Isabel Berwick, FT Work and Careers Editor: My career journey so far, predictions for the future of work and the importance of humanity in the workplace.
Welcome to the Life at FT blog: a place where you can get an inside perspective on our workplace, people and culture.
In this instalment of the Life at FT Blog, we hear from Isabel Berwick, the FT’s Work & Careers Editor and host of our 'Working It' podcast on her career journey at the FT so far, her predictions on the future of work and her advice to aspiring journalists or individuals looking to work in the world of news media.
What was your childhood or ambition and did that lead you to where you are at in your career today?
I really wanted to be an archaeologist or an Egyptologist. I was really nerdy and I learnt Latin, but I was really bad at Ancient Greek, so I had to give up that ambition. However, the biggest clue about what I really wanted to do was the fact that I used to make little magazines for my dolls and I had a mini newsagents.
Who was or still is your mentor?
When I started work in the early 90s, I don't think the word mentoring was even a word. I
never had a mentor. More senior people really tended to only interact with you on a transactional basis. I haven't had mentors, but I've had bosses I've really looked up to and I think the quality that they all had was that they brought their humanity into the office - and that was quite unusual at the start of my career. I always looked for authority figures who are actually ‘themselves’ at work - and kind. Kindness is a really underrated virtue. I'm delighted that mentorship and sponsorship are a really big part of the workplace now.
If your 20 year old self could see you now, what would she think?
She would be amazed at the journey I’ve been on and the changes in me as a person. I was really quiet at university. I was overawed by the very loud and confident men, so I think I would be amazed at how much of a voice I have. And now I feel quite strongly it's my duty to give other people a voice.
What were you doing prior to working at the FT?
1999/2000 was the first dotcom bubble and that's when I came to the FT. Before that I was the Personal Finance editor and the Business editor for the (now defunct) Independent on Sunday. Being the business editor of a national newspaper in my early 30s really made me feel I was going places. Then I got pregnant and had kids and then my career slowed slightly and took a few sideways turns. Mine was definitely an example of a 'Jungle Gym' career, ie. it didn't always go straight upwards.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I'm a massive Game of Thrones fan and I was able to interview George R.R Martin for Lunch with the FT. I went on a Game of Thrones tour in Iceland and saw where they filmed it. On a less shallow note, I think becoming a podcast host has been the most amazing transition for a print journalist like me. Audio is a completely different skill set, so it's incredibly rewarding.
What would you say would be your greatest lesson you have learnt throughout your career?
Earlier in my career, I was often told off by my bosses for essentially bringing myself to work, talking about children, having to take time off to go to their appointments - and working part time. I held on and now it's paid off because I've come to this audio place where I am hosting -as myself. The greatest lesson, I think, is not to let go of who you are and your values.
You’ve previously been a Personal Finance Reporter, Deputy Editor of the FT Magazine, Commissioning Editor for Life & Arts and Associate Editor of the Comment Section. How did you find it & which part did you enjoy the most?
Working on FT Weekend was most closely aligned with my interests outside work. At one point I worked on the books desk for 18 months and I absolutely loved it. Reading is my happy place and what better than doing a job that is your hobby? I was on the Comment desk during the Brexit vote. There is nowhere better at the FT to be at the heart of the action, editing the work of wonderful columnists like Martin Wolf and Gideon Rachman. I still sit with the comment desk and I can't tell you how exciting and buzzy and fun it is.
How would you describe a career at the FT to someone who doesn't know much about us as an organisation?
I’d say that a career at the FT is as flexible as you want it to be. For journalists there’s the chance to work abroad - and I wish I had done that - and to develop skills in all sorts of different areas. The new horizons for the media - digital projects, newsletters, audio, video and beyond - give you the chance to take your storytelling or production skills beyond the written word. I’m not going to pretend it’s all been smooth - I had some tough times juggling work and life, back when the FT (& industry in general) was more of a long hours culture and part time work was less common. That’s changed completely in recent years - we have made genuinely huge strides in becoming an inclusive workplace. But what has mainly kept me here for two decades is the quality and integrity of the work we do, and the talented and inspiring colleagues and friends I have met along the way.
What are your predictions for the future of working life?
Firstly, in terms of working from home, a lot of companies are on three days a week back
in the office and that might creep up to four if we go into a recession. The balance of power might shift back a bit more to bosses suggesting their staff should come in more. But if you take the Great Resignation as an example, people will leave if they don't like the conditions they're offered. Secondly, AI and tech is really going to change the way we work. It's hard to say how that's going to impact us. Drudge work being done by AI is
going to save us time but it will make it even more important that we have those people
skills - collaboration, communication, empathy.
If you had to describe the value of the work & careers content that you write/talk about in 1 or 2 sentences to a prospective listener, how would you articulate it?
Developing your career and navigating the workplace. How we as humans interact with work
-andwe have a particular focus on looking around the corner. The USP for the Working It podcast is that you can listen to this 15 minute podcast, read this newsletter and it's going to give you something extra at work and an insight into what's coming down the pipeline in six months time. How to get ahead in your career or a skill that you could learn in your spare time. We don't always hit the mark but that's the overall aim. We are nearly at 1m downloads so a lot of people are looking for workplace insight and advice !
If you had any advice to anyone starting out or on their own journey in their career what would it be?
Don't be too picky about what it is that you're doing. For example, at the start of my
career, I worked on a medical magazine. I went around the country talking to family doctors about what computer systems they had. Not the most thrilling job you may think but I had such fun and I learnt a lot. I went on to write about pensions and mortgages for about 12 years. Again, no passion of mine, but if you're learning new skills, if you get on with your colleagues, if you get up in the morning and want to go to work, what you're actually doing is not the most important thing, is it? Ask yourself: is it helping my personal and professional development? Am I miserable? Am I going to take this knowledge and use it or build on it?
Was it transferable knowledge to interview doctors
about their computer systems? Yes, it was. I learned how to interview, how to deal with all sorts of people and how to explain complex things to our readers in normal English.
I was desperate to go and write about gigs or books or other cool stuff. Now I advise people to just leave your coolness behind and embrace what your career brings.
Where would you see your career going beyond this podcast?
I was insanely ambitious as a young woman. I got to quite a high point, quite young. Then it all went a bit pear shaped when my kids were small, as it did for a lot of women in my generation. Partly that was my choice because I didn't want to work 60 hours a week when I had small kids. I don't think I would make different choices now. I feel what makes me excited now is that older women or older people generally are starting to be much more valued in the workplace. I don't know where my career is going to take me, but I really hope it can be something to do with passing on skills or lifting people up. I still love working at the FT but I don't feel the kind of naked ambition I once did because I am older, wiser and know what matters and what doesn’t.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
It actually depends on what success means to you. They're both important but I would say
ambition to make a successful and a balanced life. Ambition at work is very important but not at the expense of success in other areas of your life.