Andrew Cosslet, CEO of InterContinental Hotels

Photo by Earl Wilson

Interesting interview with Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, in Sunday’s New York Times in which he made a couple of observations pertinent to any business executive:

About staying in touch… “I was about 24, I ended up with Unilever, and the first job was selling ice cream in Liverpool … I learned more in those nine months than I think I’ve ever learned since. Unilever used to test their graduates as they came in — they wanted to see if we had the stamina to hang around doing the more routine stuff. Are you going to be patient, and not be recognized as the bright young thing all the time?

“So I was given this job working for Wall’s Ice Cream, one of the subsidiaries of Unilever. I had 600 small shops to look after and a Ford Escort … The biggest thing I remember from those days, other than the utter loneliness of being a salesman with customers who abuse you all the time, was how much of what comes out of corporate offices is of absolutely no purpose, and how far removed some people are from the front line.

“I was out there expected to sell this ice cream in the middle of winter in Liverpool. It was pretty tough, and I was in there trying to sell these two-pound ice cream cakes because head office said that’s what we had to sell. I remember saying that if I ever get somewhere, I will never forget how this feels and this sense of remoteness. I now routinely test myself to make sure I’m not forgetting.”

Career advice for the young… “Leave home. Go as far away as possible from what you know. I think you’ve got to be tested, and you’ve got to test yourself. So my best career advice would be life advice. Go and find out who you are and what you can deal with and put yourself in some positions that will be distinctly uncomfortable. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone is a great learning in life.

“The second would be: keep asking questions. There’s a lot of perceived wisdom in most industries that haven’t hasn’t been challenged for years. The trick in business is not to care too much. Because if you care too much, you won’t ask questions and you won’t challenge because you’ll care too much about your position and what someone’s thinking about you. I was always relatively cavalier in my early career because I always thought if I don’t make it in business, I’ll go and do something else anyway. I always have given 100 percent to everything I’ve done, but I’ve always had a slightly maverick side that actually stood me in great stead, because it enabled me to ask those difficult questions and be the burr under the saddle.

“The third one is: have a sense of humor. It’s a lot easier to get through most things if you’ve got a smile on your face. It doesn’t have to be a chore. So just lighten up.”

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