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