Why I never became a CEO

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to someone about my career. ‘Why didn’t you ever become a CEO?’ he asked. It wasn’t a deep and meaningful conversation, and I’m way past seeking the attention of a career coach (no point trying to revive a very dead thing), but it was a good question which made me think more deeply than was ever intended.

Forty years in six bullets

I recently defined my career as a long hard uphill struggle followed by a precipitous decline. Looking back, I see that from the beginning to the end my career was an accident that happened to me – I had no goals and certainly no plan.

A goal without a plan is just a wish — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When looking at possible roles towards the end of my time at university I sat down with material from the careers centre, and sorted into yes and no piles – at least, that was the intention, but there was nothing on the yes pile, so I had to redefine the piles as I guess I have to do something” and no way”.  

So here’s my CV in six bullets:

  • I left university with a degree in Engineering Science and no real idea of what to do with it
  • I spent few years trying to find my professional self
  • The defining moment was when I fell into developing real-time embedded software in its early days
  • By the age of 30 I had moved into development manager roles, running technical teams and communicating with customers
  • In later years I migrated towards business management and marketing of hi-tech products and services, but always with deep technical understanding and involvement
  • Finally, at the age of 64, never having made the big-time, I was redundant (for the fourth time), but this time round I didn’t find a new outlet for my experience and abilities. I gave in to the inevitable and declared myself retired

All this sounds rather negative, but there’s been one common theme in all the jobs I’ve had – I’ve taken jobs because they’ve looked like fun. I’d like to say that when those jobs have stopped being fun I got out, but I wasn’t so good at that.

But I have been very lucky to enjoy an interesting and varied career, working with some great people…

…of course, I’ve met and worked for some real idiots as well.

What I’ve learnt

If you want to progress in your career, shout about your abilities, especially if you don’t have any

I took a very long time to recognise and exploit my own value. I came from a modest background. For all the years I was around, my father had a technical job in the Civil Service with no ambition ever to do anything different, and my mother stayed at home. I had no idea how business functioned, or how to develop a career. I eventually realised that you will be judged not so much by what you do as what you say.

Don’t sacrifice yourself in the belief that you’ll get rewarded for doing a good job. Reward comes with getting the politics right, not the job

For a long time I arranged my life around what I thought was in the interests of the companies I worked for.  Those companies were happy to exploit my flexibility and in the end were happy to dispose of me without a care in the world. This is the other side of the previous point – what you actually achieve is far less important than the story you tell about it, especially with your boss’s boss.

If it’s not working out right now it probably never will. It’s not worth suffering in the hope that it will all get better tomorrow/next week/next month/next year

I have only once been in a company where there were major organisational changes which led to much improved prospects for me – and that was followed a few years later by another organisational change that proved catastrophic. In other companies I have spent extended periods trying to improve my situation, going in optimistically every Monday, only to be depressed by lunchtime.

Don’t believe that loyalty to your company is good for your career. At all times consider what is in your best interest – but keep making the right political noises

I was always loyal to the company I was working for, while I was working for them, but at the same time openly but constructively critical when I felt they were not doing as well as they should. I have seen many others who been exploiting their current position for personal gain.

Become a part of the inner circle social scene. Chances are that the senior guys (and they probably are guys) have a favoured out of office activity, traditionally golf, but nowadays perhaps something like cycling

It’s a great make to get yourself known to the people who make the real decisions. When opportunities come up, managers will feel much more comfortable offering promotions to people they’ve socialised with outside the office. The downside is that this will only work if you’re quite good at these activities – if you slow down the Lycra clad macho management peloton this will just reinforce your image as an incompetent wannabe. <I thank my ex-colleague Melissa for suggesting this point>

Your boss is always right, even when (s)he’s wrong – and make sure you tell everyone how great your boss is, particularly if they’re not. Shout it out!

In a misguided attempt to do a good job and promote the interests of my employer, I have always told it like it is – if the boss has been wrong I have said so. Unless you have an exceptionally enlightened boss this isn’t good for your career. But see the next point for a possible exception to this…

As a manager, loyalty to your team can be a double-edged sword. It makes for a pleasant and productive work environment, but what happens if you have to choose between them and the boss?

I have always made it central to my work ethic to support the people I manage. I discuss this in more detail in http://www.cliffdive.co.uk/what-price-success/. I believe that on balance this is the right approach, even if it leads to conflict with management. The enlightened boss will give his or her team credit for success but take personal responsibility for failures, and while this is sometimes not good in the short term, in this case I think the karma is worth it.

Know yourself – I could never create a start-up. I have the right skills but I can see the risks and I’m naturally cautious. But I make a very good number two in a start-up

I’ve experienced a lot of business life in many different types of company. When I have dreams I see the potential for them to transform into nightmares. That sense of realism stops me ever creating a start-up, but combined with my skills and experience, can work well in helping an entrepreneur to realise their dreams – without getting too carried away on their own hype.

Be under no illusions – the HR department is there to protect the company from the employees, not the other way round

The HR department is there to make sure that hiring and firing are as clean and cheap as possible.

If you find yourself working with a boss or a mentor in a senior position who is genuinely appreciative of your capabilities, make sure you truly value and nurture that relationship

This is the secret to progressing, particularly in a large company. Your manager or mentor can see opportunities, open doors and generally facilitate your progression. This is fine until it all goes wrong and they get fired.

Summarising all of the above: look after yourself – no-one else will

Another windscreen sticker for the motorhome

So, what do we have here? Britstops, for free stopovers in the UK – mostly pubs. France Passion, for free stopovers in France – mostly vineyards…

…and now a new one. It’s Crit’Air, an air quality certificate for France. I got it because we’re planning holidays in France in the near future, and while it is not clear precisely how much this certification will be a day-to-day requirement, having it in advance is one less thing to worry about.

What is Crit’Air?

Crit’Air is a certification scheme designed to alleviate the effects of vehicle pollution. There are 6 levels of certification, ranging from fresh and clean green to sooty grey. A sticker is not mandatory everywhere in France, but it is required to enter locations where schemes are in place. This is a growing list comprising both localised areas of cities, and much broader zones covering whole départements.

Where does it apply?

Map of Crit’Air locations in France from web site as at 6 August 2018

The list is extensive and growing and can be seen on the Crit’Air website. At the moment, if you’re going to Brittany then, as long as you avoid Rennes, you’re probably OK. It might be possible to travel through France without entering any of these zones, but it would be a navigational challenge – and it’s only going to get worse.

What are the zones?

There are two types of zone:

  • ZCR environmental zones – ‘zones à circulation restreinte’
  • ZPA air protection zones – ‘zones de protection de l’air’

ZCR environmental zones

These zones are permanent, and a Crit’Air sticker is required for entry. The signs to would contain additional information relating to the types of vehicle allowed to enter the zone. Anyone entering a zone without a sticker would risk a fine.

ZPA air protection zones

ZPAs are rather complicated – restrictions in these zones are temporary, and only applied after elevated levels of pollution have been measured for a period of time. It’s not clear from the Crit’Air web site how this information is communicated to drivers, but a smartphone app is available, covering not just France but other European schemes.

How do I apply, and what does it cost?

This link to the Crit’Air website is in English, and you can start the application process from there. You will need your vehicle registration document to supply the required information for the application. In my case it proved straightforward.

The total cost, including postage, was €4.21. I received the sticker in less than 2 weeks. In theory the certification lasts as long as the vehicle, but I guess broken windscreens might prove a challenge. 

Other schemes

This is an area where you would have thought it would be sensible to have a Europe-wide scheme, if only so that we don’t have to drive around with 27 different air quality stickers on our windscreens,  but it looks as though governments are all doing their own thing. The best known of the other environmental badges is probably the German Umweltplakette. I don’t (yet) have direct experience of this, but I believe it is very similar to Crit’Air, with a cost of around €10.00. You will find information about Umweltplakette here. The same smartphone app that provides status information about Crit’Air also covers Umweltplakette.

A long weekend in Chulmleigh

A small Saxon hilltop market town and civil parish located in North Devon, 20 miles north west of Exeter, Chulmleigh has some very old architecture with many cob and thatched buildings.

Having walked and cycled around the area on our visit I can certainly confirm that Chulmleigh is a hilltop town. With its old cottages and narrow streets it’s one of those places that feels as though it belongs in another time – in a good way. This old-world feel particularly suits the atmospheric Chulmleigh Fair, an ancient tradition that has taken place since King Henry III granted a Royal Charter to the town in 1253. The Fair even continued during the darkest days of the two world wars.

Around  Chulmleigh

Chulmleigh offers interesting walking and cycling opportunities, with quiet roads, footpaths and bridleways.


The bike ride down Rock Hill was fun, but I wasn’t quite able to pedal the whole way back up, or all the way up the continuation of the track to Chawleigh Week Lane. It was fun trying – several times.

View down from the motte in Heywood

Rather easier cycling country was around Eggesford, in Flashdown Wood and Heywood, where there is a splendid example of a motte and bailey.

Chulmleigh in the distance, viewed from the motte in Heywood (click to enlarge)
Despite the heat wave, the forest wasn’t totally dry


One walk which didn’t lead immediately down a steep hill (which would therefore have to be climbed on the return) was towards the Beacon. Not far from here was a long bridleway which eventually allowed a loop back to Chulmleigh, mostly off-road, through pasture land and along river-banks.

For part of the walk I had some delightful companions…

…but maybe I should have read the sign! It looked as though the black one with the ring in its nose had the full set of equipment expected of a bull, but I suspect he didn’t see me as a threat to his manhood!

Chulmleigh Fair

Chulmleigh Fair was an extended celebration including classic vehicles (mostly tractors), sheep, dogs, fancy dress, dancing, knights and Vikings battling on the playing field, orienteering and a road race.

The knights and Vikings were an entertaining bunch, making full use of an assortment of dangerous weapons. A particularly poignant moment was when one of the knights, after much macho banter towards his enemy, suddenly fell to the ground. We thought this was part of the show, but it turned out that he’d slid on the wet grass and damaged his knee! The first-aider was a busy man here. I guess the Viking wearing trendy trainers rather than era-appropriate footwear had the last laugh on this occasion.

As a keen fun-runner and jogger, I couldn’t resist the road race – but how far, and what standard were the participants? As it turned out the answers were “about 2 miles” and “rather fast”.  Someone said “GO!”, and all the people around me disappeared into the distance. This was on the flat. Then the hills started, long and 25% steep. How are we supposed to run up one of those? And then there’s another one! Anyway, I wasn’t last – quite!

Below is an assortment of pictures from the Fair – click on any of the pictures to enlarge…

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