Ruth Lea My Biggest Mistake: The wings came off

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The Independent Online
Ruth Lea, 51, read economics and statistics at York and Bristol before joining the Civil Service. In 1988, she became senior economist, then chief economist, at Mitsubishi Bank. She left to join Lehman Brothers, then spent a year as ITN's economics editor. She was appointed head of policy unit at the Institute of Directors in 1995

I THINK my greatest mistake was to stay so long in the Civil Service. I had ambitions to be a high-flyer, and I wanted to be at least an under- secretary, if not higher. But at the age of 40, I hadn't got further than grade seven.

I went before the promotions board and I didn't get through it: I was absolutely stunned. I don't think I fitted, and I don't think they saw me as someone who should have a senior position. I thought: "Your high- flying career, my dear, has lost its wings."

There were two choices: leave and take a huge mid-career risk, or stay and remain embittered. My reaction was: "My God, I will show you - boy, will I show you." The irony is that if I had been promoted, I would still be in the middle, not higher echelons.

So, in 1988, I took the first option: I went to some headhunters and got the job at Mitsubishi. I had never worked in the financial sector before, but I owe the Japanese a lot: I worked hard for them and they rewarded met. It was a huge step to take, but it struck me as a very good idea, and I have never regretted it.

If you feel you are under-valued, there's only one person who can really do anything about it - and that's you. You need huge application, huge confidence, faith in yourself and determination not to take no for an answer. You have to be dedicated.

At Mitsubishi, I started to do media, which was a great opportunity. I found that my teaching experience meant I could just sit in front of a camera and talk. But on programmes like Question Time, I can't tell you how nerve-racking it is: anything can come up. You have to have an instant response.

My period in the Civil Service did put some things in perspective. You know people are better and cleverer than you. That makes you, I trust, not overweeningly arrogant.