Climbing the career ladder – can you go from the bottom to the top?

Climbing the career ladder

Karen Hester has made the news in the past week by becoming the first female director of the board at Suffolk based brewer Adnams. What was so special about her story? Well, she started at Adnams back in 1988 as a part-time cleaner. This made me think, how hard is climbing the career ladder? How hard is it to get to the very top, starting right at the bottom?


Is Karen a one-off?

Karen’s story is very impressive indeed. In April 2015, she is due to formally take up her role as an executive director on Adnams’ main board. She will be responsible for the operations of the Adnams brewery, distillery, hotels, pubs and shops.

She joined the company way back in 1988 as a part-time cleaner, to support her two young children. As the years went by, she progressed through the ranks, from cleaner, to procurement clerk, to transport clerk (when she became a single parent,), to transport manager, to head of logistics in 2000, to customer services director. She then returned to college part time to gain a Diploma in Management.

From this role, she slowly added more responsibilities to her remit, kept climbing the career ladder which culminated in the promotion to the board. “If I can go from being a cleaner to a director on the main board of a company then, let’s face it, there is hope for everybody”.

An inspiration, I’m sure you will agree. Starting at a company at the bottom and rising to the very top is very rare indeed. But, are there any other examples out there where people have done similar things? In short, yes, there are. Here are 10 stories to get you thinking:

  • Philip Clarke (Tesco CEO: 2011 – 2014) – Started by stacking shelves at his local Tesco in Liverpool in 1974.
  • Fred L Turner (McDonald’s CEO & Chairman: 1973 – 2004) – Began his career at McDonald’s in 1956 as a burger flipper.
  • Malcolm Walker (Iceland Foods CEO: 1970 – ) – Started Iceland by opening the first store in Oswestry, England with a business partner, whilst he was still an employee at Woolworths (where his employment was terminated once their employer discovered his job on the side).
  • Jim Ziemer (Harley-Davidson CEO: 2005-2009) – Began his career at Harley-Davidson as a freight elevator operator in 1969.
  • Mark Price (Waitrose MD: 2007 – ) – Joined the John Lewis Partnership as a graduate trainee in 1982.
  • Andrew Taylor (Entreprise CEO: 2001 – ) – Started out washing cars on Enterprise rent-a-car lots when he was 16 years hold.
  • Sir Terry Leahy (Tesco CEO: 1997 – 2011) – Started by stacking shelves and washing floors in a Tesco in Wandsworth, London during school holidays.
  • Peter Marks (Co-op CEO: 2000 – 2013) – Joined Yorkshire Co-operatives in 1967 as a management trainee in the Food division.
  • Andy Clarke (Asda CEO: 2010 – ) – Joined Asda as a junior in 1992.
  • Jim Skinner (McDonald’s CEO: 2004 – ) – Started as a restaurant manager trainee in 1971.



They climbed the career ladder, so can you. But how?

Obviously none of these people went from shelf-stacker or cleaner to CEO overnight. Each were at the company for 20+ years before they progressed their career to allow them to get into their role. Therefore, the characteristics that all of these people share are determination, the hunger to succeed over the long term and loyalty to the company.

However, here are ten more specific tips that will help you climb the career ladder as quickly as possible:

  1. Know thyself: The first step is to really understand yourself. Work out your strengths and weaknesses. Not those that you spurt out in an interview or appraisal, but your real strengths and weaknesses. Then, do everything you can to demonstrate your strengths and do what you can to minimise the impacts of your flaws.
  2. Crave knowledge: Education leads to progress. Learn everything you can from people around you. Learn from as many sources as possible. This doesn’t necessarily have to be formal education, but many of these people (including Karen Hester) have returned to college/university to gain further formal education after starting at their companies.
  3. Be enthusiastic: People who seem disinterested in their work are never going to progress to the upper echelons of a company. Show a great deal of enthusiasm in everything you do. This will also make the day-to-day much easier as your enthusiasm will be infectious.
  4. Present yourself well: Dress smartly, speak slowly and with impact and generally present yourself as you would want others to. Your first impression sticks, and can be a huge hurdle to climb over if you make a bad first impression due to a bad appearance.
  5. Embrace the power of teams: Almost all jobs, especially at higher levels, require a level of teamwork. The more well versed you can become in working in a team, the easier you will find it to progress.
  6. Master delegation: As you reach the management levels of a company, you will start to appreciate just how important it is to delegate well. Find a team you trust and delegate tasks which will not help to further your progression. You can never get there alone, so finding a support network and appropriately delegating certain tasks is integral to your eventual progression.
  7. Plan the journey: Like any goal, if you don’t identify the destination AND plan the journey how to get there, you will never arrive. People don’t just go from cleaner to executive director. They understand their future path in the short, medium and long term and they work towards these goals.
  8. Listen before you act: People can severely impact their reputation by acting too quickly in an attempt to help. Stop. Listen intensively to what your bosses are saying, what they actually want and what you can do to meet, and exceed, their expectations. Then, after making a plan, execute it carefully and with intent.
  9. Be an asset to your boss: If you are trying to get to the very top, you will often have to get promoted higher than your current boss. However, for the time being, this is the best person to impress as your forward progression will usually involve their input.
  10. Be confident: As the old Geordie phrase suggests, “shy bairns get nowt”. Be confident and don’t be afraid to talk and interact with the most senior people in the company. The more that you can get yourself on their radar the better. Don’t be cocky, but confidence is an essential trait to progress to board levels.



Conclusion – Climbing the career ladder

They did it, and so can you. All it takes is hard work, enthusiasm and a certain level of longevity to climb the career ladder. Follow the above tips closely, and it is likely that you will start progressing up the ranks like these inspirations have before you.

5 thoughts on “Climbing the career ladder – can you go from the bottom to the top?

  1. “Know Thyself” is huge! If you go around and work without really knowing your strengths and weaknesses, your chance for advancement is minimal. My strength is in data crunching and solving problems, but I used to suck at conveying my message to my boss. If they don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, then my value is absolutely zero, even if I have a kick-butt solution to their problems. By interacting more and asking, “Does that make sense?”, I have already started my ascent up the corporate ladder.
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