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Getting Ahead In... Executive Management

For the next instalment of our Getting Ahead In... features, we speak to BA European Business Administration alumna Vanda Murray OBE and learn about how she built up her career from a speciality in marketing to what it is today.

Vanda Murray OBE graduated from Middlesex University in 1983 and quickly began to establish herself as a leader in marketing, before switching to general management. She now holds a portfolio of Non-Executive Directorships, including appointments at Exova plc, Bunzl plc, Manchester Airports Group and Microgen plc. She is also Chair of the Board of Governors at Manchester Metropolitan University and in 2001 Vanda was awarded an OBE for Services to Industry and to Export.

Vanda Murrary OBEWhat is a typical day like for you?

There isn't really a typical day for me. Every day is different, but I like variety. I work for a mix of companies and each Non-Executive Directorship (NED) takes up a few days each month. Sometimes I know the dates for the next board meeting up to two years in advance, so I plan my other work and commitments around those.

I try and slot in things that give something back between those dates, so I work with charities but I also do some consultancy work, I'm the Chair of Governors for Manchester Metropolitan University, and if I'm approached to do speeches then I take part in those as well.

I feel quite fortunate that I'm able to do a range of things and I'm in a position where I can keep Fridays free as a personal day as well. I worked very hard with very long hours for a long period, which is fine if you know you're doing it for a good reason, but it's also nice to be in a place where I don't need to do that so much and I can have a better work-life balance.

What do you find particularly fulfilling about what you do?

I'm in a very interesting part of my career now. I started off with a traditional career, specialising in marketing for large corporations, mainly in London. Then when I was 30 I decided I would move into smaller companies and general management.

I was a Managing Director in my early 30s, which meant I got to take on a higher level of responsibility and I learnt a lot. That was a great experience and I loved having all-round responsibility for a company, but it was often challenging and the work-life balance was completely out of kilter. I knew it wasn't forever, though. I knew that there would be a point when things would change.

I had a few other jobs after that, but I decided that I wanted to get to a point where I could work for myself, so mid-career I completely switched the way that I worked so that I could make a portfolio of NEDs. I've worked for a few big FTSE 100 companies, and some smaller companies. The smaller companies are good to learn operational aspects of a business, and the larger companies are good for thinking more strategically.

Do you have any particular career highlights?

The day I was awarded my OBE. That was a great accolade because you have to be nominated by people who have personally worked with you. It was a very special day for me and I was thrilled to be able to take my son along. That was a real career highlight.

Being the CEO of a quoted company was a great experience too because you've got to present your company to the city and get your shareholders on board. I've drawn on that experience in every job I've worked in since.

What are the key skills that you think have been crucial to your career?

I'm a marketing person through and through, so customer focus has always been crucial for me. You have to understand why customers should buy from you and what makes you different and unique. There should be clear added value done in the most efficient way possible, so you need to get your team focused on understanding why those customers are key. Choose the people you sell to and your suppliers so that you have customers that believe in your values and work with you best.

Running a company is a great job because it's a great strategic challenge to make sure you're always driving the company forward while also supporting your people and articulating the value you give to your customers. Focus on having a good footprint as a corporate entity, so you've got a holistic focus on doing the right things that feed into your bigger picture.

Whoever you are you should be constantly striving to be better and to improve. Make sure you're always learning, have humility and curiosity, always listen, respond and make sure you understand.

Why Middlesex?

That was really easy. I was originally convinced I was going to be a linguist but then when I went looking around universities I realised that that wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue something that would give me the opportunity to live and work abroad.

There weren't any universities around at that time that offered courses like this. It was only Middlesex that had this ground-breaking course that allowed you to spend time living and studying abroad. It was such a fabulous opportunity and the only degree I wanted to do so I worked really hard for the interview and got a place.

How do you think the BAEBA has contributed to your career? What did you enjoy about it or think was particularly good?

The living abroad element was particularly hard because you suddenly had to swap institutions, and at the age of 18 or 19 it's quite hard to suddenly switch to studying economics, accounting and law in a foreign language. It was very challenging but it taught me amazing resilience, which is an important life skill. I learnt to look after myself and rise to challenges, teaching me life skills as well as academic skills. It was just a brilliant course that transformed my life. 

How did you land your first job?

When I finished my degree in France I decided I wanted to join a UK PLC, so I came back that June and applied for as many good jobs as I could find. It took a few months, but I got there.

There are so many opportunities out there, but you need to think about it when you start heading towards the end of your degree. Remember that internships and work experience before you finish university will help give you good experience of what you like, so you can start planning what you want to do.

Do you have any advice to recent graduates hoping to follow a similar career path?

Get work experience along the way. Sometimes you find a company that will support you, which is great, but if not then you're in charge of your own career, it's not something that happens to you. You have to take control and manage it, and get the skills and experience you need to progress. So take charge and get advice and support.

I'm also a big believer in mentoring. Get an internal mentor within your own company, and an external one as well because independent and objective opinions are really helpful.

You can't always have a long career plan but have goals, be ambitious and confident. Find something you really enjoy. If you're not happy then leave.

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