In the Hot Seat: Barney O'Kelly, Freshfields

Barney O'Kelly of Freshfields chats with us about motivation, inspiration, and making it in comms

Following the success of our Global Power Book #PRProSeries, we continue exploring the careers of the most powerful communications pros around the world today. Grant Somerville, Consultant at Hanson Search, sits down with Barney O'Kelly, Global Head of Communications at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, to find out how he made it in the industry.

How did you get into communications?

Initially, it was just something that interested me. I was lucky, I started my career without any real plan and landed at BAE Systems. I worked in the events department there actually and that was a great introduction to the organisation. However, I felt there was a little bit more I wanted to do. I tried being a business intelligence analyst before moving into marketing and communications. Like I said, I’ve been lucky. I've stumbled into really interesting roles and had some amazing opportunities as a result.

What personal attributes have most helped you succeed in your career?

I like people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. That’s always helpful. If you think in that way – and many people in communications do – it makes you good at building relationships. That is what the professional world is largely based on. I’m also a quick learner and that means that I’ve been able to turn my hand to a variety of things – which is important as I have a low boredom threshold. I haven’t had to stick to any one path.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

It’s not a career challenge as such. It’s something that happens to everyone, but working through your career in your late 20s is really difficult. It’s when you work incredibly hard for the least amount of reward. I think that’s when you start to wonder if you’ve chosen the right path, if you’re doing the right thing. It’s not a nice time. I found that difficult. I wanted respect and appreciation that I probably wasn’t ready for. My expectations and reality were probably a little bit out of whack. As you become more senior, you have to redefine what your contribution is and that’s hard. I think it’s because your instinct can be to operate in the areas where you feel you can add value, which isn’t necessarily where your organisation expects you to be operating.

Is there one crucial moment that has changed the course of your career?

There are probably a few. There was a point in my career when I had to decide whether I wanted to work in marketing or communications. Deciding on the latter was the right choice in the end. Joining Freshfields was also challenging. I had been at BAE for 11 years and it was all I knew. I was lucky to have worked with great people and had great opportunities, but I needed to move on. After 11 years that was a big leap, as was moving into a partnership. I struggled with it for a long time, but the 4.5 years I’ve been here have been the most professionally rewarding I’ve had in terms of achievement, accomplishment and learning about myself.

Who is the most inspiring person you have worked with?

There are several. Charlotte Lambkin was younger than I am now when she took on the BAE job. She built a good team and she was good fun to work with. I admire her greatly. She’s gone on to a great job at Diagio. It clearly suits her. Out of my colleagues at BAE, Lindsay Walls is excellent. She’s one of those people you know will probably end up being your boss, but you don’t resent it as she’s technically excellent, highly professional and great fun to spend time with.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

One was from an American colleague in the context of changing jobs. She said, “Always make sure you’re running towards something, and not away from something”, which is a very good piece of advice and has informed my decisions about jobs. The second was “you should only be able to do 70% of the job, otherwise you’re not learning anything”. Those two things have stuck with me and they’re pieces of advice I have passed on to others. I think they’re sound maxims.

In ten years’ time, what do you think the biggest changes will be in the global communications industry?

That’s one hell of a question. I am torn between saying I think the expectations of what a communications function can do, and where it fits, will continue to rise among senior c suite figures. And I think the reality of what communications functions can and will deliver is often some way short of that. The obvious answer here is around digitisation but that hasn’t changed comms, it’s just added another front and I think people are still sharing information with one another. Yes, how we do that will adapt and evolve, but the fundamental principles of saying something interesting and something engaging will still be around.

What three words best describe you as a communicator?

Swiss army knife. I like to think I can turn my hand to a lot of things. Although I can’t get stones out of horses’ hooves nor would I want to try.

How do you keep yourself motivated?

I think for me the real ingredients are interesting work and interesting people. As long as you’ve got those it’s quite easy to stay motivated. Everyone has bad days, some days you wish you hadn’t gone into work and other days you jump out of bed thinking “I’ve got this to do”. The underlying things that make you look forward to work is the interesting work and the interesting people. I’m lucky to have that.

Why did you to move to Freshfields?

I needed a new challenge. I had a very varied role at BAE but it was largely quite unusual jobs. I did a bit of marketing, a bit of PR and then I was in one of the smaller businesses and had this odd portfolio role, part of which was digital. In a rare moment in my life, I had the foresight to recognise the importance of digital and dabble enthusiastically in something that was interesting new, and gave you a platform. I’d kind of run out of road at BAE and when I saw the role at Freshfields I thought it seemed interesting because overwhelmingly, communications roles are about change. I liked the idea of engaging with pretty smart people with strong views. It seemed like the right move instinctively and that’s how I ended up here.

If you weren’t working in communications, what would you be doing instead?

Stunt man or chef. Realistically now, chef is the only one available unless somebody fat and old needs a stunt double… I worked in kitchens when I left school. I’m not classically trained so I can make very extravagant things but struggle to boil eggs. The thing that I liked about cooking is there’s no residual stress. It's high tempo and frenetic in service, but you don’t take it home with you. The team work is phenomenal and you’re doing something that delights and satisfies people at a pretty fundamental level.

How can Hanson Search help?

If you are looking for the best talent in PR and communications, industry insights, or careers advice, please don’t hesitate to contact me on grants@hansonsearch.com for a confidential discussion.

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