and respect for other areas of business. It will also have a hugely positive impact on culture. 

Make sure people know that they can never ask too many questions. I asked thousands when I was junior, so as MD, I make sure I answer millions. It’s better to ask questions than make assumptions. It’s equally about knowing when to give people the skills to trust themselves. 

No one should have to hide their educational background. I want people to feel that whatever their route to success, their experience will have been hugely valuable. We need to support and be proud of where our teams come from, wherever they come from. Differing experiences can bring new perspectives, ideas and solutions, and that should be celebrated.

Amanda Farmer is MD of VMLY&R London

Image credit: VMLY&R London

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