Birkdale Collective endeavour to bring the best advice possible for students and professionals alike and as a part of that, we would like to share with you viewpoints of those who have been very successful in their industries.
Michael Foster has worked at Deutsche Bank in senior roles for over 10 years following on from positions at KPMG and his first post-University graduate scheme at HSBC. As Head of Internal Communications, Michael currently engages 10,000 employees in the Chief Technology Office. Michael shares with us his journey and what aspiring professionals in his field can learn from it.
Can you tell us about your education and how that put you on your career path?
My educational years took me as far as completing a degree in Film Studies at the University of Portsmouth. At that time I was following the simple career advice of ‘do what you enjoy doing’, which for me involved studying and making films. I also had aspirations of eventually working in the industry, but upon completing my degree I discovered that unfortunately it accounted for very little in the world of film and TV. It is an industry where ‘who you know’ counts for much more than ‘what you know’. As a result, I decided to see what else my degree could do for me, eventually landing on a banking graduate scheme as a good alternative. I applied to a few different ones and was eventually accepted onto the HSBC scheme.
Can you tell us a bit about your career, where you worked and the roles you held?
I spent two years on the graduate scheme, doing a variety of different roles from frontline branch banking, to projects and leadership. It was a great all-round experience, not just for teaching me about the different parts of financial services, but also for simply learning how the corporate world worked. At the end of the scheme I took a role working on a huge regional change programme, and eventually found myself managing communications for that initiative. It turned out to be a pivotal time for me, as I enjoyed it so much that I decided to focus my career around internal communications.
After that I moved into the communications team for the Global Finance function at HSBC, a diverse area of almost 10,000 staff. That role was perhaps where I learned the most about communications; working side-by-side with a number of very talented communication professionals. The role evolved from supporting Global Finance change, to eventually managing Global Finance communication channels.
Eventually I moved to KPMG where I managed communications for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. The role was fantastic in terms of personal growth as I was able to see how another company managed engagement in terms of its channels, culture, etc., and used it to enrich my own skillset. The partnership structure is very different from the traditional corporate hierarchy and so it was great to see the pros and cons of each.
Following that role I moved to Deutsche Bank to run communications for Group Architecture, before eventually moving into my current role, as Head of Communications for the Chief Technology Office. It’s great to be back in financial services, and delivering communications for a technology audience comes with its own unique challenges.
What advice would you give yourself before you hit 30 about your career?
The best advice I could give would be to throw yourself 100 percent into new professional challenges. In the past I had a tendency to be risk averse when it came to my career, but the reality is that the stakes are typically quite low in your 20s, particularly if you do not yet have a family to look after. This means you can afford to take risks and go for every opportunity that comes your way. I learned as much from my negative professional experiences as from the positive ones.
In your experience what are the big challenges of the communications field in terms of a career?
I always think that one of the hardest tasks people face in relation to their career is simply deciding what career to pursue in the first place – yet the faster you can specialise, the easier it is to progress. This is certainly true of communications, where there are several different areas to choose from depending on your skill set. These include internal communications, external communications, public relations, government relations, investor relations and of course, marketing.
On the flip side, specialising in a particular industry can make it hard to move out of that industry later on, as recruiters will often look for industry-specific experience. As a result, I would say that if you can diversify your industry experience early in your career, it will always give you more options later on.
Your role involves up to 10,000 people at a huge multi-national banking firm. What are the positives of such a high-pressure position?
Managing communications for such a large number of people is fantastic because it forces you to constantly try to see things from another person’s perspective. When crafting a communication there are so many things to consider – Will this be clear to someone that speaks English as a second language? Does this message work for senior people and junior staff? Does it work for technical experts and non-technical employees? Does it conflict with anything you have said in the past? Another great thing is the sheer variety of requests that comes with a large global audience. At any one time, there will always be a variety of business challenges going on around the world and you have to be prepared to adapt to them as they appear.
What advice could you offer students now in terms of how they approach a career in communications?
The most important skill you need in communications is an ability to write well, so invest time in honing that ability. One of the best ways to do this is simply to read news articles. Choose magazines, newspapers and websites that relate to your chosen industry and read as much as you can. Get a sense of how the articles are structured and the language they use. When you start to write, ask for feedback from people you trust. Was your message clear? Did you need to get to the point quicker? Is there jargon that needs to be better explained?
Always remember that people in your company are typically very busy, so be sure to keep any communications short and punchy.
A big thanks to Michael for all of this great advice! If you found this advice useful, we have several other interviews available covering a wide variety of topics. Take a look at them by clicking here.