Friday, 28 October 2011

Climbing the corporate ladder...

In an excerpt from his book "The Lowdown: Top Tips for Wannbe CEOs", Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury (publishers of the phenomenal Harry Potter series) talks about climbing the ladder in publishing...

Q: Let’s talk about education. Does a CEO, in your view, need a university degree?

A: No. But it’s pretty hard in the 21st century western world not to have had a university degree and get on the ladder - at least the corporate ladder. I think it’s completely feasible to do start-up businesses without a university degree, and you could end up as a great industrialist, and there are a few around the world. So I don’t think a university degree is essential, no. But it’s likely.

Q: What are the best three degrees (in your opinion) for someone with his or her eye on becoming a publishing CEO?

A: The three degrees by subject? Reading, Writing and Arithmetic! That’s a serious response. Governments try to get involved in the creative economy and they say, “What do you want us to teach at universities that would improve the quality of the graduates?” Well frankly, if they could come out reading, writing, and being able to add up, we’d be ever so grateful. And I imagine this to be true in many industries.

Q: So you think these basic skills are crucial for a wannabe CEO? 

A: Absolutely. And there are other useful skills apart from reading, writing and arithmetic. To get a little bit more specific: it’s the ability to paraphrase, to assemble thoughts into a coherent prĂ©cis - because business isn’t that complicated.

I rather like what the medieval priest cum philosopher, William of Occam, had to say: One version of the Latin is: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate - which I believe translates as "plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words, it is an abomination to make more complex that which can be simpler. And of course most business-speak is making more complex that which could be simpler. So the ability to make the complex simple seems to me very important. In other words, “keep it simple, stupid.”

And another skill – which is really a subset of the previous skill – is to be able to round up or down when it comes to figures. If I asked you what your sales were last year, and you said “15,469 - and we’re hoping for 16,937 next year,” I’ve already gone blank. If you say ‘it’s 15 this year and 17 next year’, then I get it. The ability to round up and down and to do simple arithmetic in your head is a great advantage in business. I think spreadsheets have become an excuse for sloppy arithmetical thinking.

Q: What about graduate training schemes? Do you think they are worthwhile? 

A: They used to be called apprenticeships, and people would pay to be on them. Regrettably, now the employers have to pay for them! But yes, I do think internal management training schemes are really important. It does allow a company to get the best people. 

Q: And does it give you a head start in the company if you’re on one of these graduate training schemes?

A: You have to be careful. Partly it gives you a leg up because you are probably in contact with more senior people than you would be otherwise. On the other hand, it can have a negative effect because of jealousy, and the “blue-eyed girl or boy” syndrome. The company has to be very, very careful to take all of its people seriously and not to put graduate recruits on a pedestal, which they don’t really want or deserve. And it’s up to the “apprentices” to make sure they don’t try to lord it over people - especially when they are still learning the ropes from them! If they do, they should be kicked very hard.

Q: How do you go about making the most of the opportunities that come from getting started early on these schemes? 

A: I think it goes beyond the scheme. I think it actually is about business as a whole. By and large, businesses are structured by function or by geography or by product. So – for example - if you work for the UK toothpaste department of Unilever and you’re on the marketing side, that’s fine. But if you really want to get on, you’d better learn about soap, soap flakes, America, manufacturing as well as marketing. What I mean is, don’t just be interested in what you do - because when it comes to business, it’s about seeing the whole picture.

I think I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been allowed to be interested beyond my job description. Which is maybe why I no longer have a job description.

Q: So from what you’re saying, a graduate training scheme is great as a leg-up, but within that people still have to be self motivated?

A: Yes. And it separates the wheat from the chaff. In Macmillan, approximately half the people dropped out of the scheme after a year. And I think this is true in other companies as well. For instance, the British National Health Service scheme is reputed to have a 75% dropout rate. Not everyone is suited to every job, and not every company suits every person. Some end up doing the same job for thirty years because they never did get out and move up the ladder into a new job where they could learn new skills. In itself that’s okay – it just means they’re not going up the greasy pole. 

Q: Should wannabe CEOs do other kinds of training? Ongoing training, continue studying in their chosen field?

A: If you’re interested in your business, I think you do anyway. I think it’s a natural progression. For instance, I have no accounting training in any formal sort of way. However, if you’re really interested in the business, you’d better find out what accountants do. And the best way to do that, frankly, is to spend time with them. Or if you want to know about brand management, spend time with brand managers. I’m not sure how formal that would have to be. I did do a fair amount of external management training, but I think I probably learned more from just doing everything rather than going on courses. 

Additionally, these days there are vast resources available: you can buy loads of books, magazines, downloads, and so on, to learn new skills. Keeping up to date in this way is incredibly important.

Q: What’s the best way to go about finding out about how sales, marketing, finance and HR all work?

A: Go to the canteen, if there is a canteen. If there isn’t a canteen, go to the coffee machine. If there isn’t a coffee machine, go to the photocopier, or wherever it is that people congregate, and just talk to them. Just ask.

Early on, before computers gave us accurate statistics on sales, an editor’s job included finding out what a competing book had sold. Now it’s easy to look at a screen to find out what the last book by a particular author sold, but in those days there was no such thing. And if you asked the competing publisher, they would either not tell you – confidential you know – or they’d lie. So how did you find out? You rang up the author. They would probably show off about how well their book had sold, or else they would moan about their publisher and blame her or him for the lousy sales. Either way, they’d tell you a version of the truth. 

So remember that most people want to talk. If you want to learn about accounting or marketing or personnel, the best way to learn is to ask the people who work in those departments. They’ll tell you. People like to talk about their jobs, so asking people is the fastest way to learn. – Richard Charkin, 

“The Lowdown: Top Tips for Wannabe CEOs” is available in both eBook and audio formats.

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