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What taking a lower paying job to learn new skills has taught me.

I had just come out of consulting for a first of its kind agro-residential real estate development an hours’ drive out of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. I had spent countless hours helping the project’s developers put together a sustainable concept that if executed effectively, would possibly change the economic standing of the small town in which the project is situated. If anyone has ever worked with government offices – especially in Zimbabwe circa 2010 to present - you will know that it takes a tremendous amount of tenacity, due diligence and exhaustive follow ups, just to get signatures to go where they are supposed to go without getting wrapped up in any kind of mess. My work here was done, I had given the projects the 12 months I had committed to and looked at my efforts as an investment that would reap rewards only in the distant future.

So off I headed back to Abu Dhabi, ready to experience opportunities far from the madding state of Zimbabwe and its chaotic socio-economic landscape. I asked myself the important questions:

“What next?”

“What industry do I want to try a hand in?”

“What opportunities can I pursue that grant me an opportunity to learn something I don’t know?”

The stint in Harare had awakened a side in me that had lay dormant since my pre-subprime mortgage crash years in Atlanta’s then vibrant real estate market. I enjoyed telling stories that would seal the sale and result in some form of conversions. I considered myself a descent writer – not by profession but by mere passion, having exhausted a good number of man-hours building an online Christian lifestyle blog - platform alongside my co-founder and sister-friend Ruvimbo Makoni.

I knew this – that I wanted a job which wouldn’t feel like work, and that allowed me to hone in on the things I enjoyed and the skills I possessed. I’ve never been a cubicle sort of a person, my personality won’t let me. I also like to handle stressors my own way and prefer flexibility over rigidness; a laptop in a coffee shop type gal. So LinkedIn sprawling I went, spending a good bit of time submitting applications to job descriptions that seemingly matched what opportunities I was looking for.

Three months into an aggressive job search, I was called into an interview with a UK-based PR agency. I sat across the table from the MD who was intrigued by my CV but honestly stated that he didn’t know where he would fit me in the organisation’s structure. I asked for a chance. I said I wanted a chance to navigate the world of PR in vibrant market because, to be fair, having attained professional experience in the United States and markets across Southern Africa, what could be so different? I understood marketing – having been a marketer in apparel retail before delving into real estate and hospitality sectors over the years.

He later made me an offer which didn’t in any way compare with what I had been making as an independent consultant. However, as a mom to two children under six and wife to a very busy finance executive, I took the offer because my objective here was to learn more so than make money. I wanted to garner insides into the UAE market, the world of media and PR, adding this knowledge to my already growing interest in digital marketing and previous experience in the world of residential development, and corporate communications in hospitality and tourism. I also wanted to do this without adversely affecting my home-front. Being an independent consultant may be hard in that your income isn’t guaranteed, but the flexibility is something you can’t buy, especially when you are also raising a family in today’s world.

As I write this piece, I am toying with the idea of going back into independent consultancy – 2 or so years later since I received the offer - leveraging previous and new contacts who have worked with me and understand what I am capable of. Leaving a guaranteed income isn’t an easy decision to make, simply because as with most people who struggle with jumping off the proverbial employee ledge into the unknown, one of my biggest fears IS OFF COURSE - not having a consistent, guaranteed (lower in my case) income. The turning point for me however hinges on realising and appreciating the following:

1. Companies pay you for your skills and your time – nothing more, nothing less. Speaking to a host of individuals who have requested me to assist them with their projects, and working in agency life, I realise that companies pay agencies for their contacts and the skills available to get the job done. On the agency side of life, we fix issues and become the Jacks and Jacquelines of all trades. Companies are willing to pay money for supply of goods or services and it boils down to who can provide the best alternatives affordably. If you can write, train, supply a tangible product that satisfies an organisational need and so on – they will pay you for it. In my case, if I could write and plan and formulate strategy for corporates and individuals as an employee, I could do the same as an independent consultant. They will pay me for my skills and my time, and will allow me flexibility for delivery – something I cannot get being a full time employee for someone else.

2. An employer will tell you what they think you need to know to stay. Eighteen months in, I conducted a self-evaluation on my growth curve and realised that my learning curve had plateaued a year into agency life. While I enjoyed the unpredictable state of working for multiple clients all asking for different sets of deliverables at any given time, I soon realised that the growing I experienced was on account of my own pursuits. I had enrolled into a Masters’ Programme and began to network again – something I had put on hold because work wouldn’t allow me any time for it. I upped my game in social media aptitude and researched more on digital tools and trends. All the while, my boss kept saying I had room to grow, and that I needed to give it another year before my next promotion was up. The interesting thing was, they weren’t in a hurry to help me build my skills despite my volunteering. I was good in my current position – for them – but not for myself. When my boss told me he felt my timing for pursuing a Masters’ degree was wrong for the organisation, I realised it was time to take the exit sign seriously - or really evaluate my reasons for pressing on.

3. If you work hard you can shape your future. I worked hard, and took in everything there was to learn about PR-ing my clients’ portfolios. I was involved in a different type of storytelling and strategy formulation – much different than I had experienced having worked in Southern Africa, largely on account of the competitive nature of the market. A few months in I negotiated my way into a pay rise, which again, didn’t compare to what I had earned in previous opportunities. But again – I was keen to learn new skills and see if there was anything in my experiences that I could walk away with as something that would help me for future ventures. Working hard gave me an opportunity to work with a diverse range of clients and brands. This has given me more insight into industries for consideration in future roles.

4. Strategic intent is everything. I carried strategic intent coming in and fast realised that the job wasn’t as complicated as I had envisioned it would be. I had been involved in way more complex discussions and paper-trails to get the deal sealed in my years in Real Estate, avid communications and negotiation skills had awarded me opportunities to build brands of hospitality and lifestyle clients over the years as an independent consultant. PR needed more patience and crooning unreasonable clients than it needed a great deal of intelligence. It also felt a bit like there was no appreciation of the need for one to maintain a balance between work, personal life and other such ambitions as studying part time. A call could come in at 9pm on a weekend for an urgent press release and you would be expected to draft one – quick – pyjamas on and all.

But like again, I wasn’t planning to stay forever. In fact, most employees never plan to stay for ever. They plan to get the knowledge and the skills required for the next big thing. I was working towards being equipped so that one day I could do what I was doing for the firm in my own capacity or as a manager of a start-up. Note to you as you read this - no one decision is permanent. Always take time to assess what you are learning and how how your take-aways will groom you into a better professional tomorrow.

5. Use feedback – negative and positive - to grow. My employer wasn’t particularly forthcoming with the compliments when I did a great job and expected the pat on the shoulder, but my clients were. Many 'big bosses' won't give you the high-five when you expect it because to be fair, you are doing what you are supposed to be doing - a good job.

I used any negative feedback as an opportunity to learn and have taken the positive feedback to bolster my self-confidence. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be told they’ve done a good job when they do. Processing feedback, asking questions when I wasn’t sure, and investing time to see where there are gaps for improvement has been transformational. It has also showed me the importance of putting your best foot forward and being open to seeing the viewpoints of others. Criticism can sting but can also be an opportunity to better yourself.

6. No sacrifice, no victory. I headlined this write-up "How taking a lower paying job paved new opportunities for me" for a reason – to emphasise the fact that many times in life, you will be required to make a few sacrifices to get ahead. I will never get back the hours I spent working on strategy documents over the weekends when I could have been hanging with my kids, but I can safely say the experience has given me new possibilities – running my own consultancy on a more proficient level, on the back of having learned new skills over the past two years. Adding these two short years to make a combined 15 years, I can look back and see what some sacrifices have yielded by way of returns. One of the greatest take-aways for me has been the fact that money isn’t everything – fulfilment is, and I look forward to accepting more challenges as I move along in this world of facilitating client requests.

Like most who take the plunge towards entrepreneurship – oftentimes fuelled by numerous false starts, what is apparent is the inherent desire for satisfaction. I forge ahead along my growth curve knowing full well that in this season, much has been learned and more is to come in times ahead. For now, I’m content using my faith and efforts to be the architect of the life I want to live and enjoy along the way – and the same should be the case with you too!

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