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Belfast-born Leanne Ross studied Communication, Advertising and Marketing at Jordanstown, graduating with a BSc Hons in Communication, Advertising and Marketing in 2006. Having carved out a successful career in the marketing industry in Northern Ireland, Leanne emigrated to New Zealand in 2016 and it was there that an array of exciting opportunities unfolded, allowing her to achieve many of her long-term career goals.

Can you give us an overview of what you currently do?

I am the Executive Director of the New Zealand Game Developers Association. NZGDA is a non-profit interactive media advocacy group serving New Zealand’s vibrant game development community of over 3,000 individual members and 50+ studios. We support industry growth, promote professional development, prepare the next generation and advocate for diversity.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Recently, my team in my previous role (Director of Marketing and Communications at Otago Polytechnic) won a national marketing award for sector excellence. It was for our campaign after the first lockdown, for which I wrote the strategy. That role was without doubt one of the most challenging of my career.

During my first week onboarding, my Dad had a heart attack but I couldn’t fly home. The first Covid lockdown came six weeks later and I had to lead the Comms strategy for an organisation of some 10,000 students and staff. There were no case studies or how-to books for that. All of this was happening while I had to home school my special needs child.

When we emerged from lockdown, I had to take my team through a restructure that saw redundancies followed by recruiting for new roles. At the end of that year we had an unprecedented security threat that cancelled graduation at the last minute. I was leading a team of 15 people and navigating constant ‘new things’.

I failed at so many of those things. But I also succeeded in creating a high-performance system, made $100,000 savings in advertising spend and created the conditions that allowed my team to do some of their best work. I promised I would give them industry recognition for that work, and despite a pandemic, this award is a reflection of achieving one of my goals, so they could achieve theirs.

What has been your biggest challenge to date? How did you overcome it?

Emigrating to New Zealand in 2016 was definitely a challenge, despite it being my idea! I’d never lived in another place before. I’d also built up a reasonable profile in my industry in Belfast which was helping my career progress and I knew I would have to start from scratch in a new country.

But I got some great advice from Susan Hayes Culleton (The Positive Economist) before I left. She told me to remember the value I could bring with my knowledge of the UK and Irish economies, to use the flexibility that digital technology brings to global working and know that my experience would make me more empathetic, which is a core emotion for relationship building. I took that with me and, while using the technology to freelance for people I already knew in Northern Ireland and the US, I threw myself into networking and volunteering in my new community and guest lecturing.

The relationships I made in that first year led to job offers that have been some of the most rewarding of my career. And it pushed me beyond my comfort zone and taught me how to take more strategic risks.

Could you give us a brief overview of your time at Ulster University- do you have a favourite memory?

I loved my time at university. I’m still in touch with the good friends I made there. I loved the modern tools we learned like Photoshop and the practical application of the theory in assignments like the 24-hour PR exam (which meant no sleep but was very real-world!). The quantity and quality of guest lecturers from industry was inspiring.

Back then, Fred Morrison was our Comms lecturer, and his classes were some of my favourites. Andy Purcell was Course Director and he was so kind and encouraging.

He remained that way years after graduating when I returned to guest lecture. I remember his disappointment that I couldn’t lecture professionally because I didn’t have a PhD. I like to think he enjoyed knowing that I ended up lecturing full-time for a few years as a Professional Practice Fellow in the University of Otago Business School.

Leanne Ross graduation

You studied at Jordanstown- as we prepare to open our new Belfast campus, is there any memory from Jordanstown that stands out for you?

I couldn’t drive as a student so getting two buses or the black taxis to Jordanstown meant getting up early and spending a lot of time on the road (with no smartphone to keep you entertained!) But sometimes my Dad used to offer to drive out and pick me up and we’d share a bag of chips by the sea, chatting about my worries or my plans.

Those memories are special to me now because I can’t easily recreate them from 11,500 miles away. I still find the sea a restorative place, and now live right on the harbour on the Otago Peninsula.

What are your top tips for students of UU, to get the most out of their time at university?

Don’t write-off the theory you’re being taught as being “out of touch". In my industry in particular, I still use everything I learned almost 20 years ago.

Equally, don’t worry too much about where everything is taking you. It honestly doesn’t matter if you take the wrong course, if you have to repeat something or if you get to the end and realise you want to do something different! My career has not been linear and yet everything I’ve done along the way, even the missteps, have led me to where I am.

What general advice would you give recent graduates? Or more specifically, what advice would you give them in their search for their first job?

What we didn’t have the opportunity to do in the very early 00s was personal brand build or gain experience outside formal internships. I started my industry blog in 2013 and it propelled my career forward (I turned it into a best-selling book on Amazon!). Now students have the ability to practise their skills and build their CVs before they even graduate, so my advice is to get out there and volunteer for charities, local sports teams, a family member with a small business, etc.

Set clear goals for yourself and measure success tangibly so that you can speak about it in interviews. I know it feels hard when you’re working to pay the bills at the same time (I worked 30 hours a week during my second of studying) but now is the time to work hard.

I also wish I’d travelled abroad, and not waited until I was in my 30s with kids in tow! I now know how much I would have learned about myself, the people I would have met and the confidence I would developed at a younger age if I’d worked abroad. So, take that trip!

Do you have any “golden rules” in life?

Not everyone you meet along the way will be kind, or encouraging, both in personal relationships and professional ones. Defeat your enemies (those who hurt you or those who don’t rate you) with your success by working hard.

What are your plans for the future?

I had a bit of a career mid-life crisis in my last role when I realised I’d reached all the goals I’d set professionally earlier than anticipated! I’d wanted to be a Director by the time I was 40, and I achieved that at 35.

I wasn’t quite sure what came afterwards, but I knew it could mean moving into more general leadership and out of Marketing - a job I was confident and comfortable in. I just had to make new goals. And that includes taking my skills to work for industries I am passionate about (the game development industry currently) and helping to build them. It means pushing myself to learn new things and confronting my weaknesses.

But also, I want to stop placing all of my value on the professional part of my life. Job success is a wonderful privilege, and I love what I do. But I now have a husband, 2 children, and a dog. I have family back in Northern Ireland that I haven’t seen in person in two years. So my goals now include finding quality time to enjoy the gift of having them in my life.

Leanne Ross and son