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What working on a super yacht taught me about navigating a new career

In late 2009 my husband Brett and I made a big decision: we wanted a sea change. Literally, we were going to live and work on a yacht. I was a well-established Senior Consultant at Slade Group and Brett was running a successful commercial photography business. Back in those relatively carefree pre-covid times when world travel was a tantalising possibility, taking an extended working holiday abroad seemed entirely reasonable. So, we packed in our jobs, packed up our lives and headed over to Europe to join the luxury Super Yacht industry.

Prior to our departure, we embarked on a journey of intense short-courses, obtaining the necessary ‘tickets’ to permit entrée into this elusive and poorly understood (pre Below-Deck TV,) industry. We downsized dramatically, selling nearly all of our possessions including our cars, rented out our home and re-homed our pets… What could possibly go wrong?

Brett had been a life-long yachtie, so his sailing skills would be invaluable in helping secure our first, breakthrough roles. Plus, I felt my solid recruitment experience, having worked over 10 years collectively with Slade Group, would be a significant advantage navigating the hiring journey. Finally, with some savvy packaging, I thought we could market ourselves as a ‘professional couple’ to the numerous Crew agencies as a winning formula.

This was the first time in a decade that I had found myself on the candidate-side of the recruitment process. Donning the latest nautical attire, with our business cards freshly printed and CVs that we’d worked and re-worked, we marched into Antibes, the mega-yacht parking lot in the South of France, full of confidence.

Attempting a career change into a completely new industry, in a foreign country and one that is well known for its love of anyone who doesn’t speak French (not) was a bold move.

We strode into our first face-to-face interview with one of yachting’s most respected recruiters.

“Are you two serious?…. Firstly, you’re married. Secondly, you’re too old. Thirdly, you’re overqualified, but under-experienced. And lastly, we are in the deep-end of the global financial crisis… Go home!”

Clearly this agent didn’t realise how far we had travelled for the interview.

All jokes aside, sadly this was every bit the sentiment we experienced from most ‘professional’ recruiters in Antibes.  Their not-so-subtle rejection of our qualifications, experience, substantial investment in our goals and passion to achieve them, was confronting. It would be an untruth if I said I hadn’t wondered whether we had made a giant mistake. This blanket response was providing every bit of motivation to hop back on a plane and return home, however we simply had not factored failure into the equation, and giving up was never on our radar.

Looking for an upside and some welcome rehydration, we targeted a select few bars where the yacht crews drink and mingle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these bars are full of Aussies and Kiwis. Expats make-up the large majority of all crew across the world, due to our strong work ethic, reputation for being easy going and the lack of red tape our passports afford.

Whilst bar-networking and sharing our experiences, I came to the sharp realisation that the industry at the time was highly unregulated. Those attributes deemed undesirable by recruitment agencies, were seen in a very different light when we spoke to captains and owners’ representatives. Amongst the right audience, we were seen as committed, mature and reliable. A huge shift in attitude towards us, which was refreshing.

Inset image: Super yacht

On good advice, we relocated to Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the sailing-yacht capital of the world. Within weeks a yacht owner offered us a seasonal contract with an immediate start. Our life-aboard-yachts had finally begun.

What transpired beyond our initial foray into yachting was not always smooth sailing. For long-term success in this industry, you must be open-minded and a team player. Consider the reality of living constantly within 100ft of each other, often in a confined space. Then add the challenge of multi-national crew, physically demanding work and long hours. Being away from friends and family year-round is hard, not to mention the hazards that only mother nature can conjure.

Working on super-yachts was one of the most incredible journeys of my life. We spent six amazing years working for a wonderful Belgian family, sailing the oceans of the globe, taking in the highlights of the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and the Pacific.

Reflecting on my experience as a candidate highlights the importance of researching your target market, establishing an industry network, having the courage to follow your dreams and the ambition and perseverance to make it happen. I am grateful to have been welcomed back into an industry I love and to work alongside management with a team that recognises the transferability of my skills, values both my formal and informal education and allows me the opportunity to apply the many meaningful life-lessons I have learnt over the last 20+ years.

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Posted in Business Support, The world @work

What did Ita say? And what’s it got to do with anemones?

I love science, I love sea anemones and I know exactly why I am doing a PhD. I want to make a difference with my work. My beautiful friend Carly has Multiple Sclerosis, as does the irreverent comedian Tim Ferguson. They are my inspiration every day. So when the going gets tough and self-doubt creeps in, I remind myself of what Ita said as I head back into the lab and embrace every obstacle as something I just have to get around.

After nearly 10 years with Slade Group, this is my swan song blog as I leave the corporate world to pursue my PhD. But before I launch into my niche area of research, let me tell you what Ita said.

Back in March, I attended a lunch in Lismore where celebrated publisher Ita Buttrose was the guest speaker. We all know her as a successful businesswoman with an extensive media career and an Australian household name. And if the TV series Paper Giants is anything to go by, she has had a pretty tough fight to get to the top of her game.

Personally, I have never been one for taking the easy path either. In my younger years I was computer programmer, well before the information technology industry became what it is now, when even the word IT was brand new. Males certainly outnumbered females in IT in those days.

But back to Ita. She spoke about a range of achievements for women over the past few decades, including women in science. You can watch a short video of her speech from the event. I was captivated by her talk and I had a very specific question for her, which I was thrilled she took the time to answer.

My question: “I assume you had to fight every day to march to the beat of your own drum. Did you ever want to give up? How did you keep yourself motivated in your moments of self-doubt?”

Buttrose replied, “I asked myself why am I here?

Of course she knew exactly why she was there.  But it was not simply passion and determination that took her to the top, she says she loved every one of her jobs. As Editor in Chief of Cleo magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly and the Daily Telegraph she constantly told herself, “I deserve to be here and I have every right to be here. I choose to work in this jungle.” As to the numerous obstacles she overcame on her career journey from copy girl to be the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia, Buttrose was emphatic in her approach. “I will just find my way around any obstacles,” she said.

So what has all that got to do with my sea change, studying marine biology? It’s another field, as with the Sciences in general, where a lack of female representation is apparent. On completing a Master of Applied Science by Research, I found my current bent as a taxonomist (specialist biologist, no relation to taxation or economist). I am currently completing a Doctorate in the field of Medicinal Chemistry studying sea anemone venoms for use in pharmaceuticals, with practical applications to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is and I love it!

Pharmaceutical research is also highly competitive, as is access to funding. There are only about 15 specialists in my field in the entire world and I’m now one of that exclusive cohort. While it’s not unusual for PhD students to question the value of their pursuits, without a chemistry background, or any prior knowledge genetics, I’ve also had to find my way in a completely new network of people where everyone was an unknown. I certainly know something about the challenges faced when following a less-traditional career path.

That’s why Ita’s talk was exactly what I needed to hear. I thanked Ita Buttrose afterwards for her answer. One-to-one she asked me if I had self-doubts? “Every day!” I said. She reinforced her advice to believe in myself. I have every right to be where I am.

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Posted in The world @work