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What I learned becoming a gen Z company director

What I learned becoming a gen Z company director

Hi Tilly. We hear a lot about gen Z in think pieces, but we don’t hear enough from actual gen Z talent. But here you are…

Yes, I’m 24 and, weirdly, a gen Z board director at Wilderness since August 2020. I’m its operations and people director.

I started working straight out of college, at 18, with an internship at a PR agency. I moved to Wilderness as their first operational hire.

Did you always know that university wasn’t the right path for you?

University never appealed as a route for me into the workplace. I was more of a hustler. I liked a day job and getting my paycheck at the end of it.

When I made the decision to not go to university, I said, ‘By the time my friends graduate, I have to be ahead of them. I have to be in a role that they cannot land with a degree.’

I had to find a paid internship because I was traveling from Sussex up to London every day. Paid internships are hard to find, which is criminal, but I luckily found one that just about covered my travel costs.

Why operations?

First I was office manager, but it quickly moved into operations. I had full oversight of the finances, took over payroll, then started picking up HR duties. It was a little bit of everything. I did some PR too, because it was an opportunity to learn that skillset.

I liked being a jack of all trades. I think that’s also why I didn’t go to university; there was never a course where I thought, ‘this is something I’m so interested in, I’m willing to spend a lot of money and get a lot of debt for a few years to pursue it.’

What was Wilderness like when you joined?

It was around 18 people; they were growing 50% to 100% year-on-year to a place where Tom [Jarvis, founder and chief executive officer of Wilderness] couldn’t do everything himself anymore. He wanted to bring someone in to open an office, take over finance duties and lead on HR.

I remember in my interview saying: “If you want someone who knows anything about social media, don’t hire me. I may appear gen Z, but I don’t have anything. I’m still an egg on LinkedIn.”

I was adamant that I’d only be here for two years because once I’ve learned enough, I need to move on and learn something new. But Tom said he needed me for at least five years. I’ve been here for three now, so he’s winning the debate.

Was it weird overseeing payroll and talent at such a young age?

I 100% had imposter syndrome. But if I go into something knowing I don’t know it, I know I’ll find out the answer and learn something along the way. I trust the previous experience that I’ve had. I’ve made mistakes – everyone does – but I do what’s fair and what’s right. I don’t make a ton of enemies and piss a load of people off in the process.

Tom is amazing at being a visionary, but sometimes he needs an operational person to say, ‘that’s a lovely idea [but] it won’t ever work.’ It was tough to build trust with him because he’s handing so much responsibility over to, basically, a child. I don’t know why he did that.

Was the promotion a shock?

Tom sprung it on me. The night before a board meeting, he said: “I need you to join this call tomorrow.” He just threw me in. And I instantly was put at ease.

I wasn’t a board director at that point. When I became a director, I had to deliver against the title.

I didn’t initially realize that my name was going to be on company’s house; I’d have a legal responsibility for this business. I was like, ‘OK, I don’t even own my own home.’ But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want that responsibility.

What have you learned along the way?

There’s so much that I’m still learning. When I hit that promotion, it taught me that it can be rewarding to grow within a role rather than grow out of one.

Instead of spending the next six months relentlessly chasing the next opportunity, I’m chasing confidence within this role. Confidence, not comfort, because I think comfort in a job in my 20s is terrifying.

I’ve learned a lot about how much I care about being liked. Now I value being trusted and respected by my team a lot more than being liked. You can do an amazing job and have a very happy team. And you don’t have to be friends with them. I do have friends at work, but my job sometimes is to make decisions that people won’t be happy with. I went through a phase having ‘tough skin,’ but now it’s more about sharing knowledge and making sure that my team is on board, knowing who isn’t on board, and having a plan for all of those scenarios.

Has your age ever been an issue for other staff?

When I was initially taking over payroll there were people who kicked up a fuss, saying: “I don’t want an 18-year-old knowing what I’m being paid” and “She won’t put the right money in my account.” I mean, fair enough. I hadn’t done it before.

I took away certain staff food benefits when I first joined. That didn’t go down well. Biscuits are politics at work.

Mostly, it’s shocked me that I haven’t had much resistance. Wilderness is very young – most of our workforce are gen Z or millennials.

Where does the ambition end? Chief operating officer? Chief exec?

I want to have my own business. I have no idea what it would be or what we would do. Here I can learn everything without the risk of doing it completely on my own. I’ve been very upfront about that.

I’ve learned that it has to be something that I’m interested in. Tom is genuinely interested in digital, and that inspires the whole team.

Would you recommend your path to a younger friend?

100%. Apprenticeships are so valuable. You get a qualification and real experience at the same time. I had a misconception that it was only if you wanted to be an electrician or a plumber that you could do an apprenticeship. But there are so many in the digital industry and, depending on the job, you don’t necessarily need a degree. In social media, or an operations role, experience trumps a qualification.

And if you don’t have experience, aptitude can trump a qualification. You need to be adaptable, fast-paced and a team player. Those are the qualities I look for when I’m hiring. We don’t hire as many graduates as before. It used to be a standard, but why? What does that give them?

Tilly Morgan, Operations & People Director in conversation with The Drum

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