HR SPECIALIST TO FREELANCE WRITER-HR SPECIALIST
A glass of red wine in hand on a Thursday evening, Nicola takes a sip after a busy day on Chancery Lane as a HR Specialist for an intellectual property law firm where she works three days a week. She pauses before sharing an anecdote on the realities of juggling priorities. Around midday, her heart sank as the phone buzzed with a call from her son's Nursery, anticipating bad news, she answered to the announcement of a little bump on his head. She deeply exhales and moves on to tell how much she loves her jobs (emphasis on the plural) then begins to laugh - possibly a sense of disbelief that she's manages to navigate it all? Having a good sense of humour and a dose of optimism is integral when you are a businesswoman like Nicola, and (the elusive) balance is equally as important.
Nicola is a passionate multi-hyphenate, most recently adding freelance writer to her career bow, she navigates the challenges of having two careers - three if we include being a mother - alongside a marriage, being a parent, having a social life, and squeezing in live music whenever she can. She glows when chatting music, gigs, festivals and fashion - all her references spritzed with pop culture recommendations. She manages to convey her character into her composed corporate look with a pair of statement leopard print heels, a stylish black handbag full of purged thoughts on notepads, and her striking fiery red hair; you'd never guess she has her son's socks in her pocket.
She appears to glide through her priorities with grace, determined to perform to the best of her ability, and embrace quality family time too. She seems to achieve this - she happily works both careers and her Instagram shows a cider in hand at StokeFest discovering new artists with her family. Yet, she tells me her accomplishments don't come without sacrifice.
Nicola declared her love for writing (and hairdressing) in primary school homework as a youngster, blogged steadily for 9 years and has taken a creative writing course on the other side of the world - now, that's dedication. She tells me how her professional writing career started - spoiler, it includes a suspected fake email from Jazz FM with an attractive offer - and her realisation that she can adapt her work life to achieve parallel careers. She also offers practical advice on how to replenish your creative energy.
I, for one, am grateful that she got creative with her perspective to pursue writing alongside HR, and her hairdressing aspirations stayed scribbled on those primary school pages. Her beautifully transparent writing can be enjoyed here on her website and you can keep up with her latest festival attendance on her Instagram.
Can you share where your passion for writing came from and where your career started?
My parents are moving home, and we found some of my old primary school work. I answered the question, What do you want to do when you grow up? for a project and I said that I either want to be a hairdresser or a writer for Smash Hits! Magazine. It put a smile on my face as I’ve always loved writing. It’s also a different choice for a young child, perhaps, compared to the typical dream of becoming a doctor.
Fast forward to my A-Levels, and I secured a place at university to read English Literature and Women’s Studies at Chichester University. I felt I had time on my side, so I decided to defer my university place by a year. I remember that time, so clearly, I left college on a Friday and within a couple of days, I had a temporary job to see me through the summer.
I was working as a junior PA to the Chief Executive for a subsidiary of what was the Lloyds TSB Group. It was a sociable place, and I adjusted to working, and I loved the financial independence too. I decided to turn down the university place because of the potential work opportunities. In some ways, I do regret that decision because I would have loved to study, but that’s my 41-year-old self being more rational and analytical. I’ve written a letter to my 18-year-old self about many things including my studying choice (read What I Wish I’d Known, here). I also realise I was content working, and I’m proud that I was happy. I didn’t feel any regret back then, and I was enjoying everything that life had to offer.
People can work for years to get a job in the executive office, so having that opportunity at entry-level is fantastic.
Yes, I definitely felt lucky having that job, and it was a great experience. I got an excellent insight into the inner-workings of the company at an executive level. The job came with quite a bit of responsibility, but there were nice perks too, like a great Christmas party.
Internal changes at the bank meant that I was made redundant early on in my career. I was at a crossroads where I didn’t know if I could pick up the university place again. That’s when I saw a job advertised at the Football Association. I’m a big football fan, and I have been since I was a kid going to Crystal Palace club matches. The FA had set up a subdivision because England was campaigning to host the World Cup and advertised a fixed-term team assistant role. I thought it sounded exciting so I applied and got the job. I was based at the FA headquarters supporting the team and people responsible for liaising with the key international decision-makers. Sadly, we didn’t win the World Cup bid, but it was an unforgettable experience.. I then took on more temping work as I was unsure what I wanted to pursue career-wise.
I had a temporary two-week placement in a HR team at a building management company, in a very administrative job. I had a great manager; she was a young, fun female who was smart and an excellent HR Manager. She took me under her wing - at that point, I hardly knew what a HR team did - my contract got extended for another two weeks, and later I was made permanent with the opportunity to study. The company financed an entry-level CIPD course (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development - the professional HR body), and from then onward, I never looked back. It gave me my career path into HR.
I love that you were so open to whatever job came your way, as long as you enjoyed it. Temping jobs can be underestimated, there’s an assumption that they are to fill a void, but they can lead to some amazing opportunities. My first banking job was a temporary role.
Yes! I remember thinking, is it worth taking a job for two weeks? You get to set up, and then you move on. I wanted more stability, but it turned out to be a big career opportunity. I find it interesting how a quick decision can shape our life experiences - when you are presented with a temporary opportunity by the agency, you make a gut decision with a yes or no. My decision had such a fundamental impact on what I went on to do.
I took quite a traditional route through the HR ranks; I started as a HR Assistant to HR Administrator and then HR Coordinator. I later moved on to another firm and did a postgraduate degree in HR Management. I studied alongside full-time work and juggled a social life.
Do you need a degree to work in HR?
It wasn’t essential for me, but it was encouraged to be a member of the CIPD I’m so glad I did my postgraduate degree, it gave me the theoretical knowledge that I could put into practice on the job. Other students I met wanted to move into HR, so I had the advantage that I was already working a HR job. I felt fortunate because on the course we would go through the practical tasks and I could apply them to my role. I could also take my coursework to my manager and ask to work on projects that would give me experience related to the content, for example, reviewing the induction programme. It was hard work as again I studied alongside full-time work and it involved some residential weekends away, but it was fun too.
I was lucky to work for organisations across different sectors who were able to support me, not just financially but encouraged me too.
How was it moving to a different sector after your first HR job?
I came across my next job at Breast Cancer Care - a HR Coordinator role - through the CIPD monthly magazine, People Management. I stayed for 5 years and loved every minute. Working for Breast Cancer Care played such a fundamental part of my life, socially and professionally. I had a supportive and fun team, and a fantastic manager and I experienced building a department from scratch - there were no policies and procedures at the time I joined because they only had a consultant before a permanent team was in place. Over the years, we recruited over 200 people, and our own team went from two to six people.
I had my first ever management position here where I was responsible for a HR Assistant and temporary staff. The company was one where you could get really involved in fundraising and charity runs; climbing Ben Nevis and running the Great North Run were definitely highlights.
Are your HR expertise transferrable across different industries? I assume the content is similar as it is people-focused?
I have worked in HR jobs in different sectors, including building management, publishing, advertising and marketing, healthcare and legal and this was a conscious choice to broaden my experience.
Upon looking to leave Breast Cancer Care, I had to work hard to explain my move to corporate from a charity. I was able to show my transferrable skills because I believe the people issues are fundamentally the same. The charity where I worked ran efficiently and was fast-paced and progressive, so I had valuable experience, such as working on sound learning and development plans, similar employee engagement issues etc. It was different in terms of budget size, but I was able to draw on examples of restructures, redundancies and other sensitive situations. It was important to demonstrate my ability to support the goals of the business and still be empathetic to employees.
It was bittersweet when I left Breast Cancer Care and decided to move to Australia. At that time, I had no mortgage or relationship ties and the system offered a working visa before you were 30, so I wanted to make the most of that option. My sister also transferred with PWC to Sydney; she was meant to move there for two years, and has been there thirteen!
When I got out there, I signed up to some temping agencies and got a couple of brilliant roles in HR and recruitment. The work was exciting and stimulating, and I also got to leave at 5:30pm to go experience Sydney.
How was it moving to the other side of the world looking to find a job?
I’d underestimated the move. It was a culture shock, not knowing anybody and not being familiar with the city. I didn’t have a plan, and I struggled to see myself staying for more than a month despite my sister being amazing at being a tour guide and organising a fun and full social life. Things felt better when I found a job and somewhere to live. I did two placements and the second one was in the Central Business District, right in the thick of it.
Once I realised I didn’t need to go to the beach, surfing and out to bars all the time I found my own way. I met friends and got back into yoga, going to gigs and checking out secondhand bookshops and markets as well as the other stuff. That’s when I signed up to a creative writing course after work. I couldn’t see myself in Sydney long term because, despite being very sad to leave my sister, I was eager to get back to London and back into my career again. In total I was there for 8 months then travelled.
What made you sign up to the creative writing course?
I was writing travel diaries for personal enjoyment, and I wasn’t writing blogs at that time. I think the decision to find a course was down to loneliness initially. It was an 8-week course, so it was a helpful way of making me stay there and meet new people. When signing up to the course, I would never have considered pursuing writing as a career. The theory of that course has proved to be really useful.
I consider myself to be an ambivert - somewhere between an introvert and an extravert - I love all the socialising but also like to be on my own, reading and writing. I’d never realised at that point in life how important writing was for me. Now I can see it.
What drew you back to London?
It goes against all my feminist principles to say it was my now-husband. [Laughs]
We’d met a couple of months before I left London and hadn’t been on a date as it was a platonic relationship. We kept in contact while I was in Sydney and he came to meet me travelling. We had three weeks travelling the east coast of Australia together. We realised we were more than just friends and we had strong feelings for each other.
I had come to the end of my work placement in Sydney, and the pull home was intense. I went on with my travelling plans to visit Tasmania and New Zealand then returned home. My husband then met me at the airport, he met my parents, and we were engaged a year later. It has definitely worked out.
Love is a great reason to return home.
Yes, it felt like much more than a casual relationship. I moved back home with my parents, and he asked me to stay with him while I was flat hunting; I was meant to stay for two weeks, and that was ten years ago. I never left!
You seem happy to sign up to things for a couple of weeks and see if it turns into anything more! It’s good to invest that time instead of wondering whether it is worth it.
I might be giving myself a get-out clause - I’m not sure!
This was when I pursued the job hunt again for HR jobs. I landed a job in advertising and marketing, which was a cutthroat, fast-paced environment. It was very commercial, it was scary but good for my personal development. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and I found I was more tenacious and resilient. I left after almost two years. It was good for me to recognise what environment best suited my personality.
I returned to Breast Cancer Care in a new team in a more senior position as a Senior HR Business Partner . I went through a really rigorous interview process, and I’m glad I did because I didn’t want anyone to think I had simply been accepted back. I had to prove myself. I fell pregnant there, and I felt lucky to be around really supportive people. I stayed there for 4 years, and this role was my most recent permanent full-time position.
The writing came back into my life when I started my blog - Material Whirl - in 2010. It was purely a hobby alongside my HR career when I was put in touch with the editor of RockShot Mag, an online music magazine, looking for writers. I wrote gig reviews for myself, so I had writing examples to send over. The editor said they’d love to have me on board and that was the first time I had my work published. I blogged frequently, and without realising, I was building up my content.
I wrote about Love Supreme Jazz Festival for RockShot when I got an email from the then Head of Programmes and Content at Jazz FM, Rosie Kendrick. I thought it was a fake email - I couldn't believe it. She had found my blog and asked me to write for them. This was a turning point for me. I did some great assignments, all in the evenings of my full-time job, such as interviewing musicians and attending high profile gigs. This was when I thought seriously about whether I could pursue this professionally.
I interviewed some musicians for Jazz FM that I’ve kept in contact with; last year recently I went out to visit one of them - Guida de Palma - in Lisbon and we met for coffee on the last day and stay in touch now. It’s funny the path that life takes you on.
Was any of the writing paid?
No, at the time it wasn’t, and I hadn’t considered monetising my writing until later. I was compensated through the gig tickets and press passes. I loved having an outlet for my creativity, so I didn’t think about getting paid.
I first monetised my writing when I was approached by the co-founder of Change Gear, a business providing leadership and training development. business coaching, drama based learning as well as HR Consultancy. Carrie Stockton was an HR consultant for one of the organisations I had worked at, and luckily she had stayed in touch. Carrie and her business partner, Karen Christensen, wanted some copy for their marketing materials and I was really happy to be asked. I then realised it was possible to make money from writing and it gave me some serious food for thought.
I had my maternity leave, and I came across a project for a writer I admire, Annie Ridout, who runs The Early Hour. I found out that she was looking for people to interview, which led to me writing for her. I wrote an article named Why I Can’t Give up Writing To Be a Mother. The writing began to creep into my life more, and when I went back to work after maternity leave, something had to give. Going back to a busy role for 4 days per week after maternity leave and with an 8-month old baby was challenging; writing had become such a passion and the opportunities were starting to open up. I felt as though I wasn’t doing either aspect as well as I could.
I had an in-depth discussion with my husband to consider my career options. We asked ourselves questions about the practicalities of balancing two jobs and the initial financial hit. We formed a plan of how I could reduce my days working in HR and increase my writing business. I came to the difficult decision to resign from Breast Cancer Care without a job to go to, which I saw as a massive risk, but one I was willing to take for a fresh start.
Once I left my job, I began looking for a 3-day a week HR job, so that meant I would have one day with my son and one day dedicated to writing. It gave me some time to stop and think about what was next. I was used to writing in the evenings, so spending a full day writing sounded luxurious, and I wasn’t sure at first if I had enough work to keep me busy.
I was on the search for the right HR job - 3-days a week, a specific salary and based in London. It took time to find the right one because I initially thought I would follow the natural progression to Head of HR. I realised that role would be too demanding for a part-time position, and I wanted to avoid working on my writing day or day with my son as I had been so used to juggling; I wanted to give myself the space to do things ‘properly’ (the elusive ‘balance’!). My writing began building up, and then I gained two/three clients. I was driven to carve out this perfect week, and I could give myself permission to write guilt-free as long as I found that HR job.
I started working for my current law firm, EIP, an intellectual property firm in Chancery Lane, and it’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve been there for over a year, working 3-days a week as HR Specialist, focusing on employee engagement. This opportunity has allowed me not only continue to enjoy my HR career in a fast-paced, interesting and friendly environment, but also to transition from a blog to a writing business.I’ve only adopted that mindset in the last 6 months. I’m no longer a HR person that writes in my spare time - I’m a freelance writer.
I’ve been able to get to this headspace through a business coach - Nathalina Harrison at Ayama Coaching - and fighting against the horrible imposter syndrome. Now I’m comfortable with assuming the title of a freelance writer and offering my writing services, and I’m happy to explore clients’ business needs.
I find it interesting that you felt guilty for pursuing work that you enjoyed and realised that you could monetise it later on, what was the main challenge you faced?
Money. By reducing my HR days to 3 per week (from 5, then 4 after maternity leave), I had a drop in my salary, and my writing work isn’t guaranteed as it’s variable. I have one client that I work with every month and all other work changes; some months I’ll have 6 pieces and others I may have 3. I’ve had to remind myself that it’s crucial to have my invoices paid on time and be assertive and chase if they aren’t.
I’m still learning all the time from this massive life change, and I’m allowing myself to reflect. I’m also considering where I want to go next.
What have you learnt from starting your business?
You can learn so much from attending business networking groups and connecting with the Instagram community. It's been useful to realise that others are on the same page and face the same challenges. We are here to support each other's work - it's so important to do that.
There's a lot to fit in when running a business, so it's a challenge to squeeze into one day - there's pitching, scheduling, responding to potential new business, being visible on Instagram, meeting new clients and actually doing the work to deliver on deadlines. I've learnt not to get frustrated when I can't fit do it all. I compartmentalise both my jobs - writing and HR - and ensure they don't cross over. I can spend other parts of my day dedicated to my writing business by replying to emails on my commute or using lunchbreaks to catch up - this helps to keep the wheels turning. When I'm in my HR job on a Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, I'm entirely focused because I have to be (and want to be) and so I keep the two parts of my life very separate, apart from when I write about HR-related topics!
I need to be careful with my time management to ensure I don't get that panicky feeling with all I have to do in limited time. I do this by being organised with lists; I use Wunderlist on my phone and split my to-do-list into specific categories. Sometimes I'm so busy that it can feel a little ridiculous, and especially with all the incredible but full on aspects of being a parent - but as I love it, it's not painful. I get such enjoyment out of writing; it can sometimes be worth the lack of sleep.
I'm currently reading a book my friend gave me called How to Not Always Be Working, she handed it to me with a knowing look!
Do you foresee your career balance needing to change in the future?
I’ve had a session on this with my coach, and she got me thinking more strategically on how I spend my time. She also made me realise that the day I spend with my son will be free next year when he goes to school - not that I can bring myself to think about that prospect yet! Practically, it means I will have a day free.
My coach asked me questions that made me see things differently, and I’d recommend others to find a coach. I connected with Nat through an excellent business network called Hive Collective in Walthamstow where I live, as she is one of the business partners there alongside Carmel King, a freelance photographer.
Being creative can use so much energy, how do you replenish your creative energy?
I can feel quite depleted after writing. I tend to set targets to complete pieces of work and send out pitches, and sometimes that’s not the best idea. You shouldn’t push yourself and force it. If I’m on a roll, then that’s great, but often I don’t have the perfect day. One of the techniques I’ve picked up is to walk away from my writing. If my head does buzz too much, I will take that as a sign to take time away and stop. It enables you to come back with a fresh mind and perspective. Sometimes I’ve left a piece for a week, and I find new information that I can weave into my ideas.
There is no way of keeping to my perfectly curated week - having assigned days for different jobs, and there is always overspill. I always work in the gaps!You may see me out all day, unknowingly with a football sticker on my neck. At work recently, I put my hand in my pocket looking for a tissue and found my son’s socks.
What’s your advice to new writers looking for their first paid job?
I would say research. I find Instagram the most useful social media platform; start by following writers that you like. I’ve found the female writing community particularly helpful. Research writers to see how they operate, what they write about, and how they go about sharing their work. I reached out to a really lovely writer called Amy Abrahams, who I have a shared connection with and she gave me some great advice.
I wrote some tips on career change for a client which people may find useful: Should You Change Your Career in 2018? And How?.
When it comes to rate-setting, it can be a minefield. A book that I found useful was Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba. It’s such a lovely size to fit into my packed bag, and there is some excellent advice on how to set your rate. It’s a good starting point. I reached out to local writers to ask how they set their rates. They sent me their list of questions, like how much work is involved? How many words? How long will it take? Is it an opinion piece, or will it need research? And think about what they would consider their hourly rate to be.
Another good tip I got from Otegha’s book is to ask your client what their budget is. You can put the question back on them to see if you are underselling yourself. I used this book to increase my rates with one of my clients, and I like to think I did it graciously and professionally because it was successful.
What would you say to anyone starting out in a new career?
Create some space to allow yourself to consider your options with a clear head away from family and friends, and put the hours in. Career transitions take some hard graft if you are serious about it. To get my website finished alongside getting all my work done on time, I had to say no to social events, cancel on lunches and work until the early hours once my son was in bed.
If you are passionate about something, you need to be prepared to make some sacrifices. I felt dreadful cancelling on my friends, but I hope that they understand, and I am lucky that they support me and are there for me. Also, I realise that everyone else is really busy too; and I think most people love some time back for self-care.
Do you have any projects you are currently working on that you're excited about?
I am about to launch a series called 'My Kind of Influencer’ where I can write about my admiration for people like Otegha Uwagba and Jameela Jamil.
Emma Gannon's approach and book, The Multi-Hyphen Method was an inspiration for me. It sparked the idea that I could enjoy my career and also have a side hustle that is a business. I love how Emma has crafted her career, and it inspires me to take mine in a similar direction. I have always wanted to write, and sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m finally doing it... slowly, but surely.
Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I admire your career creativity, pursuing something you genuinely love.