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Career profile: Matthew Sinclair, writer and consultant, Play At Work

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Get to know your peers in the leadership community through our career profile series. Today, we talk to Matthew Sinclair, writer and consultant at Play At Work.

Basic details

Name: Matthew Sinclair

Job: Writer & consultant, Play At Work Ltd (pokingthecage.com)

Current employer: Myself

CV in brief:

•    1997-1999 Copywriter, TMP Worldwide
•    2000-2005 Producer, Freelance
•    2005-2010 Brand consultant, Freelance
•    2010-2015 Executive creative director, SMRS​

A day in the life

Tell us about your job and organisation

For the first time in my career, I don’t really feel I have a job. My job is living my life. A significant proportion of that life is working – researching, writing, creating, brainstorming, work-shopping, presenting, consulting (I have to make a living) – but it doesn’t feel like work, it just feels like what I do. Play, at work. That’s my philosophy. When it all comes together, the right role in the right culture; when you find yourself in your natural habitat, work feels like play. Hence the name of my consultancy business, Play At Work.

Who do you report into?

No one on paper, but I don't really see it that way. As a blogger, writer and twitterer, though my voice in many spaces is unrestrained, I do have a strong sense of professional/journalistic responsibility and so, in that sense, I think I kind of report into my audiences. Likewise with clients or audiences at public speaking events. If they don't like what you're saying, they won't ask you back. They won't read you. That's like being fired. 

Tell us about your team.

Far from being a lone ranger (though I am, essentially, a sole trader), I feel part of many different teams. The process of writing a book, which I've been doing over the last year, is a real team effort, for all the hours spent in solitude with my MacBook. Any client relationship is about joining a team, for however limited period of time. When consulting, my job is to help client teams find their own ways to disrupt their thinking and stretch their imaginations. I'm an injection of something different into the team, but the outcome I want to achieve is to help the team feel more confident, less vulnerable, with each other, and without me.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

Seeing people come alive to possibilities. Helping people find their voice. Their creativity. I had a great compliment the other day from a client which I think does articulate what I see as my purpose, whether as a writer or consultant: "You've really enhanced my thinking." If I can do that, in any capacity, I'm doing good work.

What is the most challenging part of the role? 

I think it can be hard to keep momentum when you're the one you're following, but what's been so different for me this time around in going it alone has been the context, contacts and comfort offered by social media. You're really not alone, or don't have to be, any more. There are zillions of conversations to be had. That's the real challenge making time for them.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There really is no such thing and that's kind of the point. I have no clock. I don't like routine. Home is my work base and that works well for me. Being bang in the middle of Shoreditch – with so many people concentrating on being achingly cool around me and an ever-spinning kaleidoscope of faces, outfits, street art and street life to observe even when I'm in shut-in writing mode, there's plenty to keep me entertained. 

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

I think every career change I've made has been driven by the same core goal: to put my money where my mouth is. When I left advertising to work in TV, I wanted to prove to myself I could work in another sector, another medium. When I joined SMRS, I wanted to prove to myself I could do a full time role after a decade of freelancing, and was there for five years. Having completed my five year plan there, I came to the realisation that the next thing I wanted to prove to myself was whether I could have a career where I could speak freely with my voice, and, for the first time, put into the world ideas directly attributed to me (including proving to myself I could write a book). So far, so good...

Perks and downsides of your role?

Owning my own time and schedule; not having to commute; being able to work with people in lots of different capacities in lots of different areas of interest; these are the massive perks of my role. The paperwork is always the downside for me.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?

Self-motivation, a confidence in what I have to say, the ability to really listen to people, an elastic brain, and a real desire to help people, schmaltzy as that sounds. 

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

I don't honestly know. I think I realised about two years ago the thickest strand running through my career was the study of work. I've spent twenty years, on and off, interviewing people about their work in just about every possible working environment you can think of. Not many careers provide that insight. Realising that was a USP has certainly shaped what I'm doing today.

What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study?

I was an out and proud creative type from the off and loved Art, English and Drama, though I was a pretty good all-rounder (except when it came to rounders, or any sport come to think of it). I studied English at Queen Mary, University of London with Drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama. 

What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?

My first proper job was as a trainee copywriter at advertising agency TMP Worldwide. I got the job because of a work experience placement after uni, and, I hate to say it, but I got the work experience placement because my father had been a client. I think that's why I'm so passionate about social mobility and careers for young people: if Daddy hadn't had his career, his network, I don't know how mine would have got started. Too many get their starts that way. Yes, I earned the job, but it was my luck to be there in the first place. Not everyone has such luck.

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

I didn't really have one. I believed hard work and determination would stand me in good stead, and it has. I always have a rough map somewhere in my mind, but I'm also a great believer life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

Loads of challenges! Always challenges! I'm a disruptive talent, I have big ideas, and it's taken me a long time to learn how to truly bring others with you. I think one of my biggest challenges has been my rather dominant personality and Cassandra complex I can see what's coming but have been too impatient to fill in the gaps for others. I've done a lot of work on that, slowing down, giving others more space, breaking things down more. I can focus intensely for a very long time, I can just keep going. It does me good to remember others need a break one in a while.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?

I've had some crazy jobs but I don't think I've ever had to do anything crazy to land them.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Most recently, finishing the first draft of my manuscript for my book. I always have wanted to write a book, and just getting something complete feels like a massive achievement. The minute I finished the last page, I thought, I could write another, I know I could write another book now. That was the best feeling.

Do you have any career regrets?

There were probably a couple of times where I got too comfortable and could have moved on sooner. I could have been bolder at times. But no, not really. I think where you're at is usually where you need to be at any given time. Sometimes it's okay to be comfortable when there are other things going on in your life.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Be more audacious. Don't ever let the limit of someone else's imagination limit yours.

Either/or

  • Coffee or tea? Coffee (not much, not often)
  • Jam or marmalade? Jam (Strawberry I like anything strawberry flavoured, including the real thing)
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Tough call, but due to lots of spooky personal connections, it has to be the Stones.
  • Mac or PC? Mac it's all so much shinier.
  • The Guardian or The Times? Like a blend of both, but perhaps The Times.
  • BBC or ITV? BBC. It's torn apart by so many, does, indeed, have many flaws, but there are just too many things it does where it's unbeatable.
  • M&S or Waitrose? M&S. You don't have to think much, and I don't like to think too much at all when it comes to food or food preparation. I have a very user-unfriendly kitchen.
  • Morning or night? Night. Definitely night. I'm a terrible night owl, always have been. 
  • Rain on snow? Rain. Snow is fun for a day or three, then it gets dirty and annoying. Rain provides infinite variety and invariably comes on cue for suitable moments in life. I hope it rains at my funeral!
  • Sweet or savoury? Sweet. I am cursed with sugar addition. I could happily make you a three-course meal in Haribo.

Favourites

  • App: Twitter. I'd avoided all active participation in social media for over a decade. Within the space of a year, I'm quite the evangelist.
  • TV show: I surprised myself and really enjoyed Stranger Things on Netflix. Not a big sci-fi guy, though can always watch Winona, but I got totally sucked in, indulged in the nostalgia and binge-watched the whole thing.
  • Band: I've rediscovered Primal Scream this summer. Screamadelica defined a summer many moons ago; it's great to revive that spirit again. 
  • Song: My music tastes are extremely Catholic, but, at a push, I'd have to say the voice I find the most electrifying is Nina Simone's. Even at its purest, I guess it's also a kind of primal scream, at its most liberated and motivational on Feeling Good.
  • Book: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I was an Alice-like child – curious, righteous, logical and politely (most of the time) outspoken. In many ways I still find myself like Alice, trying to make sense of a nonsensical world.
  • Sports team: I'm not a big team sports viewer (or participant, to be perfectly frank). The team I am guaranteed to be rooting for is the Williams sisters. For me, there's no one as spellbinding in sport as Venus and Serena.
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Cocktails on a roof terrace bathed in the setting sunlight (as long as there's somewhere to sit or, even better, lie).
  • Place to eat: J Sheekey I even have a favourite table!
  • Holiday spot: There's a little oasis in Morocco that's hard to beat and, quite rarely for me, I really love the food.
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: You're never going to see any of these people ever again in your life.
Sarah Clark

By Sarah Clark

Changeboard

Online features editor at Changeboard

Changeboard

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