Features

How I got here… Essence’s Veli Aghdiran – ‘You can waste a lot of time trying to show you’re smart’

Having grown up in London, Veli Aghdiran knew one thing – and that was that he didn’t see himself staying in the UK to work, so today he is based in Singapore and working across nine Asian markets and beyond – as Essence’s global vice-president of professional development

Education

I grew up in North London. At the age of 10, like most of my friends I took examinations to get into secondary school. Despite being absolutely convinced that I’d failed, I found out that I’d made the cut. I assumed they must have made some kind of mistake, but I went along with it. That’s an interesting early example of imposter syndrome.

Aghdiran in the days before Google Hangouts

I spent the subsequent six years at Queen Elizabeth’s School. The first three years were all about being top of the class. I was not one of the cool kids who did their homework on the bus on the way into school. The next three years were all about minimising the amount of time I had to spend doing work so that I could spend more time awkwardly trying to be cool and annoying my parents.

North London is an ethnically diverse community and my school truly reflected its diversity. I appreciate the fact that I grew up in an environment where, by and large, diversity was celebrated and embraced. That may be part of what drew me to the study of languages – growing up speaking Turkish, English and a tiny bit of Greek, then learning French and Russian at school.

I had the opportunity to go to Russia on a school trip in the late 1990s. A group of 20 of us headed to Moscow and St Petersburg. My mind was opened up to the reality that the way life and society worked in my corner of North London was not necessarily the way it worked everywhere else. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to understand that at a young age.

Aghdiran celebrating graduation from Cambridge University with his grandad

My love of languages and literature eventually took me to Cambridge University for further study, punctuated by a few more stints in Russia. By the time I graduated into a pretty depressed British economy, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next. But I kept on saying that I “didn’t see myself staying in the UK”.

My start

Hindsight often makes career paths seem clear and deliberate, which sometimes limits the benefit of hearing or reading about somebody else’s journey. There’s a limit to how helpful it is to hear someone say “It’ll work out” or “this experience is happening to you for a reason”. Sure, I am absolutely grateful for all of the chapters and experiences I’ve had so far in my career but there’s little reassurance in someone who seems to have it all figured out telling you that you’ll be ok.

After I graduated, the clear and defined path that I had been on through education suddenly came to end. I wasn’t so much at a fork in the road as at a rake. I remember that feeling of not being entirely sure what a good next step would be, and also feeling like whatever path I took would define everything that happened thereafter. It’s interesting that we trap ourselves in these situations where we’re desperate to take action and move forward, and simultaneously frozen in the fear of the consequences. Even if the impact of the decision is nowhere near as monumental as we make it feel in our heads and hearts.

I hedged my bets between further education and starting my career for a couple months after graduation, but eventually decided that the route I wanted to go down was starting a business with one of my best friends. The extreme self-confidence/arrogance of youth combined with the support of my parents gave me the privilege of spending two years building an online business.

We had a great idea, and we had the skill and investment of a willing developer. After two years of funding operations ourselves – working in call centres and tutoring school kids before and after work to make ends meet – and suddenly realising how much we’d have to invest in marketing to build our audience sufficiently to generate meaningful revenue, my business partner and I realised that we both needed something with more security. And, well, a salary.

At about that time, I heard about an opportunity to join KidStart, a relatively new start-up back then, but one with a couple of rounds of fundraising already in the bag, founded by a team of experienced business leaders. I remember reading the job description and for the first time in my career feeling like this was both a job I genuinely wanted to do at a company of which I genuinely wanted to be a part. Luckily I managed to convey some of that enthusiasm in my interviews, and I spent two great years at KidStart in a role that grew and expanded in lots of different directions as my confidence did.

One of the founders at KidStart used to get invited to Shuffle, an event put on by what was then a small independent agency called Essence. He couldn’t make it one year and offered me his ticket. Two of us from KidStart went along, and I remember sitting in the auditorium at the swanky hotel in Mayfair where the event was being held, looking around me at the folks in the audience – many of whom were Essence staff – thinking to myself that I’d love to be a part of this company.

My first impression was that these people were smart, welcoming and kind, and seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. So I was delighted, some six months later and after a tough recruitment process, that they offered me a job.

I joined Essence in February 2013, working with an amazing team and an amazing client. My initial impression of Essentials at Shuffle turned out to marry up to the reality of being part of the agency, and I found myself doing work I enjoyed with people that were fast becoming friends. In that first year, the agency I joined doubled in size around me and the excitement of being part of a growing, and successful, business was infectious.

Towards the end of my first year, Dan Dobson-Smith, now our chief learning and culture officer, opened up some roles in his team for folks who were interested in applying their industry knowledge and client experience internally, to support the business as we continued to grow. I was instantly interested in this opportunity. I knew deep down that the bits of my job that gave me the biggest sense of satisfaction involved relationships and in-person interactions. There was also a part of me that hesitated; there was, after all, growth for me on the client-facing side of things.

Five years on, to say that I’m glad to have had the opportunity to move into ‘learning and development’ is an understatement. I’m proud of the work we do as a team and the impact we have on the business, and I’m excited about how we can do and be even better. The intellectual challenge of trying to build meaningful and effective learning experiences off and on the job is one that continues to motivate me, and is pertinent for every organisation.

I’ve spent the last two and a half years living in Singapore, travelling between our nine Asia-Pacific offices, working with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, and remembering why it was that I used to say that I “didn’t see myself staying in the UK”. I truly believe that if you can get or create the opportunity to work outside of your ‘home’ environment, you give yourself the chance to supercharge your learning and growth as a worker and as a human.

Approach

As soon as I got to Essence, I realised pretty quickly that as a manager it was my main job to get out of my team’s way. When you’re surrounded by brilliant and smart people, you can waste a lot of time trying to show them that you’re even more brilliant and smart.

Or you can step aside and say: “You’re brilliant and smart. I’m here to support you, to coach and to guide and to give you a platform to shine. I’ll be applauding your successes loudly when they come, and I’ll be there with you taking responsibility when things don’t work out.” That’s the mindset that I continue to adopt to this day.

A Singapore training session at Essence

One of the things that drew me to Essence in the first place was our mission statement: Make advertising more valuable to the world. It’s important to me that the work we do doesn’t just talk a good game. I want it to be valued by the business and by our people because it demonstrably helps our business achieve its goals and tangibly helps our people grow and learn professionally and personally. My challenge to myself and to my team is to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards in service of achieving those outcomes.

Highs and lows

I think the moment I truly realised that ‘learning and development’ wasn’t just a fling for me was when I found myself standing on stage in a theatre in New York beside my colleague Emily Abramson, facilitating a session on our new organisational operating model, to our entire New York office. I was so far out of my comfort zone and went with it, appreciative of the fact that Emily and I got to do this crazy thing together. In among all of the incremental growth over the years, I look back on this episode as a real growth spurt.

I relate similarly to the last two and half years in Singapore. Moving here with my wife, exploring a continent together, working with amazing people spread across nine offices, leading a team of smart and diverse people, learning from and working with a wide array of seasoned leaders have been all the right kinds of challenging.

There are many moments that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight that didn’t feel good at the time. The most significant, though, was eventually letting myself realise that the business my friend and I started and poured everything into wasn’t going to get to where we wanted it to go. Walking away from all that investment – in every sense of the word – was hard, even though we both knew it was right.

Dos and Don’ts

Find good listeners to hear you out without trying to fix problems for you. We spend so much time in our own heads. It’s important to have moments where we can articulate all the thoughts swirling around, knowing that we won’t be judged or ‘fixed’, so that we can hear ourselves speak our thoughts, learn and grow.

In moments of self-doubt, remember that you’ve felt like this before and when you do, it usually means you’re on the verge of something amazing. Spend more time thinking and talking about what you want in your life than you do thinking or talking about what you don’t want.

If you’re unhappy with something or someone, no matter how sure you are that it’s all their fault, ask yourself on what level you might be creating this situation, and what you could do differently instead.

State your intentions. Human beings get the wrong end of the stick all the time. You’ll stack the odds in your favour if you tell people what you mean rather than hoping they guess right.

Veli Aghdiran is global vice-president of professional development at the GroupM media agency Essence and is based in Singapore

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