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'Spin the wheel': Six top execs share the top career lessons they've learned

Senior professionals who've already reached the pinnacle offer best-practice advice to those who are still climbing the career ladder.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: 10'000 Hours/GETTY

Up-and-coming professionals are desperate to succeed, with research suggesting some younger workers even expect a promotion after just one year on the job

If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself? Six business leaders turn back the clock -- and offer important lessons for all professionals.

1. Ensure you get a good work/life balance

Clare Lansley, CIO at Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One, says she'd tell her younger self that there's nothing wrong with taking your foot off the gas slightly. 

"I don't know if I'd change a great deal about my career path but maybe I'd address work/life balance. I did work hard as a junior. During the first 10 years, it was almost that work came first -- and you don't have to do that," she says. 

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Lansley says professionals should aim for a good work/life balance while they attempt to climb the career ladder.

"When you're working on something that really motivates you, and you just want to get it over the line, you might decide that you're going to give up your weekend to do it. But it's not like you're under duress to do it. I think sometimes you need to just give yourself a break."

2. Move around various business functions

Marc Jennings, CIO of analytics and AI at TUI, would encourage others to move into different parts of the business and to try different roles. 

"I was fortunate enough to be able to do that, so I would encourage it. TUI has been great -- and it still is -- about moving people around into jobs that are good for them." 

Jennings has spent two decades with the holiday firm. He says professionals who stay with one business should ensure they always look for fresh challenges.  

"Don't just sit in once space forever doing one job," he says. "Move around consciously and get experience of different parts of the business, different technologies, different leadership styles -- it makes you a better and more rounded person. And then, wherever you end up in your career, you will do a better job."

3. Try and find contentment in the moment

Trustpilot CISO Stu Hirst has reached the top of the security profession but says it's important to make sure you don't push too hard, too quicky.

"I spent a number of years always looking for the next stage and the next level I could go to," he says. "I think I would probably take a bit more time and try and find a bit more contentment in the moment."

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Hirst looks back to the early part of his career and says young professionals should try and enjoy the ride rather than obsessing about promotions.

"I probably spent five or six years battling too hard to try and get to a level I thought I wanted to get to. I'd like to think that would have happened naturally anyway, but I don't know if I enjoyed some of the roles as much as I could have if I'd had a bit more contentment and just been willing to play the longer game a little bit."

4. Don't be afraid to spin the wheel

On the way to running data systems for one of the UK's biggest retailers, Barry Panayi, chief data and insight officer at John Lewis Partnership, has worked across a range of industries, companies and functions. Not all these moves were the right ones -- and he'd have strong advice for his younger self. 

"I think that the term used now to describe my personal path is a 'squiggly career'. If something came up, and it was interesting, I'd just do it. Mostly, I've enjoyed it. If I'd have thought about it more, I could have avoided those painful bits."

Yet Panayi says even the worst parts of the path provided useful lessons, so he advises other professionals to reflect carefully on the tough times and embrace risk. 

"I think if you enjoy variety, you're not always going to get it right. I would always continue to spin the wheel as opposed to playing it safe. I don't really see the point in playing it safe."

5. Go beyond your current mindset

Lisa Heneghan, global chief digital officer at consultancy firm KPMG, says she'd tell her younger self to not be constrained by what you know today.

"When I was 21 or even 30, I never dreamt of the things that I could do," she says. "And it was only when somebody saw in me the potential to do more and challenged me that I allowed myself to be pushed out of my comfort zone. And it's the best thing."

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Heneghan encourages younger professionals to keep an open mind to the opportunities and challenges they find. Having good people around you to offer trusted advice is a crucial component for success. 

"When I'm making decisions, I think 'what would I tell my daughters, what would I advise them to do?' Because sometimes I think we make decisions without thinking the options through. We limit ourselves and I would encourage young people to be open to different things. I think that's a very good mindset to have."

6. Learn from everyone, even the bad managers

Ed Higgs, group director of IT shared services at Rentokil Initial, says -- apart from going into IT recruitment at the start of his career, which he didn't enjoy -- he'd pretty much stick to the career path he's taken, even when times have been tough.

"I've learned a lot from people who've managed me badly. It was those experiences that helped shape me more than the good managers, because the good managers don't stand out until afterwards, when you realize that you've moved on and developed," he says.

"It's the bad managers that stand out simply because they're bad managers. So, I learned a lot from those people. And when you move on and get that promotion -- and you think 'How did I do that?' -- it's then that you realize how good the other managers were."

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