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How I Got to Where I Am – From Cars to Cosmetics

By Clare Mak

I have a friend who has known since the age of 5 that he wanted to be a fireman when he grew up and is now exactly that. I, on the other hand, was not lucky enough to have such clarity on the career I wanted.

When it came time to pick a university course in Year 12, I ended up choosing to do a double degree in Commerce and Arts – something that would keep my options relatively open and allow me to procrastinate making hard decisions around selecting a career path to follow for a few more years.  The practical side in me directed me down the path of Accounting in my Commerce degree, whilst I was able to indulge my personal curiosity in my Arts degree where I studied Political Science and Chinese. I figured eventually the combination of these study areas would eventually help me find a career post-study.

By the end of the 3rd year of studying, I still had no idea what I wanted to do, still didn’t understand how accounting debits and credits worked and was totally over study. An opportunity to do a one year co-operative placement at Ford Motor Company was advertised in the Commerce Faculty’s email spam which seemed like a good excuse to defer for a year. I applied and was placed in the Marketing and Sales Finance Team as a Business Analyst where I got my first bitter-sweet taste of the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday lifestyle.

My responsibilities were mostly around looking after the accounting for vehicles that were being imported, generating monthly finance reports, and helping to monitor and manage the budgets of marketing managers. I learned all about cars, how to market cars, and more importantly, finally nailed the accounting debits and credits as I got to see how this worked in real life. However, whilst I became a competent bean counter during this time, it also made me realise that it was the least enjoyable aspect of my job. In fact, I found it boring as all hell and swore off accounting from that point onwards. The part I really enjoyed was with helping to price new vehicles which involved working closely with the in-house strategy team. This is when I decided I wanted to be where the action was and work in the part of the business that was forward-looking and set the business agenda, rather than creating retrospective shelf ware.

At the end of my time at Ford, I waved goodbye to my colleagues and went back to study, inspired by the epiphany I had about the sort of career I wanted. I switched from accounting to finance and investigated what careers were out there that would allow me to impact the direction of a business, whilst not locking me into anything too specialised in the long term. Two career choices were consistently mentioned – Investment Banking and Management Consulting.

Whilst I loved studying finance, Investment Banking just sounded a bit too stressful and hard-core and my love for finance wasn’t strong enough to justify pursuing a career in this field. Management consulting on the other hand was this mysterious career that didn’t seem to fixate on a competency or an industry which appealed to the commitment-phobe in me. However whilst this career with no boundaries and lots of variety sounded great, no-one, not even management consultants themselves could explain what it was that they did in a way that made sense.  So, I decided that the best way of finding out more was to find out if any of the firms would take on an intern, which is how I ended up spending 5 years in the Strategy and Operations Team at Deloitte.

Looking back on my time at Deloitte, I still don’t really know how to define what it was that I did – as the work was so diverse and varied from project to project. I was able to dabble in a whole range of industries from public sector to mining, postal services to higher education, and retail. And within those industries, I was involved in delivering a range of projects that included defining a multi-channel retail strategy, improving the student experience at a university, optimising the use of mining assets at Queensland coal mines, designing the organisation structure of the merchandising and buying function of a multi-branded retail business and designing processes to manage and monitor licensing of mining and fisheries operations in Victoria. The variety of work and variety of people that I had to work with meant that I had to hone my problem-solving and communication skills, be adaptable and flexible, not daunted by unfamiliar situations and able to learn on the job fast. And I got to travel on other people’s time.

I really enjoyed the schizophrenic nature of the job, however it was starting to take its toll as it did mean certain sacrifices – like not being able to join a regular Tuesday night netball team, as there was the constant threat that you could be shipped off to a far flung corner of the world at a moment’s notice. Or not wanting to commit to buying tickets to see Radiohead, as life after your current project’s end date was a big question mark. It also did mean that you had to sometimes park your personal feelings at the door and pick them up on the way out when you worked for clients whose philosophy or value proposition you didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with or weren’t particularly interested in. On the flipside, it meant that it forced me to think about what I was actually interested in and what was important to me in a job and a career. For me, it had evolved from wanting to work for big businesses and making headline news, to working for a small to medium-sized entrepreneurial businesses, where I would be able to make a direct impact and actually face-off with the owners who had to live and die by the success or failure of their business decisions. And not having to live out of a suitcase!

Via a random conversation at a friend’s Hen’s night and a few interviews later, I was lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to work as an in-house consultant for Cosmetics Cubed, an Australian, family-owned cosmetics retailer more commonly known as Mecca Cosmetica, Kit Cosmetics or Mecca Maxima. In my role as their Business Improvement Manager, it’s allowed me to marry up all the things I enjoyed most about management consulting as I work on a variety of projects that touch different aspects of the business and make decisions with the owners to change the way the business operates. It’s also allowed me to work for a fast-paced, entrepreneurial company whose products and philosophy I can feel passionate about and have more work/life balance than previous jobs (Radiohead, here I come!). For now, this is the perfect job as it meets all the things important to me and is still continuing to stretch me and prepare me for the next step in my career. What that next step is, I don’t know, as I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. However it’s not that important to me to answer that question any more. What’s guided me in making career decisions instead is asking myself if I’m having fun in what I’m doing and making changes if the answer is no.

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