When Veli Aghdiran graduated from Cambridge in the depths of the 2008 crash, he wasn’t sure exactly what he did want to do, but he was at least clear about one thing: “I didn’t see myself staying in the UK.”
A decade later, as global vice-president of professional development for high-flying media agency Essence, he has found a career he loves – and, true to his original wish, he is based some 7,000 miles from London.
“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…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.”
Interviewed for the media and marketing news website, Mumbrella Asia, Veli (OE 1996–2003) reflects with great honesty on his time at QE: “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.” [Veli is pictured here as a child.]
“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.”
His love for languages and literature took him to Cambridge, where, from 2004–2008, he read Modern and Mediaeval Languages (Russian and French). The picture shows him on graduation day with his grandfather.
“After I graduated, the clear and defined path that I had been on through education suddenly came to an 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.”
Eventually, he opted to start an online business with a close friend and, with the support of his parents, spent two years building it up. Then, as it suddenly dawned on the pair how much they would need to invest in marketing in order to generate significant revenue from the fledgling business, they realised that they both needed security and a proper salary.
He duly applied for a job with KidStart (the online shopping club that allows parents to save for their children as they shop), which was at that time a relatively new start-up. “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 did my confidence.”
Then came the break that would lead him eventually to his current position: “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.”
As the audience, who included many Essence staff, gathered at the upmarket venue — a Mayfair hotel – Veli says he remembers thinking that he would love to be part of this company. Six months later, following a “tough recruitment process” he was offered a job and, on starting with Essence in February 2013, he quickly found that his initial impression more than matched up to the reality: “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 his first year, he was offered a role applying his industry knowledge and client experience in supporting the company. Although not without some hesitation – “there was, after all, growth for me on the client-facing side of things,” – he decided to take the plunge.
“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.”
His personal and professional development has been incremental, although he recalls one “real growth spurt” when he and a colleague found themselves on the stage of a theatre facilitating a session on Essence’s new organisational operating model to the company’s entire New York office: “I was so far out of my comfort zone and went with it, appreciative of the fact that [she] and I got to do this crazy thing together.”
He has similar feelings about his time in Singapore: “Moving here with my wife, exploring a continent together… 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’.”
Among the lessons he has learned himself, he highlights:
- The importance as a leader of getting out of his 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.”
- Finding good listeners who will resist the urge to fix your problems and will allow you to articulate your own thoughts, and thus to learn and to grow.
- Remembering in moments of self-doubt that you have felt like this before and “when you do, it usually means you’re on the verge of something amazing”.
- Stating your intentions, rather than hoping other people will guess what you mean.
- “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.”