The Interview: Man of his Financial Times

Andrew Gowers, former Editor of the Financial Times and current Head of European Corporate Communications at Lehman Brothers, gives the scoop on life at the business end of journalism

For me, university was a fantastic experience - but that had less to do with my studies per se than with the range of extra-curricular activity I found myself able to pursue. And, after a term in which I tried to fool myself that I might contemplate a theatrical career, that meant journalism. I devoted myself night-and-day to the student newspaper, Stop Press (since renamed Varsity). I co-edited it for a year; most of my friends wrote for it; and when we weren't doing that we were in the pub together.

After university I became a graduate trainee at Reuters, which was a great jumping-off point for journalism in general and business journalism in particular. As to precisely when I decided I wanted to be a business journalist, I'm not exactly sure. But I did write abut business subjects sometimes for Stop Press. And my parents tell me that I started aspiring to work for the Financial Times pretty soon after joining Reuters.

The first 'life-lesson', which hit me very early on in my first job, was that it's not all fun: there is a certain amount of unavoidable grind to learning any new trade. The second, which hit soon after, is that relatively little of the subject-matter that one absorbs in an academic course is of direct use at work. Far more important, in journalism as much as in other walks of professional life, are the everyday skills of relationship-building, influencing, maintaining your focus on specific goals.

It was a much more distinguished journalist than I, back in the 1960s, who said that to be a journalist required "a little writing ability, a plausible manner and rat-like cunning." All those qualities can still be useful. But the main quality required to succeed in journalism, I think, is intellectual curiosity. Good journalists need to be able to absorb and digest a lot of information quickly, and then to explain often complex subject-matter in straightforward language without 'dumbing down'. That requires a lively, enquiring mind, analytical intelligence and an articulate voice or writing style. As you reach more senior roles, these qualities are required in even greater measure, coupled with an ability to manage people and pronounced multi-tasking skills.

It may sound strange, but I learned so much from many of my colleagues at the FT that they were my real role models: they were excellent reporters, brilliant commentators, and all-round great people to be with. Elsewhere, I greatly respected Paul Steiger, who was Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal for many years including the time I ran the FT. He and I became quite close while we competed every day in our newspapers, and I thought Paul was a model of journalistic excellence and integrity. Outside journalism, I found much to admire in the best business leaders I got to know - people like Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs who is now US Treasury Secretary.

The best things about my job were access and freedom. At the FT, you just had this incredibly privileged access to almost anyone you wanted to talk to. If you work for the Lex column or as a specialist reporter on a given sector, CEOs in general realise they simply have to talk to you. And superior access generates superior insight. Freedom was great too - the freedom to make up your own mind on a story, free of pressure to take a particular line. The idea that journalists were expected to exercise independence of thought was for me one of the most motivating aspects of the job. As to the worst thing, I think I would have to point to the uncertain outlook for newspapers as a business. That nagging worry about the future of print and the fairly constant pressure on the cost base - certainly during the economic slowdown from 2001 - were clouds over my time as Editor.

I am proud of expanding the breadth, depth and quality of comment throughout the paper, both from an enlarged number of FT columnists, in an expanded Lex column and new financial comments, and from an impressive array of external contributors. I think it is fair to say that the FT's op-ed page has become the essential noticeboard for exchange of views on the most vital political and economic issues of the day, written for and read by everyone from the US Treasury secretary and aspiring presidential candidates to Billy Bragg.

There's no secret formula to reaching the top in business journalism. The people who have reached these top jobs in the last few decades have all been very different, so far as I can see - all with their own interests and foibles. If they have anything in common, it is a relentless focus on excellence - never accepting second-best.

The main thing I've learned about business is that it's actually quite difficult to do. People often wonder why the best CEOs are paid fiendish amounts of money, and I would answer that the skills required - in people management, in finance, in judgment - to lead a large company in times of rapid economic and technological change are quite extraordinary. Those who make a success of it over time deserve the rewards, which reflect a kind of scarcity value.

Make clear and considered decisions about what you want to do with your life after university. And take nothing for granted: your chances are what you make of them.