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Sharon Smyth – Learning & development case study

Case studies

Sharon Smyth – Learning & development case study

Sharon Smyth

If you asked 15 year old me what I wanted to do when I grew up, it would’ve been to play international cricket for Ireland. I’d be most shocked to discover female professional contracts were not a thing (yet) and I wouldn’t have known about career options in financial services, or really any jobs that involved being indoors all day. 

So how did I end up as Head of Brand & Sponsorship for Phoenix Group? Simple… Once I had my degree in Sports Management under my belt, the natural progression was a job in my local bank branch (well, it made my parents less worried about my future AND was handy for cricket training). There, I discovered I’m one of those people that loves work. I was interested, curious. I asked lots of questions, got on well and progressed over the years working in different areas for different companies. I’ve had some chunky roles, I’ve led multi-award winning campaigns, helped a lot of people progress in their chosen careers, handled a few challenging situations along the way, but usually with a determined smile.  

My approach to learning & development

I think one of the best things early in your career is to figure out what motivates you. I’m motivated by recognition and learning. I seek out development opportunities to feed my curiosity and I love fixing things.  

Here’s a quick example of how curiosity made a big difference to my career. When I first worked for Standard Life in Ireland, I saw the sponsorships the UK business was doing with the Ryder Cup and British & Irish Lions. I wanted in on the action. I felt we could benefit from the work in the Irish business, and of course it looked great fun. I talked to my boss, Sanj, about it. He sent an introductory email to a contact he had in marketing, and off I headed to Edinburgh to infiltrate Standard Life House and make myself an invaluable part of the extended team! I made some brilliant friends in the process, I helped them solve problems, consulted on the UK’s brand building project, even helped the German team for a summer and that effort paid back in spades. I’ve no doubt that curiosity and efforts to fix things contributed to being offered a secondment as Head of Brand and Sponsorship for Standard Life UK a couple of years later. 

We all come to work for different reasons. I spend a good amount of my week at work and I want to enjoy it, so for me that means a mix of lots of doing lots of different things, as well as learning. To help me in my career and to satisfy my curiosity, over the last five years I became a qualified financial adviser, I started my masters, and I took two secondments - one to Standard Life UK, and I’ve just finished a six-month stint as interim Chief Marketing Officer for SunLife.  

It’s been a lot, and some moments I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m sure we all have those moments, but I believe this is where the magic happens in development and I’m positive each of these experiences has helped me grow and advance. It’s helpful having experience in lots of parts of our business, but the thing that stands out for me most is the chance to meet and learn from different people. Opportunities like this are a huge advantage of working for a large organisation like Phoenix Group that’s focused on talent and progression. 

My future aspirations (and back up plan!)

I love work that is fun, challenging and rewarding, so my aspiration is always to do more where I get to play to my strengths but also get to stretch new muscles. 

My next role will be in a marketing leadership role for a strong, purpose-led brand and where I can help transform business success with good customer insight and clever marketing that changes the game. 

When I’m doing something I enjoy or something that’s challenging, I have a tendency to let work consume me. So I’m always reminding myself my family, health and wellbeing comes first. For the next few months that means cricket training, sea swims, plus cycling and a few nice trips with my lovely husband, and, hopefully a Race For Life run. 

Over the last 10 years in work I’ve heard a lot of inspiring conversations about retirement, and plenty of sobering ones too. So that’s led me to having a good plan in place for my Second Life. As well as a good pension, I have a not-so-secret career switch plan to move to the country and be a wedding singer. I do a few ceremonies a year. When I’m rehearsing, I don’t notice the hours pass by. I think that’s when you know you’re doing something you truly love. 

My career advice to everyone and anyone

Growing up, we were regularly told, “there’s a big difference between 10 years’ experience, and one year’s experience ten times”.  

Where my parents got that one, I’ve no idea. But I think it’s really good advice for anyone at any stage of their career. In this era of the squiggly career, it’s always helpful for me to try new things and broaden my experience. So I encourage people to look for new opportunities, projects, secondments, gigs, volunteering – inside of work or outside.  

I think volunteering is a massively under-used resource for people who are keen to move into management roles but don’t have experience in leading people. Chairing committees in the cricket world gave me my first experience of this - I was able to test and learn leadership skills in a safe environment and use this experience to help me step into my first management role.  

You’ll be surprised how all these little things add up and the sum of all parts is worth way more than the individual things.