Getting a graduate job at a big company used to count as winning the career lottery. It led to good training, varied work and plenty of opportunities to develop the skills needed for senior executive roles.
Today, though, the case is not so clear-cut. People who make it on to a company’s fast-track scheme are still in the pool of potential leaders but there is a risk they will arrive at the middle stage of their career to find themselves trapped by having specialised too soon, according to Mike Johnson, chairman of the FutureWork Forum think-tank and author of The Worldwide Workplace, a book that advises on how to adapt to rapid change in working environments.
“You can easily end up like an actor who gets typecast into playing one particular role,” he said. “In the old days, companies would move [junior] people around every six months or so to make sure they got experience in sales, distribution, finance and so on. It meant that eventually they would know the whole business. But now people are brought into one department and expected to start producing results straight away, so there is no time to get that broad experience.”
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Most entrepreneurs start with at least one great idea but a successful long-term business requires ongoing innovation. This is one reason why Postcode Anywhere co-founder Jamie Turner is determined that the company won’t rest on its laurels; too many tech businesses run into strife when they try to protect the past rather than create the future, he says.
For Sachin Bagga and his colleagues at Sabichi Homewares, it has meant growing the company’s own brand alongside the white-label product his business makes for high-street retailers.
Natasha Faith and Zemhal Mikael moved their jewellery business, La Diosa, into a new market when the recession brought new competitors into their niche, while the Classical Comics team found a way to create a popular new product by re-using some of its existing resources.
Long-established traditions need not be a hindrance to fresh ideas, according to the managing director of Anglepoise, the lamp company, and Bell & Loxton, the rapeseed oil business, both of which are family business.
See all the stories in this month’s special, and previous issues, at The Times SME Hub.
Carolyn McCall moved from the media to an airline. Harriet Green took on Thomas Cook after years in the electronics industry. And Dave Lewis, Tesco’s latest chief executive, spent more than 25 years at Unilever before switching to the supermarket.
Changing sectors is unusual at this level — about two-thirds of FTSE 100 chief executives are appointed not just from within the industry but from within their company. However, it can be a success, according to Jim Hinds, managing director for Europe at the search firm Russell Reynolds.
“It can be a useful approach for the right company in the right circumstances,” he said. “For instance, when one industry is going through a lot of change that another has already experienced, there are clear reasons why it is good to borrow expertise.”
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