Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Business of Life – Chapter 44 Postscript II finding that elusive balance

 There are few phrases that have crept into the lexicon of life in the 21st Century that annoy me more than ‘Work-Life Balance’.  I believe it to be simply inane, socialist dogma to imply that work is somehow anything other than an integral component of a healthy life.  It would be equally inane to refer to a ‘Home-Life Balance’.  Work gives us an identity that for the majority of us defines what we do.  Yes, I also subscribe to the concept of multiple identities; after all I am also amongst other things a husband, a father, a cyclist, a volunteer mentor and an aspiring writer.  But when I worked, it was my work role that provided the answer to the invariable question at parties, “What do you do?”

Finding the elusive balance

The phrase and the concept that makes sense is ‘Whole-Life Balance’, which at least recognises there are multiple aspects of our life in which we seek or should attempt an equitable balance.  Nevertheless, this state of balance is an elusive and frequently ephemeral state to achieve and there is little room for compromise if you really wish to succeed.  There are too many variables, too many uncontrollable factors that do not cease to be demanding and which conspire to upset this delicate state of equilibrium.  Yes, I learnt to fight back against the petty aspects of work pressure when I could but competition does not sleep and creditors, the Government and the economy certainly don’t.

It’s strange that we can accept that the great sportsmen and women, the politicians and the artists and stars we admire so much make massive sacrifices to succeed in their chosen careers.  But do we ask, do we require, do we care if they strive to achieve this so-called balance in their lives?  How many Olympic medal winners do we hear being chided for not spending more time at home?  And yet we make so little allowance for those in everyday life when they strive to succeed in their chosen careers.  It’s true that the family can enjoy the lifestyle that comes with the salary the breadwinner brings home.  But is he or she not worthy of the same respect as our sporting heroes when they make the necessary sacrifices to succeed?

 I am a happy and a satisfied third-ager precisely because I have achieved a state of self actualisation.  Apart from an ever growing bunch of people doing their best to destroy this wonderful world we live in, I am genuinely happy with my life.  I could claim that the end justified the means.  Nevertheless, I certainly cannot claim it was either easy to achieve this state or to strike that elusive state of balance for more than a matter of weeks at a time.  Nor can I claim that it must have been easy for my family (but I’ll return to that shortly).  To achieve one big goal in life requires dedication, commitment and the subordination of all other roles and goals.

That I was never a successful sportsman may be down to a combination of my physique (now was that nature or nurture..?) and my lack of early exposure to the joys of ball games.  But I was certainly as driven as many a sportsperson.  That drive came as much from a fear of failure as it did a need to achieve.  When I was fired from Akai I was, one could say, a victim of my character.  It was an intense sense of failure that overcame me and then drove me on to succeed.  But it was the same set of behavioural preferences that had driven me to that situation in the first place.

For those initial twenty years I had one success after another.  I really believed that I had got the magic formula.  Not only had I believed that being very good at what I did would be enough to maintain my career momentum, I had always used my ability to present my case logically and rationally (but rather like a battering ram).  The problem was that I had no political skills to bring to bear and I wore my negotiating position on my sleeve.  When you’re being confronted with the choice of being burnt or scalded neither is easily preferable.  If the choice is actually being burnt today and scalded tomorrow, then my tendency was to enter the fight straight away.  With the benefit of hindsight, I could never have won the battle at Akai because I was working for a company that ultimately had to fail because it simply didn’t have the resources to succeed.

However, ten years later I was still making some of the same mistakes when I realised that the company I worked for did not have the strategy to succeed in reaching its stated goal.  I was right in my view (as history has again proved) but I still lacked the political skills either to convince others or to survive.  Anyway, by this time I was probably seen as a threat and was fighting a whole layer of senior management wedded to preserving a status quo that was doomed.  Should I have worked on my political skills instead of the full frontal, bare-knuckle approach?  I don’t believe so for two reasons.  The first is that being Machiavellian is beyond my natural style of behaviour, it’s simply not within my skill set.  The other reason was that having seen the future and the people my future would depend upon, I just didn’t like it or them.

It took just a couple of years more to realise that corporate life was not offering me the chance to play to my particular skill set.  If you are in the wrong company, in the wrong industry, with skills that are not recognised then life is going to be really tough.  More so if you are the one telling the emperor that he has forgotten his clothes.  I really think that in such circumstances you should think about doing your own thing – building or buying your own train set.  The constant stresses and strains of having to do battle within your own company, in addition to the real work of satisfying the market and battling competition and the economy, are debilitating.  They were for me and they were for my family.

If fear of failure drove me on, it never soured my enjoyment of the here and now and it never stopped me taking what some might call unacceptable risks.  Freed of the political constraints and frustrations of corporate life, I decided to take the king’s shilling of venture capital.  To do so meant investing my life’s savings alongside the millions from a VC and the banks.  It didn’t worry me as I felt I was really in control for the first time and dependent upon my own judgement.  I made a rule however that I would never give a personal guarantee to a bank.  The essence of the concept of limited liability is destroyed by providing some faceless, business-illiterate bankers with the ability to claw back your home if it all goes wrong.  If my life savings weren’t enough risk money, then they weren’t for me.  And I never had to give that guarantee.  In that sense I wasn’t prepared to jeopardise the balance between my aspirations and the roof over my family’s head.  In the event, two out of three ventures were successes and that was just fine.

When my dear late wife became pregnant with our daughter we agreed that she would put her career as a nurse on hold and become a full time mother.  It was her suggestion it and I thought it natural to agree.  Just as I thought it natural that I should do whatever it took to replace the money she had been earning.  It took a great deal of hard work and a toll on my health but I can’t recall that she ever complained that I had the balance wrong.  And when the time came and she wanted to return to her career, I supported that decision.  My daughter and my son might feel that I wasn’t around enough or that I wasn’t there when they needed me.  I don’t know.  A Dutch colleague once said to me that in Holland they have a saying that for the first seven years the child belongs to the mother, for the second to the father and for the next seven years for both together.  I do know that I wasn’t around as much as I might have been for my seven years and sadly, Jean wasn’t permitted to share the next and subsequent phases with me.

I now realise that for many years I was someone who made decisions solely on the basis of facts, logic, my reading of the future and the implications for my course of action.  This approach certainly gave me the advantage of having an uncluttered and largely rational approach.  Business decisions were made never pausing to consider others’ feelings and emotions but focussing on what was required to achieve the result.  It came as little surprise when in a group activity during a course in the US, I was described by colleagues as ‘remote and unreadable at times’.  My response at the time was to see this as something of an accolade.  Subsequently, I made efforts to try to include the human aspects in my decision making but most times defaulted to my natural style.

However, following the appallingly early death of Jean, something changed in me.  I cried for the first time at sad films and passages in books and even music could have the same effect.  What Myers Briggs call the ‘shadow side’ of my personality, the undeveloped natural senses, were seeing the light of day for the first time.  I don’t believe that I lost my natural, behavioural preferences but now make a real effort to understand the feelings and perspectives of others.  I would find it hard to describe a business situation where I would make a decision based solely on feelings and emotions.  However, seeking out and being aware of the human reactions and implications of a course of action has made me a more balanced leader.

My career was extremely stressful at times but on balance (that wonderful word again) I absolutely enjoyed it and cannot imagine what else I might have done.  I can only hope that Victoria and Alex have as much fun and gain as much satisfaction and self-actualisation from their lives as I have done.

Do I have regrets?  Or remorse?  I have often pondered what I consider to have been a grave error of judgement (spelt out in Chapter 22) when I claimed to have been aware of a major problem but when in reality I had been blissfully ignorant.  My misjudgement stemmed from a desire to conceal that I had been unaware of something (a stock loss) that I should have known about (even though it had been concealed from me).  If I had claimed the truth I might have come out on top for the subsequent battle for a bigger UK role.  However, had this happened, I would certainly have not been moved to Switzerland a few months later.  I cannot speculate if my career would have been better but I know that I would have missed the pan-European role and invaluable (but painful) experiences in Geneva plus the trigger to pitch for venture capital.

Certainly I made other mistakes for which I feel remorse and can still vividly bring to mind situations where my inability to see consequences from another’s point of view caused pain.  These were not situations where I stood to achieve gain from another’s loss but just where my lack of an ability at the time to see the world through others’ eyes made me thoughtless and careless in my attitudes towards others.

For many years I regretted (and felt less of myself as a result of) my lack of a university degree.  What I might have studied I really cannot speculate, although I was being pushed towards art.  I am sure that this would have been a mistake as I probably wouldn’t have been ready for the rigours of studying at university in my late teens and it could so easily have been a wasted experience.  Instead I had the pleasure of continuing to learn throughout life.  I am not an expert in any field (to my regret at times) but a mercurial mind has provided me with the inclination to delve into many and varied subjects.

I now consider that I was fortunate I missed out on university.  This might sound strange but it ensured that I was always focussed on learning whatever I needed to progress.  There were times when I thought I knew it all but the mistakes I made always spurred me on afresh with the learning.  Throughout my career I often found myself surrounded by people who seemed to have left the process of learning behind when they passed through the gates of their university for the last time.  Overtaking these people was therefore never too much of a problem.  So, even with the best degree (or two) there is always so much more to learn (and no more so than in business).

So, for all of you who have followed my writing to this point, I wish you health, happiness and all the satisfaction in your careers that I have had from my own.

I have the feeling that life has a few more challenges left in store.

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The Business of Life Chapter 43 – Postscript (part 1)

It’s been almost two years since I sold up and retired.  The transition from hectic business life to retirement has taken more adjustment than I could have envisaged.  I hadn’t ever spent any real time imagining what life would be like when business ceased but the reality has taken me somewhat by surprise.

The Business of Life - Postscript (1) The euphoria lasted some weeks – a month or so.  I saw more of family and friends and that was very satisfying.  And a few health problems intervened to take and shine off things.  But very soon I started to get that old, nagging sensation that I needed a challenge.  I started a number of new activities before the world of blogging began to draw me in.  I had always enjoyed writing, even starting the great novel about twenty years ago (it still languishes unfinished enjoying a quiet life on a succession of hard drives).  The one thing I had intended when I did stop work was that I would write and had promised myself I would finish the novel.

 However, it was business thoughts and anecdotes that got me started with ‘The Retrospective Entrepreneur’ blog and it wasn’t long before I realised that I had the material for the book I wanted to write.  It was researching the life and times of my paternal grandfather that made me realise that there was a side to my life that had remained largely unknown to my family and certainly would to my granddaughters.  So, I started to write ‘The Business of Life’ and that has enabled at least many of the facts to be recorded along with all those anecdotes.  But now the tale has been concluded, I have realised that it still shines a light only on a part of my business life.

 Looking back I can see that what I have written leaves many aspect of the real me unrevealed.  Trying to strike a balance between the business and the personal aspects in a way that would satisfy all possible readers was a worthy enough aim.  But what was it that really drove me on?  What emotions and beliefs underpinned the decisions I made?  Did I really consider the consequences that the choices I made would have on my family?  Are there things I could or should have done differently?  And yes, are there regrets?

 So now I’m going to take another look back to try and answer these and other questions.

The issue of nature versus nurture has occupied psychologists and sociologists and a great many others for many years.  As the continued unravelling of the secrets of DNA accelerates and a backlash against politically correct thinking occurs, I expect we may find a definitive answer in my lifetime.  But what of myself?  Did the factors that drove me on and enabled me to succeed come from my genes or from my environment?  And does it matter?

The children of first generation Irish-Italian immigrant families, my elder sister and I had few advantages.  Our father was a cabinet maker and mum was a seamstress and we lived in what today would be viewed as absolute poverty.  But we both passed the 11 Plus and both went to grammar school, something comparatively rare in our neighbourhood.  Our families comprised solely of manual workers with the exception of an uncle who did well enough as a minor civil servant and a cousin who rose to run a major insurance company.  However, these were relatives I saw but rarely, therefore I don’t believe anything rubbed off there.  So if my sister and I had the odd extra grey cell or used what we had a little more efficiently, it might well have been something nature caused to trickle down through the gene pool.

 Apart from my father ensuring I was encouraged to discover for myself the world that books revealed, there was another aspect of my upbringing that must have had an effect upon me.  In our neighbourhood (like so many others at the time) kids played out in the streets, communal gardens and little parks at all hours.  But not my sister and I.  My parents resolutely refused to let us join in informing us that we were “better than that lot.”  Finally, at age 13 I had become big enough and determined enough that they couldn’t control me any longer and I took my place in the local pack.  After an early event that could so easily have brought me onto the wrong side of the law, I learnt to pick my new friends with more care.

 Only one friend from my neighbourhood remained as I entered my twenties.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, there just wasn’t a sufficient range of common interests to bind us together and so we drifted apart.  One effect of my enforced solitude I am (and certainly was at the time) acutely aware of was a lack of social skills.  At least I now know that to be the case.  At the time I was always the quiet outsider who never initiated a conversation or any activity.  I remember railing late into the night to my sister, on more than one occasion that I hated small talk and only wished to discuss things that really mattered.  I can only assume that the many years of pre-teenage solitude robbed me of the chance to acquire some form of social skill.

 Over the next few years my interests diverged from the local lads as I discovered I had no interest in football (one visit to watch Millwall play saw to that) or cricket and rugby and, instead, joined a weight training club and developed a taste for jazz, blues, folk and classical music.  When I entered the world of work, aged fifteen, the ties with my erstwhile friends fell away (with one exception, Mike, until his untimely early death).

I hated authority with an intensity that has stayed with me to the present day.  This was not helped by the beating regime at my school.  I was never that distressed by the regular canings I received from the sadist that passed for our headmaster (Brother Peter – a nice religious man) as I probably deserved them.  But when I was beaten for fighting back against the school bully, that did it for me and authority.  Even though my tormentor was absolved of wrongdoing, I did have the satisfaction of knowing that he had been carted off to hospital to have his face stitched up.  No-one at school tried pushing me around after that.

When I turned my back on education and started work I had no clear ambition.  Although reading had given me many insights into the world at large, I had no knowledge of where I might go in terms of career in order to succeed.  The majority of my neighbourhood pals had followed fathers and uncles into union dominated areas such as the ‘print’ (don’t believe for one minute that nepotism and patronage is the preserve of the middle and upper classes).  All I knew, with a burning intensity, was that I wanted to go far enough up the ladder that I could never fall all the way back to where I had started.

By the time I entered the workforce I was determined to learn as fast as I could what it was that would cause me to progress.  Anything or anyone who merely wanted to plod along or play the system, I shunned.  I sought role models I could respect and I learnt from them as fast as I could and, in turn, I supported them to the extent of my abilities.  Years later when I was reviewing my CV (following my final departure from corporate life) I made an interesting discovery.  My greatest successes had come in positions where I had worked for a person I had respected and enjoyed working and constantly going the extra mile for.  All of what I consider my failures came in roles where I reported to someone who proved incapable of engendering respect in me.

 I never enjoyed (and therefore shunned) team sports.  I think that this was another result of my enforced exclusion from the endless impromptu football and cricket matches played in my neighbourhood.  Sport was never played at my junior school and by the time I entered grammar school I simply had no skills or knowledge to demonstrate.  However, I have always been ultra competitive and was always quick to respond to a challenge or a dare (inevitably bringing me into yet another brush with authority).

 For many years  I thought myself to be an introverted loner (probably as a result of my enforced childhood solitude) .  Certainly I have never been afraid to be my own man, frequently taking the lonely path and a book always seemed a reasonable companion.  However, it wasn’t until many years later when undergoing training for the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) qualification that I found that I corresponded quite clearly to the preference of extroverted behaviour.  For those who are interested my type is ENTJ (Extraverted Intuition with Introverted Feeling).

 Isabel Briggs Myers defined the ENTJ type as “Natural leaders and organisation builders.  They conceptualise and theorise readily and translate possibilities into plans to achieve short-term and long-term objectives.” She goes on to describe them as likely to be: “analytical, logical and objectively critical; decisive, clear and assertive; conceptual and innovative theorisers and planners.”  There are downsides to this type, which include, “Becoming overly impersonal and critical; being intrusive and domineering; and being abrasive and verbally aggressive.”  I largely recognised myself from this description.

Are leaders born or created?  I really don’t know the answer to that question but I do believe that everyone can learn to improve how they lead and that differing situations bring a requirement for different types of leader.  I had no influences of leadership that I am aware of in my early years but I was put in charge of a patrol in the Scouts aged twelve and then became troop leader at fourteen.  Having been given my first business to run at age twenty-nine, I suppose I must have shown some degree of leadership potential.  So what was my leadership style?

 Those who worked for me are best equipped to answer that question and I am certain that there are as many that saw the negative aspects as there are those who can recount the positive side of my leadership.  I have always believed in delegation but an interesting insight into this aspect came from Vic Vroom (a Professor of Psychology at Yale).  Following analysis he described me to be a clear believer in delegation, except in two circumstances; where time was of the essence and where I did not trust subordinates to make the right decision.  I can certainly identify with this description.  When I had a good, well trained team (as I did at Sylvania UK) I trusted them implicitly to make the right decisions.  When faced with a failing business and a team that sadly was lacking both experience and ability (as I found when appointed to turnaround Selmar), my style had to be far more decisive and authoritarian.

I find it sad that many senior politicians claim that they know they are doing ‘the right thing’ (usually when they are incapable of providing a logical explanation for their actions).  In business we have company law and legislation to guide us through many of the difficult situations we may face.  Despite my dislike for authority, when I fully understand the logic behind the regulations, I find it easy to do the ‘right thing’.  When I was called upon to make some of the hardest decisions (such as firing a friend and colleague and calling in the administrators) I knew that my actions were both legally correct and morally defensible.  Not taking these actions would have exposed creditors, other shareholders and employees to far greater risks.

With a life long thirst for learning I have always been interested in why people differ in their need and preference for learning.  A few years ago I came across the Learning Styles concept, pioneered by Peter Honey.  Taking the questionnaire I found my learning style preferences to be strongly for Theory and Activism (with lower scores for Reflector and Pragmatist).  This would explain my thirst for acquiring theory and a rush to put it into practice where relevant.  However, it also explains why I suffered from leaving the impression at so many interviews of ‘being all theory’ (despite my attempts to explain how I went on to successfully put theory into practice).

 Certainly, I have always tended to describe myself when asked, as being analytical and logical and I count myself fortunate in having had ample opportunity in my career to apply these behavioural traits.  And, looking back, I am fortunate to have succeeded more than I failed in my business endeavours.  It has also been possible to see how the negative aspects of my behaviour (and yes, every strength has a potential downside) have caused pain to others around me.  Not least of these have been those I loved the most.

 In the next part of this retrospective I will try to examine the emotional issues that I faced in tackling some of the problems I had to deal with and the consequences these had on those around me.

Image courtesy of Maiden-voyage-travel.com