5 tips on getting ahead in your career from Direct Line's CEO

Paul Geddes says aspiring bosses need to avoid becoming too specialised.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 15 Nov 2016

You don’t make it to CEO of a FTSE 100 insurance giant by accident. Direct Line Group boss Paul Geddes has had a colourful career spanning consumer goods, retail and banking before landing his current role in his early 40s. Here’s a few bits of career advice he’s picked up along the way.

Help your boss succeed

‘Understand your boss’s needs and what would surprise them,’ he says. ‘That way you know what to bring them and what not to bring them. It’s really important to know what’s going to make your boss successful and what they worry about, because anybody in your team that meets your needs and helps you do what you need to do, you think well of.’

‘The other thing a boss always wants of someone in their team is somebody who is a collaborative person and someone that doesn’t take all of their boss’s time to sort out messes.’

Resist becoming too specialised

To get to the top you need a plurality of skills, not just expertise in a particular area. ‘Companies tend to specialise people. When you’re hiring somebody and promoting somebody the most comfortable thing is to promote somebody to be an even more specialised version of what they do today because they’re brilliantly expert at that,’ says Geddes.

‘But the danger with that is you end up with quite narrow people and it’s for the company to encourage breadth but also for the individual to seek it and say "I’m happy to have a sideways move and try something I haven’t before", to go on a project and do something different. I’ve always taken those sorts of chances.’

Be openly ambitious

‘People shouldn’t be afraid to show their ambitions. Of course there’s pushing that too far and being precocious, and if somebody is sitting in front of you banging the table every week then that can get tiresome. But I think people shouldn’t be afraid to say they’re ambitious and they want to get on.’

Always look for ways to improve.

The world’s most successful people never think they’re the ‘finished item,’ says Geddes. ‘They’re continually looking for feedback and self-improvement. That’s not a course, it’s getting all this feedback from people that you work with, seeking out people that are good at things you’re not good at, and saying "I’ll take you out for lunch if you’ll tell me the secret of how you’re good at what you do."

‘You need a thirst for self-improvement and self-development that’s not reliant on other people. Some people have an attitude of ‘I’m fully baked, take me or leave,’ – they won’t get on as well as people that say "Look, I’m hungry to learn and get on."’

It’s all about attitude

‘Attitude is ultimately a lot of what will distinguish people,’ says Geddes. ‘People will only be hired into a company if they’re pretty smart and have got a certain amount of skills. But that attitude – thirst for learning, thirst for development, thirst for results – sets people apart.’

More: Read MT's full interview with Geddes, who talks driverless cars, diversity and playing the violin

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