The careers advice CEOs give their kids

Gather round as eight former and current chief executives share their secrets for getting ahead.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Feb 2020

Success breeds success. This can be taken literally: the children of career high-fliers tend to be high-fliers themselves. While there are various possible reasons for that – nature, nurture, connections, a financial head-start - don’t underestimate the value of good advice.   

What do CEOs tell their kids about having a successful career? What lessons did they learn along the way to the top of the corporate ladder, either from the things they tried that worked, or from the things that didn’t?

To help even the social mobility playing field, Management Today decided to ask several of the corporate world’s big cheeses exactly that question. Before you find out their answers though, a quick caveat. Success looks different to different people. Even if you know what it looks like, there are many routes to get there, which may have shifted as generations and the labour market have changed.

Nonetheless, this lot haven’t exactly done badly for themselves – here's what they've got to say.

Cast a wide net

"Work in lots of different places," says George Brasher, UK MD of HP Inc. He worked across several different functions over 26 years at the firm, and found the breadth of experience invaluable.

"There are two reasons: first is by going out doing things it will help you to figure out what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. When you start out you don’t always know what those things are. The second reason is that by working in different places in an organisation you build your network, which is one of your biggest sources of strength."

But not too wide

"Get great roots in something. Prove you can do something really well, don’t scamper around too much," advises Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP. Quantity is good, he says, but it's no subsitute for quality. 

Learn to self-promote

"If you want to position yourself in any way, shape or form, you have to put your opinions out there," says Heather McGregor, chair at recruitment firm Taylor Bennett, and alter ego of former FT columnist Mrs Moneypenny. Success in the gig economy, she says, requires a degree of personal branding. 

"If I were 22 now, I’d have my own blog. I’d make sure all my opinions were in one place, I’d have them well researched and well backed up with links to the raw material. And then people come and find you."

But stay humble

"There’s something about the ability and willingness to say you don’t know something and ask," says Tom Monahan, former CEO of billion dollar insights firm CEB. Acting, or indeed believing, that you have all the answers is a recipe for disaster.

"It requires a fair bit of humility, to say I don’t know everything, I’m very comfortable with not knowing anything, and asking for help."

Retrain... or emigrate

"When I started my career as an engineer, it was a case of do your degree, do your apprenticeship, become an engineer and stay an engineer. Now, my children are going to have to accept they will probably have to retrain several times. You need to be resilient and persistent," says Alistair Cox, CEO of FTSE 250 recruitment firm Hays.

Cox's own career has been highly varied, both in terms of sector (oil, consulting, cement and recruitment) and in terms of location (five years in Norway, four in the US and five in Kuala Lumpur).

"Going and working in a different country is one of the best things you can do in your career. International experience – learning how to operate in a completely different culture – is invaluable. I don’t think I’d be able to do my job without it. If you get the opportunity, take it, wherever you’re coming from and wherever you’re going to."

Don’t moan, move

"Nobody has the God-given right to be promoted from within," says Javed Khan, CEO of £300m children's charity Barnardo's. His wide-ranging career began in teaching, before taking him into local government and finally the voluntary sector.

"People get confused about this, they start playing the victim, moaning and groaning and saying the world’s against me. If you’ve tried and failed, move somewhere else. Some of the best decisions I made were when I did exactly that."

Learn to code

Some advice is more specific. "Learn to code. If you’ve got that skill you can have a good living, you can travel the world. You can always become a manager – in tech driven businesses, having that knowledge will help you be a better manager," says Richard Flint, former CEO of Sky Bet (he does know how to code, incidentally). 

And keep learning

"You need a thirst for self-improvement and self-development that’s not reliant on other people," says Paul Geddes, former CEO of FTSE 100 insurance business Direct Line. "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'."

Read more of Paul Geddes's career advice here 

This article was first published in November 2016

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