The maverick

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By A short guide for the up-and-coming executive by Luke Johnson ©The Daily Telegraph
  • Published 24.04.07

For most executives on the way up, the single most important type of management is career management. Yet most of us have no great vocation, and simply blunder around, chancing upon situations. If I look at my working life, I never imagined as a fresh graduate that I would get involved in endeavours as diverse as book printing or dentistry — or spend so much time in the restaurant trade and broadcasting. So here I list a few conclusions drawn from my own rather haphazard career.

Make capital, not income

Nobody gets rich from their after-tax salary. We all adjust our spending to soak up any pay rises. So look for opportunities that allow you to become an owner or option holder. Any lump sum you make will buy you freedom.

Work in growth industries

Do not get stuck in a sector in terminal decline like video rental, a travel agency, milk delivery or local newspapers. Such areas of the economy are principally concerned with cost-cutting and must be pretty depressing places to spend your working life. Instead choose fields that are growing, such as robotics, biotechnology or online advertising. They inevitably attract more talent and capital — and give you chances to learn and get rich.

Spend time working in smaller businesses

They offer more rounded experience because their staff need to multi-task. By all means, do a stint in a blue-chip outfit for credibility, but don’t bec- ome trapped in a big company.

Branch out and escape the bureaucracy and office politics of big business and find a fast-growing company where you will have much greater prospects for promotion — and the possibility of becoming a shareholder.

Study business history

Read the biographies, obituaries and interviews with winners and learn from their mistakes. We think everything is different this time, but while technology might change, human behaviour is a constant.

Seek counsel from veterans who have done it all: their wisdom will be useful.

Get general operational experience

Don’t get stuck the whole time in administrative affairs. Make sure you understand sales, production, distribution — indeed, the entire range of activities within a business. People who can actually run things are always more sought-after than those whose CV is very narrow.

Understand finance

You should learn how to read balance sheets and cash flow and profit-and-loss statements. Get to know how the stock market, banking and private equity world work. You don’t need to qualify as a chartered accountant or even go on a course. You can get a grasp of the key issues just by talking to the right people.

I am still shocked at how many chief executives of large organisations are ignorant of basic accounting matters.

Know about commercial property

Acquire a decent grounding in such matters as leases, covenants, planning, rent reviews, alienation, valuations and agents.

This knowledge is essential for almost every business. A well-rounded leader is familiar with the technicalities when it comes to real estate.

Broaden your horizons

Become a school governor, a magistrate or perhaps a trustee of a charity.

Volunteer with a non-profit organisation or form your own social enterprise — you will meet interesting people and demonstrate to potential employers and backers that you are not a two-dimensional personality.

Keep asking questions

The best bosses are never afraid to admit that they don’t understand something. After all, most of us enjoy explaining things. Don’t just sit in meetings in a haze, unable to admit that you haven’t a clue — speak out.

Get to grips with technology

All companies are now dependent on technology. Too many of us have been in denial about the impact of the Internet.

Now there can be no doubt that it is a critical and growing part of all commercial activity. So don’t be a Luddite who refuses to engage and exploit its potential. Get on with the programme.

Work abroad

I never did this and I regret it. Globalisation means the 21st century will belong to China and India, so before you settle down, you should get practical experience in these places and try to work out what the future holds for business in the West.

Seize opportunities

I have always believed that we all get the knock on the door in life — you just have to be ready to yank it open with vigour when your turn comes.