In our latest Arden University podcast, we speak to our marketing and student recruitment director, Gemma Marlowe, as we discuss women in leadership roles. Gemma works as part of a wider team to engage with prospective students to increase the number of applications Arden University receives through a range of marketing channels. Her job involves a variety of roles such as acquisition, conversion, web, PR, social insights and product promotion. Watch the video here, or read on for a Q&A with Gemma as she shares her experience in her journey towards leadership roles:
Gemma, can you tell us about how your journey towards a leadership role began?
I jumped straight into work after A-levels where I studied economics, psychology and PE – I’ve never been drawn to following the typical A-to-B route. From there I went into a variety of different jobs at places such as NatWest, AXA, a solicitors and even a telecommunications company. However, none of them excited me particularly, they were more a means to an end.
Things changed when I hit 21 and I started as a marketing and buyer’s assistant at Lloyds Pharmacy, where my journey really began. It was here that I was fortunate to have a fantastic and extremely inspirational female leader. From the start, I was taken under her wing and became her ‘mini me’, learning all the core skills I still use today to be successful in my work and people relations.
For me, I was never interested in the buying side of that role, but I thrived on the promotional aspect, where I learned everything there was to know on product promotion. I made sure that I seized every opportunity thrown at me, and although I was balancing studying for my CIM qualifications, I still made sure my voice was heard – I’ve always been very vocal about putting myself forward for projects, so that I could prove myself and my abilities.
I was extremely lucky to be able to go for a lot of promotions during my time there, meeting many successful businesswomen in leadership roles who really inspired me to go the extra mile. I branched out and moved into the design team within the business and from there the web team, where I began to feel like all the skills I had learned started to come together, and where my passion for marketing really started. Along the way I have come across many different leaders, but the majority were always very trusting. On many an occasion, I was given a project and allowed to just get on with it which went a long way for me – the feeling that I was never being micromanaged. I don’t know whether this would be my leadership style naturally, or whether it was something I learned from them, but either way, that was my journey into marketing.
In terms of senior roles and leadership, that really started about 12 years ago. For me, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
I started working in Coventry University in a temporary role but when I saw that they were looking for somebody to head up the marketing team of a new subsidiary, I immediately applied. Instead of feeling daunted by the position, I felt excited as it was such a creative position and an exciting opportunity for me.
It involved creating a business from the bottom up, so I was able to throw myself into the role. I was able to build a team based on what I needed to achieve, and it was such an exciting time for me. We launched new campuses and eventually, I felt like I had achieved everything that I could there. This is then when I moved to Arden in a very similar situation – it was a very new university, and this type of building a business and teams from the bottom is something that I love.
In your opinion, what do you think makes a successful female leader?
Not just for women in leadership, but for everyone in general, you have to be adaptable for sure. Some people have a certain organic leadership style, but sometimes that doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. You might have to adapt your leadership style based on the team you are working with or place where you work, or the business objectives that you’ve got to achieve. But generally, if I was to describe my leadership style, it really depends on the place and situation.
We’ve heard many textbook answers in the past on how to become a great female leader, but are you able to share any of your tricks to successful leadership, something that we wouldn’t expect?
I believe that it is through inspiring others, that is where I have showcased my passions, from looking at people and what they have achieved, and thinking ‘yeah, I want a bit of that too’. I think any senior manager will tell you that you’re only ever as good as the team you’ve got around you as they’re so important. I couldn’t achieve all of my objectives without the team I have, and you must have a mutual level of respect. You obviously want your team to respect you, but equally, respect them too so that you can instil confidence in them. That is what I’m all about, I never want to be the big scary boss or anything like that, but if I have an important deadline to meet, I want my team to push themselves to help achieve that too. In my opinion, it is incredibly important, as a senior manager, to show that you are willing to get your hands dirty and get stuck into whatever task, no matter how big or small. These are all the things that I believe have helped me join the world of successful women in leadership. I also like to push people out of their comfort zone too, not so far as encouraging them to make a massive gamble, but allowing them to challenge themselves. This is where I believe we are more likely to reach our full potential. You also need to be a part of their journey, as well as your own – this is where I make sure to promote positivity and coaching. Ensure you keep a level of transparency, so every single part of the team is on the same wavelength and confident in what we are working towards.
You talk about challenges for your team, but what have been your main challenges? And then what have been your biggest achievements?
When I look back at my work history, it has all been so positive, I can’t remember being challenged personally, except of course in the roles themselves. I’ve had managers challenge me in the sense of pushing me to get the best out of me, which I appreciate might not be the best method for everyone, but I tend to thrive in those situations. Working as a senior manager, having that kind of accountability can often be a challenge. Although I have a team around me, it’s up to me at the end of the day to deliver results and have the responsibility to grow a business from scratch. For example, if I am given a concept that needs to become a reality, I choose to thrive in this situation, whereas others could find it completely daunting. I think that the more difficult the challenge is, the prouder you will feel at the end of it. So, to answer your question, it’s the responsibility of the roles I have held for the past 12-15 years that has probably been the biggest challenge so far.
Have you ever had any experience of prejudice as a strong female leader in perhaps a male-dominated environment? And how would you overcome this?
Thankfully, I’ve been lucky to never have had any experience in this. Whether it’s just that I’ve been too focused on simply cracking on with the role in hand and proving myself as to not have noticed any of these gender barriers, that’s another question. I certainly don’t think I’ve been in an environment that has been particularly male-dominated, or the fact that being a strong woman in leadership has made anything more difficult for me. I’ve been lucky that all the teams I have been part of have been a really good mix of men and women, and something that I have always found really positive. I’ve actually been asked this question a couple of times by people doing research and theses into women in leadership, and I’ve always said that I have been really fortunate to not have experienced any prejudices. However, if I was to go into a male-dominated workplace, I would see this as even more of a challenge to push myself to the limit and prove to people that I am much more than just a woman.
What would your advice be to anybody looking to pursue a career in marketing?
It all depends on their route, like I said marketing was never something I’d thought about until I was put into that situation. I sound really old here, but I think things are very different now compared to how they were in my day. Nowadays, there are so many ways to put yourself out there on social media and to learn new skills. I started my marketing career in my early 20s, so I never had it all figured out and wasn’t even entirely sure what I wanted to do. But I do think education is so important – I’ve worked in it for the last 12 years, so it is all about having that knowledge and experience that is the key.
I did all of my professional qualifications and masters later on in life as a mature student, so it’s so crucial to have that knowledge and absorb as much as possible. Put yourself out there, and don’t ever be afraid to ask somebody to be your mentor. In fact, there’s a marketing manager who works at another university who talks at a lot of conferences. I find her so inspiring. I loved the fact that she would help people who reached out to her looking for advice, so she is definitely a very successful woman in the business world.
My main tip is definitely to just put yourself out there, at the end of the day if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It really is just a case of absorbing all the information around you. Doing your research is so important if you want to get into marketing, think about what kind of company you want to work for. People seem to be switching careers more often now at later stages in their life, so I think it’s important to get as much experience as you can across a variety of sectors. Unless you’re 100% sure about the career you want, then don’t be pigeonholed, get as much work experience and skills under your belt as you possibly can.
Again, it was different when I was younger, there wasn’t a great deal of free work experience on hand, whereas nowadays people have so many opportunities to get stuck into something and learn new things a lot easier. I’ve seen a lot of younger people now becoming more entrepreneurial, promoting their own business which I find really inspiring.
As your role focuses on marketing and recruitment at the university, can you give us any news on upcoming projects you’ve got in the pipeline?
It’s no surprise to anyone who works at Arden that we’re part of a really ambitious business, where we continue to do better for ourselves and the students. There are always lots of growth initiatives that we’re co
constantly working on, whether that’s how we acquire new leads or enrolment. But I think we’re more focused on the whole student experience and commercial side of the business right now, which is growth.
But fundamentally, we’re a university. We work in a place where people want to learn and better themselves and education is a key part of that. So, we’ve invested heavily in student experience teams to ensure that when students start their studies, in particular those who have been out of education for a long time, we’re able to help with their nerves and settle them in. Even before that, we look at how we can support potential students on their decision-making journey; from having been brave enough to apply for university right through to supporting them on that very first day in the classroom and beyond.
So that’s where we are investing our money into the business the most, looking at what systems we can put into place. At Arden, we’re extremely proud to be innovative and digital-focused and at using these skills and technology to improve our students’ experience here. From my previous time juggling serious job roles with studying for a masters, I can relate to how some people will need a bit of extra help balancing work and education, so that is what we do through the help of technology.
Lastly, as an inspirational leader, do you have a favourite quote or mantra that you live by, Gemma?
I’m very much into meditation, I think it is so important to switch off at the end of the day. I often like to read quotes, but then totally forget about them! Again, I might sound a bit boring and cliché here, but the mantra that I stick to in both my work and personal life, is to really have no regrets. My biggest fear is to have regret, more often than not you’ll regret those chances that you didn’t take.
As for those aspiring marketers or female leaders, my advice is to never let fear hold you back from what you want to achieve. Never be too scared to ask for that promotion or pay rise or opportunity, just think: what is the worst that could happen?