Britain’s most successful women on the career advice they wish they had aged 20

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha
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We all remember that feeling of walking into the career advisor's office at school, full of hope and excitement. Only to leave feeling confused, demoralised and directionless. (Try as they might, the resident job guru wasn't ever very good at being inspirational). 

It can often feel as though little has changed when we're trying to navigate the minefield of our careers: Should you stay in your job? How can you fight for that dream project? Are you ever going to get that promotion? 

Which is why we asked some of Britain's most successful women to divulge on the advice they wish they were told in their early twenties. 

From a Secretary of State to CEOs at some of the country's largest businesses, here 19 amazing women exclusively pass their batons of wisdom onto you...

"Believe you can do anything"

Karen Bradley, 46, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

“I wish I'd been told to believe you can do anything, and take every opportunity that comes your way. At 20 I was studying maths at Imperial College and thought my only career path was accounting. Everyone is feeling self-doubt at that age and it can only hold you back - so don't let it.”

“Be a bit bolder”

Rachel Humphrey, 38, Head Chef at La Gavroche

“I would tell my younger self to be a bit bolder in general, and to have more self-confidence. Don’t hold back – show what you can do and the skills you have without worrying that your confidence is going be perceived as arrogance. It’s not!”

“If you want a promotion, act as though you are already at that level”

Jenny Body OBE, 63, first female president of the Royal Aeronautical Society and former Head of Research and Technology at Airbus

“Firstly, learn to say yes. Your best opportunities will come from other people who will offer you a new task, new job or new role. Take a risk, say yes. One of them might work out as your dream job and, equally importantly, you will be seen as someone who does say yes and will get yet more opportunities. 

"Secondly, if you want a promotion, an upgrade or a more significant role, act as though you are already at that level. Don't say to yourself that you will change when you become a manager; be one now.

"Finally, I have now realised that your career is in your own hands.  No one else cares as much about it as you do.  Consider your work life balance and think about what you are willing to sacrifice and compromise then get out and do it.”

“Don’t limit yourself to the road you think your career should take”

Elizabeth Eastaugh, 36, Global Head of Customer Experience, Brand Expedia

“Don’t limit yourself to the road you think your career should take, and be OK with trying different things and making career pivots in order to find your passion. When you find your fit, you will be more successful and feel more rewarded at work.

"I graduated with an Artificial Intelligence and Robotics degree, and I was always concerned about what my career could be following university. I built applications in my first job at Capita Insurance Services because that was the most natural next step to my education, but it was only when I happened to move into R&D that I realised my passion for inventing and discovering new solutions to problems.

"I would tell my younger self don’t corner yourself in a particular job and be open to discovering your career. Also, don’t be held back by fear that people know more than you. Every idea has value, so speak up!”

“Focus on your role”

Loraine Martins, MBE, FRSA, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Network Rail and Vice Chair at Trust for London

“I know what it's like to work in complex organisations that can pull you in different directions, and consequently distract you from your purpose and dissipate your energy. My advice is to focus on your role. When you pay attention to the things you can do and deliver on them, you create even greater opportunities to do what's important to you. You become a "trusted pair" of hands with more latitude to experiment and test things out.”

“You don’t need to exhibit male qualities”

Sam Smith, 42, CEO of finnCap (stockbroking firm)

“You can be yourself and don’t have to emulate those who are around you. Set your own standards. You don’t need to exhibit male qualities and hide those that might be seen to be female qualities. Being yourself and being different is very powerful.

“Don’t underestimate the power of your gut reaction and what you think is right. No matter how much younger or more junior you are, you are just as likely to be right so don’t doubt your own view and be heard.”

“You have to do more than just dream”

Judy Craymer, 58, theatre producer and creator of MAMMA MIA!

“I've been very fortunate because I was so passionate about musical theatre and passion will always be your driving force. But to make something really happen, you have to do more than just dream. You have to focus, engage and listen to all advice along the way and always follow your instincts and nurture relationships. Take every opportunity seriously as you never know where it can lead and never be afraid to jump in and make coffee for anyone at any time of your career.”

“Accept that you can't be amazing at everything”

Lily Simpson, 31, founder of The Detox Kitchen

“The best advice I can give is to work hard. So many people set goals and want to achieve their dreams but it's the long hours, determination and focus that will help you achieve those goals.

“I wish someone had told me how to delegate better. Early on in my career I was so determined to do everything myself that it meant I became jack of all trades and master of none. Now I focus on what I'm good at and employ people who are far more experienced and skilled in other areas of the business than I am. 

“Don't be afraid to get things wrong and accept that you can't be amazing at everything. I tried to be operational and creative, it's very rare to excel in both. Now I focus on the creative side of the company and I am much more productive.”

“Trust your instincts”

Paula Nickolds, 43, Commercial Director at John Lewis

“I would have told myself to trust my instincts. When you start out you will imagine that those with more experience are in on a secret which you didn't know, and which will suddenly become clear when you reach a certain level of seniority. Of course it is important to absorb the experience and input of others, but increasingly you will see that being true to yourself and your gut and being bold, committed and prepared to experiment are what really leads to success. It also provides you with the passion and purpose that makes all your hard work worth it!”

“Remember not to take everything (and yourself!) too seriously”

Kim Kaewkraikhot, 47, joint chair person and co-owner of Thai Leisure Group

“For me, having a great group of friends to provide encouragement and the unconditional support of my family has been fundamental to my success. This network of friends and family support is the driving force behind the whole Thai Leisure Group brand; we look after each and every member of our teams, from our supplier’s right through to head office and not forgetting our incredibly hard working front of house team.

“I would never have thought to myself, even just 10 years ago, that I would now own 18 restaurants across the UK. I could never have imagined such success from humble beginnings, but I still put it all down to the people around me and a belief in myself; work hard and never give up - you can achieve anything.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy every second of what you do. Remembering not to take everything (and yourself!) too seriously and truly appreciate everything you have will keep you grounded and empathetic, encouraging others to trust in you, your values and your vision for your business.”


Sarah Wood, 43, CEO and founder of Unruly

"I wish someone had told me to worry less early on - every moment I worried about what might go wrong, was a moment I could’ve spent making the right things happen. Along the same lines - the best piece of advice I ever received came the last night before my final exams at college. I was so terrified and my university professor passed me a handwritten note that just said ‘Courage!’”

“Do things differently”

Debra Charles, 53, founder and CEO of Novacroft

“I wish I'd had the confidence to do things differently, to break with traditional ways of working and achieving results – I wish someone had told me this earlier. To the contrary, it was always drummed into me, at work, that conforming was the only route. It took the death of my parents for me to recognise that we have one life (well, I think that's correct!... Always happy to come back again!!) and it's better to have tried walking my own path than to regret not doing so. Because of this, I encourage my team of 200 to think differently and follow what they’re passionate about, in order to make their mark on the world and make a real difference. After all, what is ‘normal’, anyway?”

“Humour often helps to break the ice”

Laura Hinton, 44, executive board member at PWC

“Try to enjoy the journey - don't be overly focused on one big, long-term goal, but celebrate the smaller successes along the way and enjoy those moments. 

“Always try to bring your whole personality to work. Relationships are key and you need to see the whole person to build a strong relationship.  I used to think that I always had to be very serious in meetings but I've learned that humour often helps to break the ice and is great for building stronger relationships - and is a better reflection of who I am. And it's OK to make mistakes - we are all human.”

“When it comes to your career, you know yourself better than anyone”

Octavia Goredema MBE, 37, founder and editor, Twenty Ten Talent

“My advice would be to trust your instincts.  When I was 20 I knew what my dream career was, but I didn’t believe I was good enough to pursue it. So, instead of going after my dream I asked other people what they thought I should do, and I followed their suggestions. When you're starting out it’s so hard to know if you’re doing the right thing. What I came to realise is that I know myself better than anyone. If you pursue something and it doesn’t work out you are not a failure. When it comes to your career, if in doubt, go with your gut. Ask yourself, "does it excite me? Does it feel right? Is it taking me towards where I want to be?" I now trust my instincts 100% instead of doubting my judgment. 

“Be comfortable feeling uncomfortable”

Jill McDonald, 52, CEO of Halfords (former head of McDonald's UK)

“Be comfortable feeling uncomfortable otherwise you are not stretching yourself. So put yourself forward for projects or jobs that build your experience rather than just focusing on the next promotion. 

“Focus on building your confidence as well competence. At the end of the day, success is about people - influencing them, motivating them, encouraging them - so don't underestimate the importance of them!” 

“Aim to make your previous bosses regret firing you”

Hayat Rachi, 26, CEO and founder of lingerie brand Neon Moon

“I wish career advisors applauded my knack for getting fired as opposed to shunning me for it. Basically my CV's a joke to career advisers. You know how they show examples of a good and bad CV at school? Yeah I'm pretty certain mine's at the top of the bad examples pile and I'm so proud of that, and if you're like me you should be too.

Why? Because getting fired means you're now pressured to make a success of yourself by any means possible, and not only that, but now you've also left these companies with a greater understanding of how their businesses work. I worked a string of different jobs, from recruitment consulting to making sandwiches, all for really short periods of time. If you do this then something about your character, ideas or group dynamic tells me you're not a sheep, and that the innate drive and hustle that you have is definitely better deserved working for yourself.

“Most of my closest friends have also been fired over 10 times in their young lives, to the absolute dismay of our parents (ah, I do not miss those arguments), but we've not sold ourselves to make a salary, we've now been forced by the very people who fired us to make an investment in ourselves, which is priceless. Aim to make your previous bosses regret firing you, aim to never become like them, and aim to keep them searching what you're up to on LinkedIn and you'll enjoy every day of being the 'screw up' who constantly gets fired. No careers adviser will ever tell you that!”

“Say yes, then work it out as you go along”

Chloe Macintosh, 41, co-founder and creative director of 

“If an opportunity comes up and you are not sure about whether you can complete the task, say yes, convince your boss that you are the right person for it, and then work it out as you go along. There is great value in being challenged outside of ones comfort zone and my experience is that the best outcomes come out of doing things you had to work out along the way. I have learned that i am my most productive, creative and efficient when pushed in an area where I have to think outside of what I know. 

“Also, experts don't always know best. Having an impact often comes with having to make changes to the way things work, especially in the internet sector where being a contrarian may be one of the key to success. The experts from an industry will always tell you that your new idea cannot work, they are constraint by what they know and this stops them seeing the possibilities for changes. 

“When we started, we met many experts across the various areas of the business, logistic, supply chain, warehouses, and also marketing agencies and designers, manufacturers. All of them said to us that will not work. People will not buy a sofa online without trying it, and from a brand they don't know and trust, and they will not wait three months for it to be delivered.

"Of course it was worrying to hear, but at the same time, we kept focusing on the customer's need, our needs, and the fact that it was not possible to buy good quality, designer furniture from anywhere at the time. We trusted that customers wanted to access better products and that they will adapt their behaviours if we could offer them what they wanted. And we demonstrated that this was the case. So my advice is that, most of the time, it is important to listen to the customer in you, rather than always base your judgement on industry experts.”

“Take opportunities that will make you happy”

Belinda Parmar OBE, 42, CEO of The Empathy Business

“Focus, focus, focus. Don't be distracted by all the things you think you 'should' say yes to. Take the work opportunities that will make you happy - not because you think they will look good on your CV but because you want to. The most important thing is to feel good about yourself - then you will fly!”

“Add value to others”

Anita Murray, 50, joint CEO of William Murray

“Every day, try to find ways to add value to others’. I've realised that to be successful,  it's not about me but it's about my team.”

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha

Sejal Kapadia Pocha covers stories about everything from women’s issues to cult foods. She describes herself as a balance between Hermione and Luna Lovegood.