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Advice for professionals about achieving career success

Recording and transcript of 10 short tips based on my own career experience.

Summary

Delivered 14 April 2018. Posted 2 May 2018

On 14 April 2018, at the request of my friend Dr Ghulam Abbas I gave a talk to about 30 people of Pakistani origin in Huddersfield. They ranged in age from mid-teens to mid-40's. Most, though not all, were professionals, or aspiring professionals.

I decided to give them 10 tips for career success. I gave a similar talk for Dr Abbas on 25 July 2015. Many of the tips overlap, because my views tend to be consistent!

Below you can listen to the 12-minute recording, or if you wish read a transcript.

Recording

Transcript

Let me start with the bad news. Life is unfair. Some people are born with far more talent than others. Some people are born into rich families with wide networks of connections. Others are not.

In life, you have no choice about your genes. No choice about your inherent talents, no choice about the family you are born into. In life, you have to play the hand of cards that you are dealt.

There is only one thing you can control. That is the choices you make. The big choices such as what you study, what career you follow, who you get married to. But also, you make hundreds of choices every day.

All of those choices matter for your success.

That’s a message I give regularly when I speak at schools, normally to 100 or 200 children at a time. When I am speaking to the children, I deliberately do not give them examples of good choices, because I want them to focus on the key message about the importance of choices.

But you are adults, mostly professionals. Accordingly, I will share some concrete advice about choices. This advice is based upon my own life.

There are many other very successful people who might give you different advice. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for the person I know best, which is myself.

I will limit myself to 10 points.

1 Make your English perfect

Many of you, like Abbas [the event organiser] will have come here as adults. Many of you are highly educated, senior doctors. However, to succeed at the very highest levels in this country, your English needs to be perfect.

Good enough is not good enough.

My advice is to listen to BBC Radio 4 regularly. Practice speaking like that. Test yourself by recording yourself speaking.

Read very high-quality fiction such as Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. This will dramatically improve your understanding of the flow of the language and the grammar.

2 You can never have too many professional qualifications

A client finds it very hard to tell a good tax adviser from a bad tax adviser. But they can tell very easily if you have the highest quality qualifications, or lower quality qualifications.

For example, if you are an accountant, it really matters from the client’s perspective whether you are a chartered accountant, or a certified accountant. I know that it is politically incorrect to say that, but it is true.

3 Write published articles and give talks

Whatever your professional field, there are opportunities to write and speak. I became known as one of the country’s leading experts in the taxation of treasury transactions because of my writing and speaking.

If you do not write and speak, fewer people know who you are.

4 Network as widely as you can

Push yourself to get to know the most important people in your profession. It is not easy going to events full of strangers, where you know nobody. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

I still need to do this personally when I join new organisations and find that I am somewhere where I just don’t know anybody in the room. But you have to push yourself out of that comfort zone and network.

5 Become knowledgeable outside your field

If you spend time talking to very senior people, you will find that they know a great deal outside their own discipline. They may be an expert on heart surgery but they will know about classical music.

That’s even more important when you come from an ethnic minority because people start with different expectations of who you are. You need to know more about the UK’s history and culture than your fellow white professionals.

There are two specific magazines I recommend subscribing to if you’re serious about trying to achieve this.

The first of those is “The Economist” weekly newspaper.

The second one, which you may not have heard of, is “The New York Review of Books” which is the most intellectual magazine that I know. It comes out every two weeks. Reading it you will learn about so many things and so many areas that you never knew existed.

6 Decide what your name is

This is a very controversial piece of advice. Decide what your name is. It may seem like very strange advice. How many of you know a person whose full name is “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson?”

The world of course knows him as “Boris Johnson.” That’s how he wants to be known.

I come across many Muslims who have complex names.

I’m the exact opposite. I was born in a village. My mother gave me a single name: Mohammedamin. It got divided into two when I came to this country. For the first 10 years at primary school it was actually divided the wrong way round and then it was changed when I went to secondary school.

These Muslims who have complex names sometimes try using their whole name. Sometimes they keep changing which parts of their name they want to use with people.

That makes them seem alien, makes them seem shifty, slippery, unreliable. Even to me, and I am a Muslim from a Pakistani background. So just think about the impact that has on other people.

Decide what you want to be called and stick to it consistently. It really will help.

7 Decide “What Do You Want to Be Famous for?”

This is a question that Price Waterhouse asked every one of its partners to think about in the early 1990s as part of our internal partner development. It forces you to think, and decide what you really want to be professionally, and to aim high.

For example, I decided that I wanted to be known as one of the most expert people in the UK on the taxation of treasury transactions. I then set about trying to achieve that.

Unless you have a clear, ambitious, goal you cannot achieve success.

8 Think about your personal brand

I had never thought about the concept of a personal brand until 20 years ago I attended a lecture in Manchester given by the American management consultant Tom Peters.

One of his key points was to think about yourself as a brand.

Companies like Microsoft, Coca-Cola, BMW, want to create a perception inside your head. When you think about that company you know what to expect. If you think BMW, you don’t think “Cheap tinny cars.” You think “High quality good-to-drive cars and expensive ones.”

The same applies to professionals.

I decided that clients are never going to think of me as a nice chap they would like to go to the pub with! Not just because I don’t drink but just because I am not actually a very sociable person.

Instead, I consciously set out to build the image of a tax guru. That’s how I conducted myself in meetings. That’s how I presented myself. That’s why I have all these letters after my name. I wanted to be seen as an expert you go to because he is the best there is. That was achievable. Being a “best mate” was never achievable for me. What I chose fitted my personality far better.

So think about your own brand positioning. It does not have to be the same as mine. But think about your own brand positioning and exactly what you want it to mean.

And also, much more trivially, get the basics right. I am appalled by the number of people I come across on LinkedIn who don’t have a photograph at all, or who have a very poor-quality photograph. Any decent professional should have a really high-quality photograph that they use for all publicity purposes all the time.

9 Get soft skills training

Just like you can never have too many qualifications, you can never have too much training. By soft skills training, I mean training outside your subject matter expertise.

I am an accountant, I’m a tax expert. That is not what I am talking about. I’m talking about training on how to manage people, how to do public speaking, how to make presentations. And we all need that, regardless of whether your field is tax advice or surgery.

I have been doing presentations since I was 30 years old. I still take every opportunity I can get for extra training in public speaking, presentations, media training, writing skills.

Right now I am half way through a four course offering organised by the London Branch of the Chartered Institute of Tax on public speaking. Even though I have been doing public speaking for years, because you always learn something.

Many of you may be in organisations that will provide such training or pay for it. If you are, take every opportunity you get. If you’re not, if you have to pay for it yourself, do so.

10 Read self-improvement books

I was 16 when I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. It was the very first self-improvement book I ever read. I still think about some of the things I learned in that. I read it one more time after that and mostly it just sticks in the head.

In the years since then, I must have read over 100 self-improvement books. Each one did its own little bit to make me better.

Conclusion

Finally, remember that a career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A marathon over a lifetime.

Success comes from the hundreds of small decisions you make every day.

Success comes from knowing what you want to achieve.

Success comes from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

 

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