I’ve been asked many times to proffer any wisdom gleaned along my path to the top of my profession. I’ve always responded that I didn’t have a gameplan, I was just armed with the desire to do my best. Nevertheless, here are some of the things I’ve learnt, in no particular order…
I believe great design is founded on honest principles — quality, function, durability, innovation, beauty and increasingly respect for the environment. It’s also about keeping things as simple as possible, but while throwing in a little bit of poetry.
The importance of apprenticeship can never be overstated regardless of profession. You need to learn your craft. After five years of architectural studies at university, I put myself through typography and desktop publishing courses, then started working for £25/day as an assistant to the art director at Tate Art magazine, which had just launched. It was the best start I could have imagined. I learnt everything I know from the ground up, by watching, listening and sucking it all up.
Today, too many young people seem to think they can leap frog the hard work and get straight to the money. But pay back without toil never works out. The rise of celebrity culture has regrettably encouraged a generation to think only of easy financial gain. Big Brother was a case study in people with very little to offer being granted prime time exposure/instant notoriety but with zero guidance on how to live intelligently, or with integrity.
I was brought up with very clear guidelines on what was, and wasn’t, acceptable behaviour. I was taught discipline. I don’t think many people understand what that word means today.
When I was a child, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. My father was quite keen on the idea of one of his three daughters following him into engineering! I just knew that it had to be something creative. Later in life, I realised I loved magazines, but it wasn’t until after I’d completed an architectural degree that it actually occurred to me to try publishing as a profession.
I think women have an innate ability to think around a problem, and to aid discourse and negotiation. Men, albeit this a huge generalisation, so forgive me, tend to be more direct, they cut to the chase and consequently are thought of as more dynamic and confident. The key to male/female debate therefore is for each to appreciate the differences of the other. The best teams are often those with an equal male/female dynamic. But, ultimately it’s about the skills each person brings to the table, not their gender.
Personally, I don’t believe my gender has had any affect on my working life. I put it in the same camp as my colour. Neither bears any relation to my ability to do my job, the quality of my work, my intellect or my experience. As such, I’m not aware that I’ve experienced discrimination or a glass ceiling, but I acknowledge that the publishing industry is already dominated by women. Additionally, it’s a field where if you’re good, success is tangible, in other words, people either buy your magazine or they don’t!
Why are women so bad at salary negotiations? I’ll probably cause a huge amount of disquiet by saying this, but I sometimes wonder if women cap themselves by not thinking big enough? Women tend to do an internal math when negotiating a figure, taking into account job satisfaction vs financial gain and then come up with a sum they think is fair, hoping to get more… men ask for a blue sky figure knowing they’ll accept less. Therein lies the salary divide. Men ask for what they want. Women apologise, and hope it’ll come if they work hard enough. I know this because I’ve done it too.
It’s too simplistic to say that men and women should be equal in the workplace, at the end of the day, no matter how supportive your partner or how much money you have, women, by nature, bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare. It shouldn’t be denied that having a child has a very real impact on your partner, your income, and your self-definition, as well as an impact on your employer. I know this because I’ve sat on both sides of this mire.
I’ve known women who’ve had a child because they weren’t doing well at work, seeing it as the socially-accepted opt out clause. I’ve also known women who loathed their employer but stayed because of the maternity benefits, quitting as soon as they ran out. They felt they’d earned it. But these are the exceptions. As a female employer of a majority female team of prime child-bearing age, my responsibility is not only to hire the best people for the job, but also to retain them by motivating and encouraging them to achieve the expectations of the business. Then, if the right person, in the right job needs to take a break because they’re having a baby, as is their absolute right, I hope there’s more chance that that person will return because they were in a role in which they felt valued.
I was once told that the first rule of good business was to delegate everything except the hiring. You’re only as good as your team, so it pays to get and retain the best possible people. I was also told to fire the bottom 10% every year. And one day, that might be yourself.
I’m very resistant to the idea that women need to do anything different to succeed because of our gender. Personally, I concentrate on honing my expertise by staying open to new ideas — Integrity, professionalism and discipline are my constant watchwords, as taught me by my father. And I don’t play politics. I just get on with the job.
In short… I apprenticed. I learnt my craft. I’m passionate about what I do. I like to keep learning. I thrive on a challenge. I’m opinionated; but stay open to other points of view. I have never seen myself as a colour; therefore I don’t carry it before me as a badge of difference. I work hard, but not excessively. I try really hard to keep a balanced life and attitude; and make myself remember to take holidays. But probably most importantly, I eat really well in order to maintain my energy, vitality and enthusiasm for this marvellous dance called life.
People I admire… for many different reasons…
Categories: Michelle Ogundehin: Interviews