Does an academic qualification open the right doors – or can you crash to the top without?

By | April 2, 2013

jo-haighJo Haigh, entrepreneur and partner at fds Corporate Finance, delivered a guest lecture at Bradford University School of Management

Despite having a number of qualifications – including a law degree – and gone on a wide range of (very good) business management courses, I still wonder if we over-rate the value of these in terms of careers and ‘success’?

I recently gave a guest lecture at the School of Management, to students of all ages and nationalities.  I was asked to talk about my business values and tips for a successful career – and it struck me that none of these have much to do with qualifications.

1. Set your own values

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

In your personal life, as in business, it helps to think through what matters to you and how this translates into your working life.

My own values are

  • Be kind
  • Work hard
  • Stay positive

I am sometimes challenged about how you can be kind in business, but still take the tough decisions.  It is easy and there is no conflict.  You may have to sack someone, but think about it from their perspective.

Being kind in this context would mean not sacking someone in front of others; help them to understand why they don’t fit into an organisation and the sort of work or place where they might work better. Or if it is because the company is going through a difficult time and you cannot afford their job any more, take time to explain that fully.

And offer help and support wherever you can.

Working hard probably speaks for itself!  No-one should expect to earn a lot of money or build a successful business without putting in both the hours and the thinking time.

Staying positive has never been more important than in the last four years.  But like everyone who has built businesses, I have had my knocks over the years.  There is no good dwelling on the negative of what has happened – other than to learn any lessons – and you have to be positive and focus on ‘what next’.  Even in adversity there is always an opportunity – look for that and how you capitalise on the opportunity and that will help to stay upbeat.

2. Send the elevator back down


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As you go up the ladder, you will have a helping hand from a lot of people – your bosses, colleagues, family, in your networks.  The biggest thank you for these people is to help others around and behind you.

When people ask for advice, give it generously.  Mentor others, take young people on placements.

3. Differentiate yourself

Don’t be a clone of others.  I am a great believer in being me – that is, feminine!  I dress well, wear high heels and enjoy standing out.

There are too many people talking about how disadvantaged women are, not nearly enough about all the advantages that women have!   Women can easily be far more memorable than a man can!


4. Network

Image courtesy of naypong

Image courtesy of naypong

There are lots of books and blogs on networking and how to be good at it.  These are all worthwhile and helpful when you start out.

I have built my businesses on networking.  You need a network to find the right person for the right job – whether that is a great accountant or lawyer or someone who understands training and how to carve out a niche in this field.

Perhaps the point not covered enough is the importance of saying thank you along the way.  So few people do this, that when you are the one who does thank others, it is noticed and really appreciated.

Don’t you like being thanked?  How does it make you feel about that person?  Wouldn’t you like to do more business with them!

5. Get rid of the Rottweiler!


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If you want to get on in life, you need to be open to opportunities.  And you can’t do that if you have a Rottweiler of a secretary holding everyone at bay.

Recruit people around who can help build relationships for you and capitalise on those opportunities – not reject them before they have been given a chance.

6. Build a social media presenceTales

Don’t underestimate the importance of social media – and it is becoming more important.

Can you become known in a particular field, say as a corporate branding speaker or a constitutional law spokesman?  Create a profile on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and become a thought leader through your blogs.

All of this will help build your career and your business.


7. Recruit great people

No man is an island!  However good you are, there is a limit to the number of hours in the day – even Superman didn’t manage to stretch time.  So recruiting great people is critical for personal and business success.

And now we are back to qualifications.  Do they matter?

In my business I believe in recruiting for culture and attitude, not qualifications.  Of course, if you are recruiting a finance director for a FTSE 100 company, almost certainly you would want a qualified chartered accountant.  Though research carried out by the Directorbank Group for their What makes an Outstanding FD showed that even a few top FDs are not qualified accountants.

So qualifications are not the be all and end all.  Fit with your business is – and people can always be trained in specific skills.

8. Enjoy the journey!

We only get one life.  We need to live it in perspective.

What will really matter 100 years from now?  What are we worrying about today?  Does it really matter?

Keep focused on the big things – and family and colleagues do matter.  Making money does matter too – not least to protect family and colleagues.

So in all this, how important are qualifications?  Bradford University has one of the best business schools in the UK – the world.  But will these qualifications be enough to become outstanding in business and life?!