Book review: Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women

This funny and insightful book by a multi-career high-flyer is full of wise advice for she who seeks to conquer. Cilla Snowball is buying 12 copies for her friends.

by Cilla Snowball
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2014

Inspiring Women 2013

Cilla Snowball will chair MT's Inspiring Women conference on November 27, 2013 - click here to find out more.

Every now and again, but not nearly often enough, a book comes along that I read and enjoy so much - that's so packed full of utility and learning - that I order a dozen copies in the certain knowledge that there will be plenty of willing recipients who'll enjoy it too. Neil MacGregor's tour de force A History of the World in 100 Objects was the last one stockpiled in my office and subsequently dispatched to my nearest and dearest. And Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women will be the next.

The formidable Mrs Moneypenny, alias Heather McGregor, is a consummate high-flyer. A former investment banker, with an MBA from the London Business School and a PhD from the University of Hong Kong, she teaches at Cass and London Business Schools, and is the business commentator for the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. She writes the Mrs Moneypenny column for the Financial Times Weekend magazine, which has itself spawned two books and stage shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Broadway and the Hay Festival. She owns and runs Taylor Bennett, the highly respected executive search business, presents the Channel 4 series Superscrimpers, has a private pilot's licence, is training to become a qualified management accountant (to celebrate her 50th birthday), has been happily married for over 20 years, and is mum to three unnamed sons or 'Cost Centres numbers 1, 2 and 3', as she lovingly refers to them.

Her impressive, exhaustive and at times utterly exhausting to read career experiences and connections provide the basis for the book's findings and advice. But she is no superwoman, for, as she argues so emphatically in the book, there is no such thing. And she's dead right there. 'You can't have it all, but you have to do it all,' she writes. Leaning on her own experience, and with input from her legion of friends and contacts, McGregor powers through her practical, pacy and punchy toolkit to show us exactly how to do it.

Her style is incisive, self-deprecating and hilarious. Her advice is frank, tough and businesslike. She is funny and wise, and her wisdom comes from taking her career seriously but never herself.

The careful observation of her subjects - her friends and role models on and off duty - makes a vital contribution to the book. We hear from Helena Morrissey, Helen Weir, Cynthia Carroll, DeAnne Julius and Rosaleen Blair. It's a roll call of the great and the good of women in business, and a masterclass in how to succeed and stay sane.

The tips are clear but by no means for the faint-hearted; this book is only for the supremely resolute and dedicated. To follow Mrs Moneypenny's example seemingly requires a lifetime of non-stop energy, hand-raising, continuous improvement, business qualifications (preferably an MBA), financial literacy, active philanthropy, a purposeful network, a plentiful supply of role models, a robust support infrastructure and, crucially, an ability to say no, as women are 'too conditioned to please'. Just about the only thing Mrs Moneypenny admits she can't do is make pheasant terrine. But I don't think I've ever met a woman who can.

Age is no barrier. There is a whole chapter entitled 'Never too late', with countless examples of women proving you are never too old to learn and never too old to volunteer. The ever-eager Mrs Moneypenny got herself a pilot's licence at 47, inspired by a neighbour in her village who flew solo round the world in her fifties for charity. Failure and setbacks are embraced with the same vigour on the basis that it is only when you know how to fail that you learn how to succeed.

Confidence is critical and 'an attribute that all ambitious women need to develop'. She cites data from Institute of Leadership and Management research, showing that female managers have significantly lower self-confidence and higher self-doubt than their male counterparts.

'To get to the top women need to do all the things that men do to get there. And they have to do extra as well.' The US version of the book is to be called Sharpen Your Heels to make that point. Too strident for a UK audience perhaps, but the book doesn't protest too much. It makes the case for more women on boards in constructive, celebratory and commercial terms. There is no special pleading or outrage. Merely a sense of here we are, here it is, now let's get cracking, shall we?

And that's why a book like this is so important. Mrs Moneypenny's advice could so easily have lapsed into a whingefest. But instead she delivers a fiercely practical, eternally upbeat and utterly enjoy- able textbook for success. Mrs Moneypenny knows her stuff, knows her audience and, like all the best senior women in business, takes her responsibility to help other women very seriously.

She fires off a great quote from Madeleine Albright in the epilogue: 'There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.' On the basis of this book, Mrs Moneypenny is definitely going to heaven.

Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women

Mrs Moneypenny with Heather McGregor

Penguin Portfolio


- Cilla Snowball is group chairman and group CEO of Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO.

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