The CEO's guide to getting ahead in your career

7 min read

We spoke to BT CEO Brad Cooper about what he's learned in his career and what advice he would give to others who want to climb the corporate tree.

What was your first job?

It was in hospitality I was working as an assistant manager in a club. After that I started in customer service in a finance company, and went from there to assistant manager to branch manager and worked my way through.

What about education?

I didn't go to university when I left school. I'm very much "Western Suburbs Sydney".

I'm the only one of six kids that even finished high school let alone anything else. So really, tertiary education for me was never on the cards, until I was 30 when the guy I worked for who I thought was really good got made redundant. He didn't have any tertiary qualifications and his skills weren't transferrable, he found it extremely difficult as a 40-year-old to get a job and I just thought that's not going to happen to me.

So I went and did my undergrad part-time, did my MBA part-time and that was incredibly liberating for me. I wouldn't be in the roles that I've done if I hadn't completed that.

How has that route to CEO shaped you?

I think that pathway of starting in customer service and working my way through has given me a terrific affinity for people in those jobs now, because I've done a lot of them. It means that I'm not seduced by people with great tertiary qualifications but no practical experience. I think I can look through the academic qualifications into somebodys passion for the role and the job. So I think that's really helped me be grounded in the sort of person that I am and the sorts of people that I'm looking for.

What do you look for when you're hiring people?

So as I just said, the first thing, or the only thing I really look for in hiring people, particularly working with me, are people who are passionate about what it is we're trying to achieve; I want to know, do they really believe in what it is that we're trying to do and do they want to be a part of that? Lots of people want to be an exec or they want to be GM or they want to get paid lots of money and that's fine, but when you peel all that away, are they attracted to BT because of what we're trying to do?

As an example, we take it seriously that we are helping Australians prepare for a better financial future; does that mean something to a potential candidate and is it something they can get excited about, do they want to be a part of that? Because the jobs are really hard to do and it's a very competitive world and if you don't have people who really enjoy it and want to be part of that, it becomes difficult.

So passion is important?

Yes passion is important and integrity but I also look for an independent mind, so it's somebody who isn't just going to implement what it is that you say but somebody who's thoughtful and will stand up for review.

You like to work with people who will challenge you?

Absolutely! I'm very strong and I'm probably more task than I am people, and I need people around me who will push back because without that it will just be the way that I want it done, and I absolutely need people who will challenge.

Did you do that in your career with managers?

Oh, definitely.

Do you think it's important to plan your career?

I've never thought that you need to have a career plan, because there's far too much change that goes on in the workplace. You need a direction, an interest, but not a plan. I think your career is far more defined about the choices you make along the way than it is about the plan that you had.

It's that sliding doors thing. Opportunities will come up and it's what you say yes to, what you say no to that counts. To position yourself to have those opportunities means you've got to be enjoying what you're doing because people like to be around people who are having fun. And you've got to be good at doing it, and you've got to be seen to be somebody who's passionate that has potential because then the opportunities come your way and you can make choices. That's going to be about are you mobile, are you flexible, all of those things will come into play.

Have you ever been fired?

Never. No I haven't. I don't know how my ego would handle that! The biggest disappointment I've had in my career is just missing out on jobs that I thought I was ready for, and it goes right back to when I was in hospitality and I went for a job as a manager and the board of directors interviewed me and one other when I was 21. They pulled me in and told me that I was the preferred candidate but they felt I was too young, and I left the following week because it was just a ridiculous outcome for me, and I was disappointed at that.

Then I think at other times in my career I felt I was ready for particular jobs and one of my colleagues would get the job and I'd be massively disappointed that I missed out on because at the time you don't think that opportunity is going to come back up again. But of course, if you keep going and you keep being good at your job, the next chance comes up.

What do you look for when considering someone for a promotion?

One of my bosses said to me once, if you've got somebody who's doing a fantastic job in their role then you should reward them well and thank them for that job, but you should promote people for what they can do for you, not for what they have done for you. It's about their potential.

If you want a promotion then you should be demonstrating that you're ready for that next thing. If you want the next job you've got to be acting like you're in that job. So yes, of course, you need to be doing a great job in your current role, but as a manager you're looking for more, and a lot of that is about their discretionary effort; are they projecting themselves into that role early or do they think they just deserve it because they've done a good job here.

Have you ever had a mentor?

I've had several and I've got a couple of mentors now, probably three. One of them is an ex-boss. Another one was an ex-CEO and another one was a CEO of another organisation who I've come to know. Of the three, two of them would probably see themselves as my mentor and the other one probably doesn't realise that that's how I treat them because they're very close relationships now. They're those sorts of people that I can phone and talk to.

They've been important to you in your career?

Oh very much so. Absolutely. Being able to talk about challenges, whether it's difficult customers and how to approach things. Or tough team decisions or different opportunities that have come up and what sort of things I should consider in those situations. Right through to family, work/balance issues and getting feedback on how they have addressed these issues in similar situations.

What would you say has been your biggest learning about yourself as you've moved through your career?

That your past doesn't define you: That you can't control what happens to you but you absolutely control how you respond to it. I've never been one to think that I'm lucky or unlucky. Even when I've missed out on opportunities I've gone right back in to people to understand why was that decision made. But not in any sense of blame, just trying to understand what else I need to be doing about something. So I think personal responsibility and feeling like today I can be whatever I want to be. Today it's in me to decide how I'm going to behave, how I'm going to respond. I think that's just so critical.

Interested in a career at Brad's company - BTFG - check out the careers page here.

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This information is current as at 22/07/2014.

BT Financial Group - A Division of Westpac Banking Corporation. This document provides an overview or summary only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. This information does not constitute financial advice. It has been prepared without taking account of your objectives, financial situation or needs. Because of this, before acting on this information, you should consider its appropriateness having regard to your objectives, financial situation and needs. Information in this blog that has been provided by third parties has not been independently verified and BT Financial Group is not in any way responsible for such information.