Cath Hill- Lessons In Learning
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Pip Andersen
Cath Hill is a powerhouse within the Exeter community. As Service Lead for Communications, Tourism and Culture at Exeter City Council, she is firmly embedded in the business community but, actually, in the community at large too. She is naturally collaborative, humble and straight-talking; characteristics that often jar against each other or seem mutually exclusive. Not so with Cath.
As I considered this month’s theme of ‘Relationships & Networking’, Cath was pretty much the first name to come to mind, so I was delighted that she accepted my invitation to meet and even more delighted when she suggested that we meet in the Heritage Lounge at Exeter City Football Club, overlooking the pristine pitch and new stands that are under construction at the club. The venue made even more sense when I remembered that Cath joined the board of the City Community Trust four years ago too, the charitable arm of the football club who work tirelessly to improve health and wellbeing in the community.
We poured ourselves a lemonade behind the bar and reminisced about our teenage years working in (and frequenting) pubs, before settling down for a chat. Having spent a little bit of time with Cath before, I felt instantly at ease and conversation quickly turned to business, family and what we’ve been doing to relax recently. I’d forgotten that we have children of very similar ages and enjoyed a few minutes of informal conversation before our attention turned to business.
Despite only being thirty-three (no derogatory remarks about my grey hair please), I have learned to gauge how much I trust someone by how much they listen and naturally make me want to self-disclose. Good people are, almost always, good listeners after all. I have a very active ‘dickhead radar’; learning over the years to trust my gut feeling on whether someone is inherently trustworthy or not and, needless to say, Cath quickly struck me as both trustworthy and a good listener. At frequent points in our conversation, I found myself wanting to share my opinions, my experiences or my thoughts with her. I felt heard, valued and respected.
“Why are you banging on about all this listening stuff, Joff?”, I hear you say. Well, when it comes to networking and building working relationships (internally or externally in your business), I think that listening is the key. In this regard, we could all take a leaf out of Cath’s book as I would go as far as to say that she demonstrates a ‘gold standard’ in our city of how to build bridges, create collaboration and form mutually beneficial partnerships. She won’t thank me for saying so but, by the end of this article, you will see why.
Born in Tiverton and raised in Crediton, Cath has always loved the city of Exeter. Tinged with regret, she shared how, as a young woman and aspiring university student, she had felt that she needed to go and study elsewhere in the country to get to where she wanted to be. She made it crystal clear, though, that this tide is, slowly but surely, turning. Education, as well as the wider offering of Exeter as a city, has improved many times over since then and I join Cath in agreement that Exeter is, increasingly, becoming a place that can attract the right people and the right businesses to ensure that this positive trajectory continues long into the future.
Anyway, back to Cath. She went to Greenwich University in London, where she studied Marketing, Communications & Economics before securing a work placement with globally renowned Advertising Agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. She was convinced that a long and successful career in advertising lay ahead of her but, sometimes, things don’t pan out the way we think they will. After a stint in London, enjoying the twenty-something scene and taking in her fair share of parties, the realities of having a budget sank in and she moved back to Devon, with her tail a little bit between her legs. Even on the train home though, once she passed Reading and remembered what fields looked like, she realised that she was travelling home, in more ways than one.
It was back in Exeter that she started to put down roots, working for the Express & Echo and Gemini Radio, both in sales roles. She described it as an enjoyable time in her career; a time of gaining vital experience and forging a new path for herself and her two daughters; Grace, now aged 12 and Maisie, now aged 8. She also met and married her husband Jon, a lecturer and local rugby manager.
After her time in advertising sales, Cath worked for a leisure company as their Regional Sales & Marketing Manager, looking after a group of leisure centres around the region. She then had some time off to have children before, eventually, starting at Exeter City Council a couple of days per week in 2012. Initially, this was meant to be a part-time job to get stuck into whilst her girls grew up but, again, sometimes things don’t pan out as expected.
As Cath got more stuck into her role, it was clear that her skills fit perfectly within the team and culture of the council. She quickly carved out a place as one of their key stakeholders, working in a variety of roles and across numerous exciting projects such as the Rugby World Cup, the successful Sport England bid for Exeter, the Big Weekend and, more recently, the launch of ‘Exeter Live Better’, Exeter’s own place-based brand. With trademark humility, Cath stated,
“The only way any of our success has been possible is thanks to the incredible team we have at the council. In a time of public sector austerity, with budgets being repeatedly cut, we don’t want to cut frontline services, so our people are of vital importance and we need to have a more commercial focus. We have such a brilliant team and I couldn’t speak more highly of them. Someone once told me ‘Always hire people who are cleverer than you’. This is advice that has allowed me to build a team of exceptional colleagues who are all experts in their respective areas of work.”
Conversation effortlessly turned to the sometimes-murky world of networking and it was fascinating to hear that, for someone so impressive, Cath sometimes struggles with networking environments. She described her well-rehearsed ‘work face’ and how, sometimes, she finds small talk and empty-personal chat a bit tiresome. Put more positively, she clarified that she highly values honesty, straight-talk and meaningful connections with people that help her to achieve the goals that she has. This may sound hard or cold, but Cath was unapologetic in saying that,
“Networking is a business practice, not a friendship exercise. That isn’t to say that you can’t like or befriend people within your network, but it’s essential that you respect and trust people who you share a mutual agenda with, regardless of whether you are completely different people on a personal level.”
She, increasingly, attends only a small selection of effective networking events but I promised her that I wouldn’t reveal which ones, as this is the sort of ‘trade secret’ held closely to the chests of senior stakeholders in local businesses. Not to be exclusive or cliquey, but you protect your network in the same way that you would your friendship circles. If you abuse or mistreat your network – overstepping the invisible but keenly felt relational lines in business – you burn bridges quickly that can, sometimes, not be repaired.
“Building relationships and forming your network is a finely-balanced endeavour. It requires soft-skills, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, bravery, humility and focus. It is often done poorly and rarely done well. I am on a mission to keep getting better at it, but I’m not there yet!”
As our conversation drew to a close, we came back to the subject of Exeter. It really is the sort of place where, in business, your reputation and relationships are your most valuable asset. Those are things that can make or break you, as proven time and time again for good or for bad. Cath has worked tirelessly to build a network based on trust, honesty, mutual benefit and a sense of the common good. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t have a laser-focus on her own priorities though. You don’t get to where Cath has got to without a relentless focus on goals and objectives. Sometimes though, that means remembering, for example, that family is more important than business. In a moment of candid clarity, she said,
“What is the point of attending an event and being racked with ‘Mum-guilt’? You’ll be useless, ineffective and it will be a big waste of time. Better to tend to things at home when necessary and then, when you do network, do so with passion and focus.”.
Cath tied off our time together by saying:
“I absolutely love Exeter. That feeling is at the heart of every single thing I do. I genuinely love this place. There is no better place to raise children, live and work in my opinion. It is as simple as that. We have proven over recent years that Exeter can play a meaningful part on the national stage. We are in a perfect position to be a pilot city for regional and national events and are actively looking for opportunities to further demonstrate that fact.”
With people like Cath involved in delivering key projects in our city, it is fair to say that we are in good hands. Cath, I wish you every success as you promote our city and its wonderful offering to the region, the nation and beyond. May Exeter truly be a place where we can all ‘live better’.