Brit Gemma Hudson was a scientist before making the switch to PR. “I loved talking far too much to be limited to microscopes”, she says.
It was while backpacking in Australia she started to meet what she describes as “people like me”.
Now the National General Manager and equity partner of global firm WE Buchan, we sat down with Gemma to quiz her: precisely how did she get to her position at such a young age? And what tactical tips would she share with the next generation of leaders?
You were a scientist before a PR. What led you to pursue a career in communications?
“I’m a scientist by background but after spending time in a lab – I realised I loved talking too much to be stuck there all day with a microscope for company! My education in science combined with my gift of the gab was actually a really good fit for Health PR, I discovered.
“I came to Australia backpacking after uni. I treated everyone I met as someone who might be able to help me figure out what I wanted to do. I happened to meet a few people in public relations. They were some of my favourite people and the job sounded like it had lots of variety – something I need! So I’m lucky – I ended up initially in health communications – a job that could combine talking and science – two of my favourite things! [laughs].
I’ve since spent the last 15 years working not only in health comms but in many different sectors including consumer brands, technology, travel, and corporate PR – proving again, how much I’ve needed variety to continue to grow and challenge myself. ”
One thing that was impressed upon me on reviewing your career progression was how swiftly you moved into new opportunities. What tactics did you find useful to identify new opportunities and also be viewed as ‘promotable’?
“Great question. All too often in performance reviews I would hear ‘you’re doing great’. These vague statements like ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. I didn’t understand. How would I get to the top doing the same thing?
“Like anyone, I was after tactical feedback I could use to get ahead. What specifically did I need to do to get to the next level?
“The difference between a good manager and an excellent one is someone who gives you tangible takeaways you can develop and sets you up for success by connecting you with people or development opportunities to bring that to life.
“Never accept feedback that doesn’t help you grow. Ask specifically for what you need to do to get to the next stage. The measure of a person is how you take that feedback, use it to grow and develop. I don’t particularly like constructive feedback to be honest (who does) but unless your colleagues are honest with you – you can’t improve.
“Finally, it sounds simple but if if you want a promotion – make sure you’re doing your current job 110% successfully first. Getting specific feedback is key to this. Then look to what your boss is doing. Think about ‘what can I do without being asked’. Put your hand up.
If you’re killing it at your current role and stepping up – helping make his or hers life easier – you’ll get that promotion, no problem.”
I think that’s an important distinction to make. A senior leader in the property industry recently said the one thing that saw her career progress was spending 80% as the ‘doer’, and 20% of her time proactively adding value to the firm, or creating opportunities for herself. What’s your take on this?
“I think she’s absolutely right. It’s about adding value on a number of levels. Add value by coaching the team underneath you – the quicker they rise the quicker you can too. Add value to your boss and make their life easier, add value to your clients and the bigger business. How can you help improve things? It doesn’t matter whether you’re the grad or the CEO – a good idea is a good idea!
I was at a conference recently and the presenter said ‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary’. That’s bang on – getting ahead is ultimately about going above and beyond and that means hard work!”
Some of the younger agency workers, or those new to their agency careers are keen to get as much experience as possible. They don’t always have a clear pathway to where they want to go next. What would you recommend they do in this instance?
“I think looking long term to where you want to be (even if the immediate step isn’t clear right away) and make that goal clear with your manager. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m an Account Coordinator now, and I’d love to eventually achieve a role in senior management. What small steps can I take along the way to ensure I’m getting as much experience and skills as possible? I’ve always tried to look 1-2 steps ahead and it’s helped me make decisions about when to move and what roles to take.’
“Regardless of where you want to go – act like an owner. Make decisions that are good for your colleagues, the wider business. Put your ‘boss’ hat on and think WWTBD: What Would The Boss Do?”
You moved from an Associate Director role at Edelman to the Head of Health at Haystac. Often the AD’s we speak to who share that ambition are keen to understand how to make the leap. What specific steps lead to this career step?
“Back then, I was an Associate Director who wanted my own PR agency. At the time, I was offered two roles.
“One was a big global agency with a big existing team and client base. It seemed like a sensible option.
“Haystac came to the party at the 11th hour. They were well known in Consumer PR and had a couple of health clients but were looking to grow that area of the business.
“So I was faced with two job offers that were like chalk and cheese.
“I thought if I wanted to start my own PR agency, I could either start from scratch – or – I could start within a well established company with a stellar reputation, and build my own team and clients with their support. What the Haystac opportunity was going to give me was the closest I’d be able to get to the experience of doing that first hand.
“If I had gone into the other role, it would have been great on the CV, but I wouldn’t have developed the same skills. Sometimes it’s the less obvious choice that helps you fast track your career.
On that – let’s move onto tactical ways we can help people coming up the ranks. You’re now the GM at an international PR firm and an equity owner. Many of our readers are keen to get an insight into these conversations at the top and what elements go into appointing a leader. Can you share the process?
“It was a really interesting recruitment process. What started out as an informal coffee was then followed by months of conversations before a formal offer came through. The first thing the Owner asked me was “you could start your own agency. Why haven’t you?”
“I told him I liked building things. And that I really liked building things with other people. You’re always stronger with clever minds around you.”
“The parts of my career I really enjoyed were winning business and finding out what motivates my team and helping them develop. So I was looking for a role where I could do that – shape something, learn new skills and be rewarded accordingly.
What else have you noticed about interview processes during your career?
“You get to a certain point in your career where the power shifts. Instead of you trying to prove yourself in the interview to get the job, you find it’s the employer trying to sell their company or the role to you. That’s a great position to be in!
“So the more senior you get, it becomes more around you doing your due diligence and good negotiation to create the role that you want. A good company will want to secure great talent and craft a role for you.
“That’s what WE Buchan did – they initially approached me about one role and then after meeting me, decided it fitted better for the GM role. What followed was 6 months back and forth while we explored and tweaked the role to ensure it was a move that was right for both of us.”
And in terms of negotiating equity, what tactical insights can you share with our readers in terms of how to tackle the conversation. When should they start talking about it? No one openly talks about these conversations.
“It’s really about being clear with your boss/potential employer about what your career objectives are. Being a senior leader is very different to being a partner. Not all senior leaders want to be owners.
“On this premise, and in my example, I had the conversation. I was honest and told them I wanted to own a business at some point and what steps could we take to ensure I was adequately rewarded for the business I would be bringing into the firm in the meantime.
“We had a discussion and kept it open. Honestly, I never expected them to come to the table with an equity offer but was delighted when they did. It was decided the small steps would be small, Year One: base + bonus based on performance; Year Two: profit share; Year Three: equity.
“As it turns out, within 10 months I was offered equity, but that was after proving myself incessantly in quick succession. The really great thing about WE Buchan is that if you’re delivering; the team recognise it and reward you accordingly. That was really important to me. Proof that opportunities were abundant.”
For people reading this, what tactics would you recommend they take into consideration when looking to make the most of offers and opportunities in the future?
“You also need to choose the right company for you. For me, it was about opportunity and the WE Buchan team were able to demonstrate that. Our CEO started as an Account Manager with the firm. The Head of Investor Comms started as an Account Manager and was successively promoted with us. They were able to give me tangible examples of supporting their peoples’ career progression.”
How’d she get to the top?
2001 – PR assistant / Account Executive at The Workhouse, UK
“This was a small boutique. I did everything including getting lunches. In a smaller company it can take longer to get promoted as there is less movement so that was the catalyst for the next job.”
2003-2006 – Senior Account Executive / Account Manager / Senior Account Manager at Red Door Communications, UK
“My learning was turbo charged here. I was surrounded by so many amazing women. The two founders were very different: one was big picture thinker and results driven and her business partner was analytical, quiet and focussed. They made a great partnership and seldom have I been so inspired since.
“Here is where I learnt the value of 360 reviews, and how to give and receive constructive feedback.”
2006 – Account Director – Burson Marsteller, Sydney
2007-2009 – Account Director / Associate Director at Edelman, Sydney
“This was the biggest health PR team in the country at the time. An amazing experience.”
2009-2013 – Head of Health, Haystac, Sydney
2013 – Present National General Manager at WE Buchan
2014 – Became an equity partner
Connect with Gemma on LinkedIn.
Images by Breeana Dunbar Photography.