Go chase that dream to win

Fast Track to the Top

is about bridging the gap between desire and achievement.

It looks at the skills, attitudes backgrounds and working habits of 80 business leaders including Charles Allen of Granada Group, Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, PwC’s Ian Brindle and Dawn Airey, CEO of Channel 5.

And yes, people at this level do work hard. But the compensation is that they love their work. They adore the accompanying limelight and recognition, and they seem to have a lot of fun being in charge.

The book’s findings are a true guide to the characteristics needed to reach the top. So is it possible to emulate the habits and methods of successful people?

Board directors are not a race apart. As we carried out our interviews, we found ourselves in the company of bright, hardworking people, but not creatures from another planet. They had a variety of IQs, expertise and backgrounds. In other words, just like the rest of us – and their positions are up for grabs.

Interpersonal skills are all important. Our directors were nearly always charming, persuasive and eloquent. Where they had faced challenges or had to acquire new skills, these were mostly behavioural rather than ‘technical’ subjects like computing and finance.

Energy is essential. We commonly found people working 80-100 hour weeks, with punishing schedules and little time for relaxation. They had a great drive for success, and a commitment to their businesses and their employees.

To keep up the pace they needed to be aware of their health and to stay fit.

Directors are resilient. They cope with stress well, often saying that their work is not stressful. They often use distancing strategies by calling work a game, by retreating to other interests when necessary, or by using their domestic life as a cut-off from business pressures.

They are also a very healthy group with only 10% having had any significant illness. John Spence, one of this 10%, is a remarkable man who gradually became blind over the last few years. This disability did not deter him from becoming chief executive of Lloyds TSB Scotland.

Male executives need emotional stability to achieve business success, but women don’t. The majority of men claimed that when things went wrong at home, they could not concentrate at work. In some cases their current stability had been hard won as they were into their third marriage. Women were different. When they had trouble with relationships, they channelled their energies into work. In fact Tanya Goodin, who set up her own website company, was worried that her recent marriage would make her so happy that she would lose her competitive edge.

Senior people do not set goals. This surprising finding is against the trend of conventional management wisdom. However, the fact is that relatively few of our interviewees had followed a planned road to success based on clearly identified personal goals. Most were essentially clever opportunists able to seize the moment when it came their way. When asked the reasons for their success, by far the most common answer was ‘luck’. However, they did set goals for the business, just not for themselves.

Directors aren’t trained. Despite the ‘learnability’ of the ingredients of success, very few organisations taught these skills, and the group themselves had very little formal training for their senior positions.

Once there, very few update their skills. If their organisations provide for continuous development, it is invariably for other people.

Top people are fun and interesting. Despite their punishing work schedule, our group had a wide range of interests, which they pursued actively. Successful people live life to the full bringing to their business a breadth of vision developed from a wide range of experiences.

Successful people love work. A real secret of success is undoubtedly loving the job. Our group made no sharp distinction between their working lives and their social lives, and did not begrudge the intrusion of work into personal time. Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, when asked how he coped with the pressures of work, could not relate to the question.

‘I just love what I do. There is simply no pressure involved in that.’

Self confidence goes with the job. Virtually all rated their self confidence as high.

Patience and tolerance had to be learned. When asked what major skills had to be learned to execute their senior posts, overwhelmingly the two most common answers were ‘patience’ and ‘tolerance’. It seems that these characteristics are not the natural behaviour of those who succeed, but simply have to be learned to make progress in the corporate environment.


Problem solve: Our top rated characteristic is the ability to solve problems in a crisis.

Deliver the goods: Know what has to be done and need to achieve results.

Want to win: Those at the top have a drive to become successful and see this as an objective in its own right.

Relate: Leaders prize the ability to work with a wide variety of people and have learned to stay close to their customers and employees.

Trust the team: Success is not achieved in isolation and our directors knew they had neither the time nor ability to do everything.

De-stress: Directors consistently give a high rating to their ability to cope with stress and recognise that managing stress is now a business essential.

Love change: Our sample of leaders told us not only did they love change but they saw their ability to initiate change as crucial to success.

Know yourself: Without hesitation our sample listed their talents and then their failings. Confident self knowledge is the building block for progressing in business.

Strike a deal: Leaders need to achieve ‘win-win’ outcomes with partners and providers.

Be confident: Some were born confident, for others it came with the job.

  • The above is an edited extract from Fast Track to the Top by Ros Taylor and John Humphrey, and is available from bookshops priced £13.99. Readers can order copies direct from the publisher for £12 with free p&p in the UK. Phone 01903 828503 and quote Accountancy Age Reader Offer.

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