The current pandemic has laid bare a number of myths about the way we live. For instance we have always imagined that the government had stockpiles of ‘kit’ to cope with whatever contingency it faced, be it providing aid to a hurricane-devastated country, coping with heavy snowfalls or managing a health pandemic for instance. In the same vein I used to imagine, in my youth, that my National Insurance contributions were going into an account with my name on it, the government would match them and it was this money, with compound interest added of course, that would pay my state pension when I got to 65 or whenever. Sadly these are just myths!
I have a somewhat jaundiced view that politicians and civil servants often put off making decisions …… until Friday. That afternoon they look at their desk, thinking they should clear some of the stuff before the new week starts and by 1600 they have done so – having no thought to the on-going consequences of those decisions. When I worked in an Army headquarters in Salisbury back at the beginning of the 1980s, we reinforced the British contingent in Belize once and upped the troop numbers in Northern Ireland twice – the decision in each case coming on a Friday afternoon. As we laboured all weekend on the logistics needed to action the plan, the cynic might believe that the decision-maker was enjoying a glass of Pimms in his or her deckchair!
There is obviously a lot of planning within the Army, at all sorts of levels, but it’s widely recognised that at the very basic level, all planning goes out of the window when the first shot is fired. Fortunately individual and unit training kicks in as soon as the battle starts.
I planned to stay in the British Army for ever, but by the time I was 39 I felt I had had the most fun I was going to have; then I was offered a sales role with Short Brothers. Flattered by being asked without any attempt to solicit an offer, I made no effort to check what the alternatives were; no plan! Short Brothers was an interesting company. Founded in circa 1898 by three brothers who in addition to having the surname Short were all vertically challenged, they claimed the first global contract to build six aeroplanes for the Wright Brothers in 1906. Mr Rolls and Mr Royce were chums! During the interwar years Shorts built flying boats, for the government wanted to open up the empire and saw air travel as the way to do it. During the Second World War Shackleton and Stirling bombers came off the production line from their Belfast-based manufacturing facility. By the time I joined they were making short-haul aircraft for the commuter market, huge aircraft composite wing and tail assemblies and SAM missiles. I always thought it ironic that they made things that could fly and things that could destroy things that flew!
Working on the sales side out of a suitcase and the London Office, I took over the ‘India and the Far East’ patch. I planned to stay until I retired! What I hadn’t planned for was the 1991 recession, which was vicious and deep. Turning down the option to work at head office in Belfast, I took redundancy. Emotionally it’s like being punched in the face; in an open-plan office the ‘return to your desk and clear your things’ was accompanied by the awkward glances of those remaining. Even the rational me couldn’t uncouple the fact that it was the role that had been reorganised and I took it personally. How we handle change defines us and like all situations, there are pluses and minuses.
This recession was the first time companies here in the UK wanted to support their departing employees by giving them ‘Outplacement’. (Note 1) So I joined Morgan & Banks that, inter alia, provided this service, helping people repackage themselves, giving them the tools and techniques necessary to find new employment. I have Varina who ran the London office to thank for this opportunity, one I grasped wholeheartedly! I sense I grew from a rather dried wrinkled chrysalis into a butterfly; not an exotic one like a Red Admiral, more a Cabbage White – I felt I had found my ‘Element’ (Note 2)! Of the many successes, two will illustrate what made me smile. Carol had left a senior role in an animal healthcare company. After working with her for a few sessions, I asked her who she would like to work for, be it a company or an individual. There was no hesitation; “John Manners” (not his real name!) – and she went on to tell me why. So we hatched a plan for her to meet him …… and her enthusiasm got her a role that hadn’t been advertised.
Andrew came out of the financial services sector, one of thousands ‘let go’ in early 1993. “More of the same please” was his response, but given the lack of roles available, I suggested he explore alternatives. He had a passion for wine, for its production, for the whole viticulture world.
“So do you see yourself working in the industry?”
“If I could, of course! I’d work for Tony Laithwaite (note 2) like a shot!”
“Do you know him?”
So we talked around how he might get to meet him; he rang me a few days later to say that he was going to a wine tasting evening and he’d been told Tony Laithwaite would be there. We met to rehearse that initial chat – this we planned! The long and the short of this tale is that he got invited to their Head Office for an interview.
So working one-on-one with individuals in a business coaching capacity became my next career …… one that lasted over twenty years ……. and one certainly not planned!
Richard 24th July 2020
Note 1: It was such a hideous term but it stuck; I preferred Career Transition.
Note 2: Ken Robinson’s excellent book ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ is a ‘must read’, particularly for those who haven’t found their element.
Note 3: Tony Laithwaite had become extremely successful at selling wine in the UK.