How failing the Leaving Cert twice helped me establish a global PR company

Persistence following failure is crucial to success.

By James McCann

THIS WEEK MANY students will have received the seemingly devastating news that they won’t be going to college or enrolling in their selected courses this September.

It’s a punch to the gut that can throw your life into turmoil at such a young age.

Having failed my Leaving Cert the first time, and then a second, I remember the frustration and anger I felt seeing my friends progress to college while having few or no options myself.

Considering your options post Leaving Cert failure can be a grim process. Every position you want to apply for requires a third level qualification or a certain number of years experience.

It becomes a chicken and egg scenario, without education you can’t get the experience and without experience you can’t get a job.

What should you do next?

Since failing the leaving certificate I’ve had five career changes, all before the age of 30.

I’ve worked as a soldier, insurance administrator, failed politician, PR manager and more recently, a business owner.

Most employers insist on formal education because they feel they have little else to assess someone with no previous work history. I was lucky that pursuing general enlistment in the army didn’t require any formal education, so I was off to a good start.

However, much to my own surprise I found myself back at square one after I left two years later.

It turns out that not all potential employers prefer rifle handling to call handling and stories of survival training skinning rabbits weren’t exactly ideal replies to that usual interview question ‘tell us about a recent challenge you overcame’. I clearly had a lack of interview skills too.

I had a challenge on my hands and so I took a proactive approach, enrolling in night courses, asking friends for referrals and getting in touch with recruiters who I thought at the very least could help me with what not to say in interviews.

Using networks

I got my first office job as an administrator in insurance through a friend. Regardless of what some people might say, there’s no shame in that. You need to use your network. It will help you along the way.

In addition to failing the Leaving Certificate twice, I nose-dived on every insurance exam ever put in front of me. My advice would be to learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and get to know what you like.

In your late teens and early 20’s, you need to understand that time is on your side and use it as an asset.

I always enjoyed volunteering so I took advantage of my spare time to build up my experience. I set up my own neighbourhood watch scheme in my local town.

I used this opportunity to learn about public speaking, write press releases and work with the likes of the Gardai, local council and other community groups. Unaffected by my past failures, I kept putting my hand up for every opportunity that came my way.

Being so young, you stand out and I was asked to sit on various local boards and later the National Youth Council of Ireland. I also got involved in youth politics locally.

One of the main benefits of going to university is the network that you build. It’s rare that the degree you secure opens doors in the future. It’s usually the people you meet on the way so those who don’t get the opportunity to attend university can miss out.

By joining your local youth branch of a political party, local drama club or even your local GAA club you can bridge that void which can prove crucial to your career in future years.

Taking risks 

You’ll need to take risks early in your career, especially if you are unhappy. Do it young also, because supporting a family or sacrificing a high salary reduces appetite for risk taking in later life.

At 27, I took voluntary redundancy from my insurance job of seven years to run in the local elections.

I lost and exhausted my redundancy on the campaign. Unemployed for six months, I was offered my first paid PR job through a friend I’d met two years previous through networking at a political event. After four months the company went under and I was back on the dole again.

You’ll need to get used to hearing no a lot or not getting a reply at all. Persistence is important, so always change tactics on the job hunt.

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Give cold calling a shot. Email the chief executive directly. What’s the worst that can happen? I applied to every PR firm in Dublin and didn’t get one reply.

Recently, I gave a job to a candidate who picked up the phone to introduce himself after he sent in his CV. Being personal matters.

You might have to take a step back in your career to take two forward. After an intense search I got a job offer from Web Summit. It was an entry level role, which later progressed into a PR Manager position.

I was there to ring journalists all day to get them to come to the event. It was for less money than I was on in insurance, it was longer hours, but it was a start in the career I wanted.

That opportunity was a game changer for me. It was an ambitious company with a young workforce who were constantly experimenting and learning. It was internationally focused and I got to travel all over the world facing high pressure situations.

I created the concept of ClearStory International at that time, a PR agency that would help early stage tech startups boost their profiles and credibility anywhere in the world. After two years I took my last paycheck from Web Summit and started working out of libraries on my own.

Two years later, we’ve worked with over 50 clients from Singapore to Miami with 10 staff and we continue to grow.

For me, failure has seen me acquire the skills I need to build a company.

It has given me an appetite for risk that I’ve used to take decisions I might not have otherwise. It has helped me understand more about myself and others.

If you failed the leaving cert, don’t despair. It will set you on a path that might be more challenging and frustrating than your peers but if you persist, every failure becomes a lesson and every lesson becomes an asset. Time is on your side. Use it now and pursue your career on your terms.

James McCann is the chief executive of ClearStory International.

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