Back in Henley and unemployed I set about the process of getting organised for the job hunt. My office was sorely in need of some love and attention and the first task was to have a tidying up blitz and reorganisation. This accomplished, I had an orderly space to think and work. Reviewing the experience I had under my belt and the skills I had acquired along the way, it seemed to me that I could move industries. My self confidence being what it was I had never expended much time on using contacts (the phrase networking had yet to assume an audience if it existed then). So, the Times, the Telegraph and the FT were scoured on a daily basis and applications sent off. In the age prior to the PC it wasn’t easy to vary one’s CV but I made up for that with hand-written covering letters that were individual to each application. My approaches varied a great deal and even included a lively personal recording made on tape for the position of MD for a regional radio station; it won me an interview but I failed to make it to the shortlist.
The records I kept at that time show I applied for 79 roles at or one level below the board across a very wide variety of industries. Very few of these application were to companies in sectors I had previously worked in. Of the 32 initial interviews I succeeded in obtaining, sectors included finance, medical, training, data management, truck hire, communications, incentives, consumer goods, wood products and many more. These initial interviews led to 13 second, 5 third and one fourth round meeting and three offers. Of the rejections I received only a small number of companies or consultants were good enough to provide a reason and these included; no foreign languages, no local authority experience and no MBA qualification.
Looking back at the names of the executive recruitment firms and companies I applied to, the vast majority only ever sent a very cursory rejection and many not at all. Given the seniority of the posts being filled it seemed to me to be incredibly short-sighted of the recruitment consultants and head-hunters not to have been more engaged with their candidates. I vowed I would never use any of the people or firms that treated me in this way when I returned to the world of work and I never have. If they were foolish enough not to realise that today’s candidate is tomorrow’s potential client, then they would do without the very large sums I would spend on recruitment projects over the subsequent years. Busy or not, they were simply foolish, short-sighted and just plain ignorant people (some of which I had the pleasure in giving personal rejections to when they came touting for business in later years).
Yes, there were frustrations along the way but every application, every interview and every rejection provided a learning experience for me. Some of the interviews served to shed light on aspects that I ought to emphasise or downplay. Some interviews were bizarre. One such occasion I remember well; arriving early (something I always tried to do) I was greeted by the consultant who welcomed me warmly and proudly handed over the last three years sets of company accounts for me “to learn about his client”. Skipping the glossy bits I went straight for the numbers and it was clear that this “highly successful” business was on a downward slope of around 45º! It had gone into the red, margins were declining, was consuming cash at an alarming rate and had only survived by wringing its creditors dry. “Well, what do you think, eh?” enquired the inanely grinning consultant as he ushered me into his plush office, “Great opportunity or what?” I explained that the client was technically insolvent and couldn’t last another 6~9 months unless a miracle occurred. Given that the industry never made great profits, the business had no clear strategic advantages and no miracle was announced to me, I declined in the politest terms I could muster and made my exit. Surprisingly, I got a call a week or so later saying I really ought to meet his client before making any final decision.
The concept of psychometrics was not well established at this time and I had never come across such a process before. Only a very small number of firms I met used such testing. The first was a Swedish company who met with me in a Heathrow hotel. A very studious, sombre and suspicious looking individual informed me I would first complete his “test”. I duly did as requested and when finished, the sombre one took it from me with an aloof air and disappeared off into a far corner of the large room to score it. The second rather more human individual started the interview off with a number of quick fire questions that seemed to have no continuity about them. A little time later the sombre one reappeared from his corner, his expression as cold as a Swedish winter, announcing, “You are responsibility adverse!” Somewhat taken aback, I countered as best I could with a response covering the depth and breath of responsibilities I had held and how I rose to the challenges. “No!” came back the icy blast, “The test is saying this fact and the test cannot be wrong!” The Swedes decided there and then that there was no place in their organisation for a risk adverse executive.
My other encounter with a questionnaire based psychometric test was at the offices of a major recruitment consultancy where I was asked to work my way through a long questionnaire comprising of a choice between pairs of phrases as to which was more like me. A standard technique in many psychometric tests (I subsequently learnt), this process can be rather frustrating to the candidate as items keep cropping up paired against a different choice. Certainly I found this approach entirely frustrating and I was continually going back and changing previous answers when I came across the pairing between “I love ice cream” and “I hate my mother.” Not exactly having a love of the former, I felt couldn’t make a sensible choice, gave up trying and got no further on that assignment. Despite acquiring qualifications in many psychometric instruments over the subsequent years, I have never come across this particular instrument again.
Graphology is extensively relied upon in France for recruitment purposes and I had my first encounter during this time. Applying for a position with a Belgian company, I was interested to note that the advertisement stated that the covering letter had to be in the applicants own handwriting. I duly complied (as it was what I was doing anyway), sent off my application and was pleased to receive an air ticket the following week for an appointment in Brussels. As soon as I was introduced to the chief executive he stared intensely at me for a short while as he shook my hand and announced, “I simply had to meet the man who owns this handwriting!” He never elucidated despite the meeting lasting several hours and I didn’t get through to the next stage. Many years later I had my handwriting analysed purely for professional interest and was intrigued to see many facets of my character accurately picked out. Unfortunately, there were also an equal number of behavioural traits claimed for me that were utterly wrong!
At the beginning of October of that year I applied for the role of marketing manager with the UK arm of aUS corporation. Most of the roles I had applied for were above this level but it was a lean week for advertised positions and a combination of characteristics led me to apply. The company was in an industry I had never worked in before (industrial lighting), it was a small part of a huge corporation (GTE now Verizon following a merger with Bell Telephone) and it inferred significant growth potential. Still wearing my hair shirt from the glamorous, highly spending days of consumer electronics, the role probably met a subconscious desire for atonement. The consultant advertising the role was one I had never come across previously and in the first meeting we had he grilled me hard but listened acutely to my responses. It was akin to a tough squash match against an opponent just that bit better. What I learnt that day made me very interested; the company was a major US & global player in its sector, relatively new to the UK, had manufacturing here, was currently building a vast new factory and was looking for someone to replace the MD over the next couple of years.
In the next month I had two more interviews in the shabbyWest Yorkshire offices with the European and the UK HR directors plus the MD. Despite the old offices (they clearly didn’t waste money) I liked even more of what I heard. The business had started well but had reached a plateau and they wanted someone who could create a new marketing strategy and build theUK brand. The new factory was indeed vast, with spacious offices and, yes, the MD was singled out for a wider European role over the next few years. Knowing I would have to leave my beloved Henley onThames, I took the opportunity on the second visit to look around the area and fell in love with Wharfedale.
Several days later I got a call asking if I would fly to Geneva to meet with the European Marketing VP (Louis) and the UK MD (John). An early flight got me intoGeneva for lunch in a luxurious hotel overlooking the lake and Le Jet d’Eau. I don’t think I ate more than a mouthful as it seemed like the questions were designed to come at me just as my fork was on its way to my mouth. I was grilled again for several hours before we decamped to the office the other side of the lake where the negotiations began. They wanted me and by this stage I definitely wanted to join. When I got on the flight back to Heathrow that evening I had an offer in my pocket to join Sylvania Lighting that I was pleased with. The downsides were that I had to move the family toYorkshire, my new boss was a curious individual and I had zero experience of industrial marketing.
Was this the best move for me? Would it work out?
Image courtesy of Farm4.Static