There were two things I wanted to be when I was growing up: a fighter pilot and head of the Foreign Office (the latter because someone from my school had achieved it). While doing my national service, I realised that business offered as many opportunities for travel and was a lot better paid. My time as boss of a division in Remington in Australia was my luckiest break. The Australian MD got fired at a moment when my results were particularly good. That was an independent command, and I sank or swam by my own endeavours. The other critical moment in my career came when I decided to leave business life temporarily and accept an invitation from the Thatcher government to run the Manpower Services Commission. My parents were strong north country Methodists, so an ethos of public service was bred into me. That set my life at age 52 off on a wholly different course.
If I had to start again, I'd want to run my own show. I'd want to be an entrepreneur rather than a manager. I'd be looking at doing things based on the consumer, whether they're intangibles or products, which was my original start at Unilever.
My first piece of advice is: stick true to your own character - you'll perform much better. The other is: remember that a career is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can afford to take chances earlier on. If you find the wrong turning, move on.
Sir Bryan Nicholson was president of the CBI 1994-96 and chairman of BUPA 1992-2000. He is now chairman of the Financial Reporting Council and of the Cookson Group.