“Every time backing yourself works, you get a feeling of elation. The more I’ve done it, the more confident I’ve become in myself and my abilities.”
When you become a General Manager at just 29 years old, you’re clearly doing something right. For Sam Vassos, who holds this sought-after title at year-old integrated communications agency Alt/Shift, success has come from listening to her mentors, making bold moves and backing herself.
“It’s the managers that I’ve worked with,” she says. “They have always put their faith in me to stretch myself further than my comfort zone. Every time backing yourself works, you get a feeling of elation. The more I’ve done it, the more confident I’ve become in myself and my abilities.”
Sam is now passing on that great mentorship to her team, and is determined to build a culture at Melbourne-based Alt/Shift where its people come first.
“There’s a lot of work going through, and if the team are feeling a bit under the pump, it’s making sure that Alt/Shift is a supportive environment. It’s making sure that we’re across the workload, and that our team have enough time to recover. No one should feel threatened or fearful of anything, and if there’s a niggle in the team, it’s about addressing it straight away.”
You’ve been in great agencies such as Mango Communications, PR Edge, and in-house at Cotton On Group. How did you wind up involved in starting a new company?
I was at Cotton On Group for just under a year when Alt/Shift said ‘we want you to be involved’. It was a risk, as I was in the perfect job. I was stepping into the unknown. I’m now involved in running day-to-day operations for a business, rather than just day-to-day operations for a campaign or a brand. Seeing our team’s growth to 16 people in less than a year has been so rewarding.
It’s one of a few bold career moves you’ve made. You left a good job to move to London a few years ago. Did it bring rewards?
I worked in a broadcast PR agency, which kind of married my two loves of radio and PR. I learnt a lot about myself being in another country and having to back myself – as it’s quite hard to get a job when your potential employers are asking why they would hire you over somebody that will stay longer, or who already has local knowledge.
It was a pretty tough and fun year; it’s an interesting part of the world and quite full on, but with that comes great opportunities to work on big campaigns. Agencies over there can be more cut throat, and one thing you do notice when you return to Australia is the camaraderie in agency teams.
You later made another big change, going from agency side to in-house at Cotton On Group. It’s one of Australia’s most successful retail businesses. How did that help you grow?
My role was setting a global strategy for my brands Typo, Cotton On KIDS and Cotton On Foundation, then mobilising international teams to implement them. The biggest challenge was finding out ‘who is who in the zoo’. When you’re at an agency, you have one direct client that does all the work on their side, but when you’re in-house, that’s you. I was taking my brands on a journey of PR, and some were a little sceptical, but then once you show them the value PR can bring they become more trusting and happy to do exciting things.
Now as a GM, is it hard to get used to being the one everyone’s looking up to?
Yes, definitely. I’ve worked really closely with Elly Hewitt (Alt/Shift Managing Director) on how I can focus on the environment, the support and opportunities that we can provide our team – without being too removed from the day-to-day. Delegation has never been my strong point. I’ve been told though, that when you’re taking something on, you’re not doing your team a favour, you’re doing them a disservice by not giving them that opportunity.
How have the great managers you’ve had influenced your leadership approach?
I think about the key qualities in the mentors that I’ve been fortunate to have across my career, and how I can draw on those to create an environment for our team to thrive in. When people feel comfortable to speak up, you can often avoid a small problem becoming a big one, and you give people an opportunity to work through the solution together.
What are some of the qualities you’ve admired in your past managers?
It’s backing your team. I think once there’s fear you start to question yourself, so it’s making sure they feel supported. Providing them with opportunities to stretch, and the encouragement to know that if they don’t get something right, or if things don’t go to plan, they have strong backing. If I can do that, I can go to bed easier at night.
There are times where you’re put into stressful positions and you have to sit back and think before you act – when you’re in a position of leadership, you’re constantly watched and need to lead by example.
That requires a lot of self-awareness and empathy.
It’s exhausting, but so important! I think that has been instilled from my mum. She is a selfless type of person. It’s a quality I really like when I see it in other people, and I hope people see in me.
It sounds like you’ve been lucky to have encouraging mentors that have helped you develop – but have you had the opposite?
Yes, I’ve also learnt from some challenging managers. I’ve learned how to work with different people, and how you get the best out of them, how you can ‘manage up’, and change my working style to make it easier. Some of your biggest career lessons are observing what not to do, and ensuring you approach things in a different way, remembering how you liked to be managed, and thinking about what inspired you from managers.
Have you ever wondered if the pressures of the industry are worth it?
Well, you have your shit days, but as long as the good days outweigh the tougher times it’s OK. If it ever reverses, I would have to reconsider my career, but I can hand-on-heart say that I haven’t thought about another industry. I’m guided by my gut, and my gut hasn’t told me to look elsewhere!
Do you have the same go-getter approach in your life outside work?
I love to ski and I’m learning to play golf. In this role, my mind is always on work, so I need to make sure that I have lifestyle balance, so it’s not a constant train of thought of ‘what do I need to be doing’, and not being present when you need to be present. I have a really supportive partner, Stephen, who keeps me grounded and makes sure everything stays in perspective.
You’ve achieved so much already by believing in yourself and your abilities – so what’s next?
Professionally, every time we have a win at Alt/Shift, I get a great sense of pride. It might not be my win, but someone in the team, and I get so much satisfaction when our team succeed.
Personally, it’s being present and a good person to my family, my partner and friends, and not losing sight of that because I’m so ‘on’ at work. At home, it’s hard to switch off, so people you love the most don’t always see the best version of you! It’s important to have the boundaries in place between work and home.
You can get in touch with Sam on LinkedIn here.
Photography by House of Sage.