Ambika Nigam


Mixing Board Studio Session with Ambika Nigam

Sean Garrett

Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Ambika and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Ambika and Sean talk about how to think differently about building teams and retaining the best talent, why diverse skill sets lead to innovation and disruption and what it really means to have a hybrid workplace.

Mixing Board community member Ambika Nigam has made multiple career pivots, from finance to stand-up comedy to marketing to design to product development. As she was getting ready to make her last pivot, she stopped to wonder why there wasn’t more support for people who want to make job changes that stray far from a linear path. That’s why she created Zeit, which supports both today’s ever-evolving professionals discover new career paths and helps organizations reimagine how to retain and inspire employees who want to do new things.

As an organization and community, Mixing Board embraces the spirit that Ambika has built her business around. Creating tight definitions of what one can or can’t do based on your last job or what you learned in school throttles smart strategy and creativity.

SG: I’d love to start by hearing about your path and how you got to Zeit. And tell us about what Zeit is.

AN: I’m very much a career-mutt, as I like to call it, and I’ve had a very non-linear career path. I worked in five different disciplines, five different industries and never held the same job title. I made the mistake of starting in finance as an analyst (we all get to make one career mistake). I was an analyst by day but was doing standup comedy at night, which was my real passion. That dichotomy led me to pursue more creative pastures.

But I struggled with a couple of things in my career:

  • Number one was not knowing what my options were in terms of transferable skills. Job boards and LinkedIn never really opened up the aperture.

  • Number two is networks, not having networks and places to go, even if I knew where I wanted to go next.

  • And then the third was finding the right way to position all of these different eclectic skills to land the role that I wanted.

I first surmounted that hurdle by landing this job at Ogilvy during that interesting time when Facebook, Twitter and digital marketing were coming on the map. I was pounding the pavement and saying, “Look, you need someone who knows how to do business modeling and analytics, and here’s why I’m your girl to do it. I’m perfect for this marketing strategy role.”

I applied that recipe again and again, getting my foot in the door at IDEO and then moving from IDEO to head of product at Bloomberg Media. At Bloomberg, I felt the same thing. I knew I wanted to create my own business, but I didn’t know what, and I just looked around and said, “I can’t believe that this is going to be now my fifth new thing, and there’s still not no platform out there that helps me with these three issues: identifying where to go next, helping position myself and really kind of an eclectic group of individuals with different skill sets.” Who better to create that platform than myself?

This was all against the backdrop of a lot of stories coming out (including at Bloomberg) about nonlinear career paths, making career pivots and people having 20 jobs over the course of their career. It just felt like the right time in the world to create something like Zeit, and then the pandemic happened and it just accelerated things.

SG: Tell me how Zeit works, how one becomes part of it and who it’s for.

AN: Zeit is for anybody who is intending to lead a non-linear career path, or has already led a non-linear career path. For those that feel they’re of a different ilk and want to expand and diversify their network. And today, there’s three different programs that we offer. We’re part community and we’re part a platform that really helps people make these transitions. And the current instantiation of that is a certain set of tracks that we focus on, 10 different roles. If you want to be a content strategist or a community manager, and really believe you have the transferable skills, we help you actually explore and pursue those pivots. The second is more geared towards internal pivots. If you’re within your company and you need to understand how to have these conversations and make that move, we help you.

And then there’s people who are further up the funnel. They know they want to do something different, they just don’t know how to get started. There’s some overlap between our offerings, but those are the modes that resonate most with people right now. We have six week programs that cater to that — you’re part of a peer cohort of individuals with different backgrounds. You move through this with helpful playbooks, a combination of expert advice and coaching, and then who we call ‘role models,’ people who have been in your shoes before and made these exact pivots.

SG: I’m curious what your take is on coming out of the pandemic. The conventional wisdom is that there’s this massive pent-up change about to happen. That people figured out they are unsatisfied with what they were doing before. And companies also are changing strategies too. What do you think is going to be unleashed as people start, “returning back to normal” with the perspective of all these months in the rearview mirror?

AN: It’s happening right now. I walked out on the street this morning and it’s weird to see people with briefcases, back to work. They’re going places. When I started this company, pre-pandemic, it was really to serve individuals or job seekers or people. Because that’s where the pain is, right? People saying, “I want to do something different with my life, or I want to double down on this thread of what I’m doing.” And feeling like they were pushing a boulder up a mountain because companies weren’t really open to it. We as individuals want to do new things. And the pandemic, for the first time, has created this shared sense of openness about a new way of working.

I don’t think all companies are there yet, but most companies have opened their eyes to a new way of working. There’s also unconventional ways of hiring people with different backgrounds, and that’s a big benefit. There’s some obvious trends, like remote work, that are here to stay. We’re employees of the world now. Traditionally a lot of companies thought, “Oh, we have to hire someone who’s going to be willing to physically move here or be here geographically.” Now if you can find that amazing writer or marketing person that lives across the globe and can do the job better, then so be it. There is going to be a shared openness to how we start to think differently about building teams.

SG: To your point, I feel like the term hybrid work is so incomplete and is not representative of actually what the real trend is. Hybrid meaning “I’ll work a little bit from home a little bit in the office.” That is such an oversimplification of what’s actually happened. Implicit in that hybrid perspective is a willingness to give up control and a willingness, at the employee level, to share responsibility, create ownership and do the things that you need to do — even if you’re not in the office. That represents so much more than just where you’re sitting. It’s a mentality perspective.

AN: I couldn’t agree more with that. Hybrid can be applied to so many different contexts, in a functional way that you work, but there’s also how we think about teams. Right now the model is pretty binary where you’re either full time or you’re freelance. But what if we have someone who’s in between? What if we know that we have these KPIs over the next 12 months, and we need this person with this expertise to come in and solve it. But just for those 12 months. We have an expiration date. It’s in between a freelancer and a full-time person. We’re constructing teams to solve for a particular problem.

SG: You really started off focused on the individual journey. But you mentioned that you’re also thinking about how companies let their own employees pivot internally. I think that’s a really important concept. If employees are looking for nonlinear paths and they’re really good at what they do, companies should try and find ways for them to grow without leaving the organization. What would you tell them? What do you tell companies looking to figure this out?

AN: First and foremost, it’s a way to retain talent, as you said. I tell companies that diverse skill sets drive good business, full stop. And there’s plenty of data to back this up through HBR and studies from Deloitte, which show that when you give individuals the opportunity to move into different roles, they are going to improve the bottom line because they are bringing a really unique perspective to this role. Not that there’s anything wrong with someone who’s done the thing before. But someone who is driven and ambitious and is bringing a set of different skills to the problem is inherently going to come up with a solution that’s unique and original and different.

It’s good for innovation, it’s good for disruption — which all companies care about. And these individuals have more skills, right? They know how to do more things in this role than the average person, which is the second benefit. The third benefit is that they’re great cross-functional team members. And the way we work now is just more cross-functional. So you need someone who can empathize with the other individuals on the team, and who better than someone who’s done that thing before. It’s so much more than just retention and employee happiness. It’s good business to do it. If you want a competitive advantage, make sure that you’re preserving and enhancing that talent each step of the way.

SG: Do you have a specific process for bringing that to bear within an organization? How do people learn to adapt to this reality?

AN: The biggest question from a company standpoint is velocity. And skilling people up and saying, “Oh, we don’t have the time to skill people up.” But the reality is, there’s actually fewer skill gaps to address when you’re bringing someone internally or bringing someone that actually has transferable skills versus trying to find a new external person. I think from a timing standpoint, it’s just more efficient.

One of the biggest problems companies have is looking at individuals and helping them clearly identify where they want to go. What are the options? What are the pathways? Illuminating those pathways for their talent, being clear about what the transferable skills are and where the gaps are. Helping them address and create a plan for what hard skills need to be addressed before they move in, what the hard skills can just be learned on the job and creating some of those shadowing opportunities. The fourth aspect is the soft skills. A lot of employees and managers don’t know how to have these conversations. Hiring managers can feel like it’s a dig on them if an employee wants to move over to another department. So just kind of creating the right language, settings, understanding agreements between employees and hiring managers as to how they can move.

SG: I’ve been thinking about kind of just generational change and perspective on how people think about their job. We’ve all kind of made fun of the millennial side hustle, but I have grown to understand it as something deeper and more profound. Which runs completely counter to an organization controlling an employee from department to department. Even more profoundly controlling their ability to operate outside of the company.

As a very hardcore Gen X-er, when I started Mixing Board, I thought that people who are in full-time jobs may be able to join. Philosophically, I just couldn’t get my head around it — you have a job. How can you do something else? But now my head is in this place where I call it side growth versus side hustle. And I think that growth is a real thing. I had the opportunity to do a couple sprints for the Obama White House, and it was really formative. We had groups with all different skill sets, doing crazy stuff for a couple of weeks at a time. I learned so much from them that I was able to take back into my job. I got so much great experience with that.

We’ve reached this point of professional development where we’re overwhelmed with stuff, YouTube videos, conferences, Clubhouse, Medium posts. There’s no lack of professional development content that exists in the world. I’m not sure if all of it is good, but there’s a lot. It’s kind of like the equivalent of going on a vacation. When you go on vacation and you’re in a different country and you smell the smells, you taste the tastes, you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, the water spins in a different direction.” You take everything in, it’s etched in your brain more. Time slows down. If you have the ability to work on other stuff, I think there’s something very powerful for that. And that you can apply to your day-to-day life. I don’t know if you’ve seen this at all.

AN: Yes, to all of it, I love the analogies that you threw out there. Professional development is really coming from personal development right now. And that’s how people see it. I love “side growth,” because that is all about personal development in so many ways, you’re choosing to do what you want to do on the side. Professional development has traditionally been something that your company is pushing on you.

Whether it’s creating a salsa business on the side or selling something on Etsy — all those skills are passion driven and they’re a hundred percent making you more analytical. And you’re bringing that back to your day job. Or people say — you know what? I can do these four different things. And it now equates to just as much money, maybe a little bit less, as my full-time job, but double the happiness. So I’m going to go with that. There’s going to be more blurry lines between personal and professional development. And there are going to be more ways where companies are going to have to give people credit for side hustles and businesses and account for that when they’re applying for full-time roles and use that as a competitive advantage.

SG: If Company X just started, they just got $50 million in VC funding and they’re going to go from six people to 60 in three months, what would you recommend to them as they think about how they are going to build out this team and keep them inspired and happy?

AN: The stage of companies is so critical in terms of hiring. But in this particular scenario you outlined, the first thing that comes to mind is figuring out where there are opportunities for creative risks. That creative risk piece comes from what is uniquely ownable about this company? Which any company knows if they’ve just gotten $50 million in funding. It could be in the content, in the marketing or in some form of the product development.

And if that’s the case, then how can you find individuals with certain eclectic backgrounds that can allow you to really flex and scale that unique aspect of your culture. And maybe there are other areas, like engineering, that you just can’t afford to take the risk. You need people who’ve done it a thousand times. That’s my advice. Just mapping that out and identifying those roles and being really clear about the profile of the individual that you want in terms of creativity.

SG: And then for the bigger companies, is it more about just kind of finding pockets of innovation? Or how would you approach that?

AN: It starts with a similar exercise of auditing where you want to take those risks. The difference with a more established company is thinking about it from both the top down and bottom up. You need people at a VP or above level that represent that change, that represent that background, that can help bring up people internally within the organization to make those internal shifts and moves. That can be attractors to external people to come. That’s number one, find the leaders that you need to really change the culture significantly.

SG: If someone’s reading this and they’re like, “Oh boy, I’m happy with my job. Do I need to pivot? Am I missing something by not pivoting?” What’s your advice to the person who’s just moving along in a normal or more traditional career pattern? What’s the right amount of spice in their life?

AN: There’s nothing wrong with the linear path. It comes down to personal preference around ways that you wish to grow. You could kind of go for more incremental change, learning a couple of new skills within your existing role. And that’s still a lot of reinvention and change. You’re still growing, you’re still developing. That could be learning a couple more hard skills, or it could be growing as a leader — but that’s still good growth on a more linear path. And then there’s revolutionary stuff, which is brand new skills and brand new roles, which is a lot of the people that we focus on. It’s just making sure that you’re continuing to push yourself as an individual and finding ways to grow.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — Here’s how the Mixing Board community of brand and comms experts support organizations with their advice and perspective.