James Callander's job is to find top talent for senior positions. At just 31 he is already managing director of FreshMinds Talent, the recruitment business, so he knows first-hand what it takes to rise rapidly up the career ladder. His secret was to join a growing company in a growing market which enabled him to gain a promotion every couple of years as the company grew from a staff of eight to more than 100.
"If you join a business that is ever expanding there will be a real thirst for good people and so you will naturally progress faster," he says.
However, it takes more than a fast track in an expanding business to reach the top. So when he is hunting for the right people to fill senior vacancies, what are the skills he looks for? "In any career success story, if you don't know where you are going it is much harder to plot the path — so the people we deal with tend to be very clear about what their goal is and that would be my advice to others," he says. "In addition they have three key attributes in common — and these are things that anyone planning to rise up the career ladder can emulate if they want to manoeuvre themselves into a pole position."
Be a first-class operator: "Whether you are a salesperson or work in a bank, whatever it is you do, you need to be someone that gets noticed for the right reasons from an early age," says Callander. "That means being the top performer among your peers. But you also need to think of your next job and what skills you need to acquire to get that next role.
"Even if you are planning on staying with the same company for 20 years, always look at what you need to add to your CV to get to the next step.
"A lot of organisations run leadership schemes where you will get noticed by your seniors. So position yourself well and ensure you are on the right project and doing the right deals so that you build your personal profile."
Look at extracurricular activities: While being a good operator at work can get you noticed, what you do outside of the office is also important — it can add to your skills, help build contacts and show you can take on extra responsibility, says Callander.
"Whether it is becoming a trustee of a charity, a school governor or joining the board of an NHS hospital trust, you can broaden your experience — particularly if you join an organisation that is not doing so well and you can bring your skills to bear to turn it around," he says. "For example, if you can help a charity to reduce costs and raise revenue, it is a way of proving that you can take on corporate responsibility. Even running a sports team or being an athlete can bolster your CV as it shows you have drive and passion."
Build your network: "This is not about an old boys' network this is about actively making contacts that are relevant to your career," says Callander. "Obviously you need a network within your own organisation but you should also look at the job you want tomorrow and who could help you get it. So that means networking with clients and customers. If you can become an expert in your industry, commenting on trends, for example, in trade publications, that can help build your profile. "However, the most useful people to know are those who are 10 years older than you — as these are the people who are going to give you your next job. These are also the people you can learn from. Networking is important. Some people think that their career will just happen to them, but you need to drive it yourself and make things happen."
Invest in yourself
Knowing where to focus your efforts and being passionate about what you want to do is also vital according to another careers expert, Douglas Board, a former head-hunter who runs Maslow's Attic, a coaching company helping successful people with lateral career shifts. "If you are going to convince someone to give you a role, you have to be passionate about it," he says. "How else are you going to be able to persuade someone else to let you realise your realistic dream?" His top tips for talented people are: Get a little better at the things you are not so interested in or not so good at. "While you need to keep investing in your main skill set, getting better at these other skills will make the biggest difference to your career," he says.
Give yourself the right intellectual equipment for when opportunity comes knocking. "In addition to investing in your skills — for example, through an MBA — also focus on your people skills," he says. "There is no more critical skill than being able to assess and pick the right people — look to those who are better at it than you, and learn from them."
Learn from the best
Steve Tappin, CEO of Xinfu, can best be described as a confidant to CEOs (he works with 13 of the FTSE100 leaders and is also the author of The Secrets of CEOs). While very few will make it that far in their career, his advice applies to anyone who wants to improve their prospects.
"The biggest issue is having the right mindset," says Tappin. "Most of the CEOs I deal with didn't have a clue that they wanted to be a CEO in their early twenties. However, they nearly all had a broad apprenticeship collecting as many experiences as possible.
"Having a range of business experiences gives a greater understanding of how a business works. My other advice would be to work with someone who is very inspiring and ambitious — a true 21st century leader — who is looking at the growth agenda and will give you a rollercoaster experience.
"You also need to work on personal qualities. Very few people are good at developing themselves as human beings, but that is what successful people have in common."
He says that certain additional experiences can earn you "double points" including spending time in China and learning Mandarin and working in a range of businesses to see how different ownership structures work.