Category Archives: Healthcare

The Sound of Silence

“Come on, you too!” demanded the company nurse ” You have to set an example; you need to have your hearing tested like everyone else. ”  Protesting that in my role as MD I had never spent excessive amounts of time on the factory floor permitted me no escape; I was frog marched off for the test.  “You’ve got a bit of a problem,” was her response to the test results, “You’ll need to have your hearing looked into properly.”

Back in my office I sat pondering this situation. The news that I had been diagnosed with a hearing loss was indeed something of a shock. I wasn’t deaf, I protested to myself. I could hold normal conversations, listen to music and the radio. Then, a comment made a couple of months ago by one of my international colleagues came back to me, “You know that you come across as very aggressive at our management meetings.”

The context of this comment had related to what appeared to have been a habit of mine at our European management meetings.  These multi-day meetings usually took place in a huge hotel conference room with 20 or so executives seated in a horseshoe pattern with the particular country CEO, whose turn it was to present his results, at the open end talking with the aid of an overhead projector.  Ranged across the closed end of the horseshoe were the President and his team who would freely interrupt to fire off question after question. I hadn’t considered previously why I responded to many of the questions to me by walking the length of the horseshoe and then standing over whoever had asked the question. I could see how aggressive this behaviour might have appeared but then the initial questioning was often aggressive and I felt that I was merely standing my ground.

As I pondered the nurse’s unwelcome news I realised that the underlying reason for my ‘aggressive’ behaviour was that I was obviously struggling to hear questions from the other end of what were always very large rooms. Thinking further back, I knew I had previously had acute hearing. Working in the audio industry years before I could recall playing around in the lab with a signal generator with colleagues and finding that my hearing extended way beyond anyone else’s. As a consequence, many a night’s sleep when travelling had been ruined by some faint sound that kept me awake.

Referred to an ENT consultant shortly afterwards, I was tested once again and the results confirmed the findings of our company nurse. I was then taken through a complete medical history questionnaire. After responding to one question relating to drugs administered to treat Pulmonary Tuberculosis as a teenager, he sat back and roared

“Classic, delayed reaction! Still, you’d rather be deaf than dead, wouldn’t you?”

It seemed that the key drug (streptomycin) I had been injected for months had the known side effect of ototoxicity  leading to sensorineural hearing loss. I learnt that there was no known treatment and it was likely to worsen over time.

“You’d better look into a hearing aid.” Was the parting comment.

Shortly afterwards, at the age of 41, I received a small behind the ear aid for my right ear. This improved matters but I felt embarrassed wearing it. Crazy as it might seem, I would remove it before important meetings and would struggle as before to hear clearly what was being said and asked.

As predicted after a year or so I was back at my local audiology clinic and being prescribed an aid for my left ear.  Within a couple of years I was struggling to hear conversations clearly and returned to the clinic.  This time larger and more powerful aids were prescribed. These seemed to restore most of my hearing loss but the aids were large and cumbersome and, although they helped, I hated them. I hated that I had to wear the proof of my disability on display; it fought with my self-image.  But slowly I gave in and wore them every waking moment (except when swimming!) as my hearing deteriorated with every passing year.  I was managing (just) and hating the aids and their deficiencies more with every passing day.

The aids I was being prescribed at the time were old, analogue technology and very unsophisticated.  Chatting one day to the owner of a local business I had got to know quite well, he asked me how I was getting on with my aids.  Out poured all my frustrations.

“Let me give you the details of my audiologist.” Offered Ray who went on to describe in detail his similar experiences and joy at his new, digital aids.

“They’re expensive, mind,” Ray went on in his broad Yorkshire dialect “but worth every penny and more.”  From a Yorkshire man this was praise indeed.

So, I duly made the contact and, following further tests, was sitting some weeks later waiting for my new aids to be fitted and tested. These new aids were no longer behind the ear but were ‘completely in canal’ (CIC) fitting deep and snug into my ears.  With the aids in place a transfer of the programming took place and they were ready for use.

“Can you hear me now?” Enquired Colin, the elderly owner of the long established business. I was almost rendered speechless with amazement. Not only could I hear him clearly but could easy detect subtle nuances in his voice I hadn’t been aware of previously.  Even when Colin continued to speak as he moved behind me and then completely out of the room and down the corridor I could easy understand every word he spoke.

A short while later as I walked down the road to where my car was parked I was almost overwhelmed with the cacophony I noise I could hear. I couldn’t help grinning from the sheer pleasure of being able to hear clearly again and must have appeared somewhat idiotic to passers by.  Starting up my relatively new car at which I had previously marvelled at its near silence, I now discovered I could hear all manner of noises from under the bonnet! Back home I stood and listened to the noises of the car quietly cooling down whilst birds I had forgotten sang in the trees. Bliss!

My life had improved immeasurably, business meetings became easier and the telephone, television and radio less of a challenge. I was now no longer glued to watching people’s lips in an effort to supplement failing hearing.

Nevertheless, a year later I was once more conscious that my hearing had declined further. Back in Colin’s consulting rooms he tested me once more, showed me the frequencies where my hearing had declined again then made adjustments to the programming. I was almost as good as new again.

That was 15 years ago and a lot has happened in that time. My hearing continued to deteriorate as nerve endings died. Technology continued to improve and every two to three years I changed to the latest technology which would produce some improvement once more. This was proving to be an extremely expensive process (a pair of new aids is equivalent to a cheap new car) but without these continuing improvements I would simply not have been able to continue working in what were the very demanding roles I had.

Early on when the Pound was riding high against the European currencies (and then the Euro) I investigated prices in Germany and Scandinavia and seriously considered a trip abroad to purchase new aids. However, I was beginning to realise that what I was paying for was not just the aids but the continuing expert advice and skills of the audiologist and the relationship we had. It was becoming clear to me that yes, you can test hearing and then programme the aids to fill the shortfall across a wide range of frequencies. However, it seems that the brain doesn’t always agree with the analysis and implementation and throws up problems. It is then necessary to be able to articulate precisely what the problem is, the circumstances in which it is apparent and where in the frequency range it is occurring. All this takes time and skill on the part of the audiologist. And time is money.  It was this time and expertise that the NHS seemed unable to provide.

As time has passed, technology has continued to improve but my hearing loss in the mid~high frequencies has now moved into the range deemed ‘profound’. My old audiologist, Colin, decided that the demands of technology were becoming beyond what he wished to keep up with and so sold up. My luck is that Kevan who has bought the business is a technical genius, has great depth and breadth of knowledge of everything on the market and infinite patience. With Kevan’s help I have been able to test most of the major aids on the market. I have become, as a result and of necessity, somewhat of a connoisseur of hearing aids – a ‘petrolhead’ of hearing aids. I can’t identify a winner but at the moment my favourite and the manufacturer of my current aids is the Danish company Widex who produce a smooth and very natural sound.

The greatest problem with losing high frequencies is that one loses the ability to hear or distinguish between certain consonants – the sounds of F, S, H & T going first, soon joined by K and then S, C and H. The situation becomes one of being able to hear someone speaking but being largely incapable of deciphering what it is they are saying e.g. did they say sit, hit, fit or tit? One seeks to use context to provide the answer. However, once the brain has attempted to sort through the possibilities of each possibility, the speaker is two or three sentences further on each of which has raised fresh uncertainties. In one to one situations watching the speaker’s lips can provide vital clues. In many situations this is simply not possible. Female and children’s voices are particularly difficult as they are higher pitched.

The other critical problem is that of hearing a voice within a noisy environment. With normal hearing we seem to be able to focus upon a particular sound (or voice) in much the same way as our eyes can focus (and re-focus rapidly) upon objects far and near and anywhere in-between. Even with glasses we retain this ability. But once an element of technology has been placed between the outside world and our ear drum the ability to focus seems to be lost. Turning up the volume offers no solution and even makes matters worse.

Most manufacturers now offer programmes that transpose higher frequencies down into the wearer’s audible range. I find that this only works (for me) to a very limited extent. Of more use is a programme that greatly reduces background noise allowing one to concentrate on what, for instance, a partner is saying in a crowded restaurant. However, once more, I find this only offers a partial solution.

Technology has begun now to offer some real solutions. For example I now have a device that plugs into the television and transmits the broadcast sound (via a receiver device worn around the neck) directly into my aids. I can also switch off all ambient noise so that this is no distraction and my wife can listen at the volume she chooses. The only problem is that I only realise she is trying to communicate with me when her slipper hits me in the head!

Telephones remain a real challenge but here there are solutions. The first is simply to rely on the loudspeaker function on the handset and this can be supplemented by switching to a programme that boosts speech frequencies. This works not too badly when one is in a quiet environment but, again, not in noisy surroundings. However, I now have a device that allows my mobile phone to send the signal directly to both aids so I can hear the maximum content in both ears. Supplementing this again is the ability to eliminate all ambient sounds with one button.  I can also listen to music, streamed by Bluetooth directly to my aids. These advances are not always foolproof in operation but are a big step forward.

In a recent experiment (of sorts) sitting with a friend in a coffee shop that had become extremely noisy, I asked him to phone me. Using my Bluetooth device I was able to shut out all ambient sound and hear his voice clearly in both ears. This offered no solution for my friend, however, and we must have appeared an odd pair! One manufacturer does offer the possibility of a clip-on battery microphone that the hearing impaired can ask a friend to clip to their lapel. This may offer a limited solution but I would have to change my complete setup and might well lose certain other advantages that Widex offer me now.

Currently I’m in the situation where sounds above a certain frequency have gone forever and no technology can stimulate the dead nerves cells. Increasing the volume of these frequencies merely produces painful distortion in neighbouring frequencies. As nerve cells continue to die off my hearing will worsen. I have read that stem cell technology has reactivated hearing in rats and promises the possibility of a solution for humans at some stage but I have no idea if this is a real possibility nor if it would work for me (or even if I could afford it).

My life has been one of facing up to and overcoming challenges, something I have always learnt from even it not all of the challenges were sought or relished. I am aware that my previous, very extrovert behaviour has changed. Indulging in lively repartee is beyond me now as I struggle to work out the context of a word misunderstood three sentences ago. I hate answering the phone knowing that unless it’s someone I know well, I’m highly unlikely to be able to tune into their voice. I hate the trend that has caused companies to replace postal and email addresses with a call centre.

I’m now back with behind the ear aids once more but these are barely visible. However, in one way, I wish that they were more visible, vanity overtaken by practicality. Deafness is an invisible disability and anyone who doesn’t have this problem simply doesn’t understand what it means to the suffer. I’ve been thinking of having some badges made saying ‘Deaf but not stupid’. I’m fortunate that my time in the workplace has come to an end. But deafness afflicts one in six of the UK population with 3.7 million suffers aged between 16 & 64. These suffers in work have a sometimes terrible burden to bear. And the disco & iPod generation may unfortunately find that there has been a terrible price to pay for their musical & social enjoyment.

So now I shun large gatherings that I would once have sought out. I avoid using the phone unless it’s to someone I know well. I thank technology instead for providing Twitter where I can still meet people and enjoy a lively exchange of views.  It’s good, but it can’t replace face to face social and business interaction.

When I sold up and retired nearly four years ago I decided (and promised my wife) that I wouldn’t work again. After the novelty of having nothing to do wore off, I started voluntary work with a couple of schemes helping students and young people. I would now like to increase this work (as my brain hasn’t retired at the same pace as the rest of me) but I am finding it extremely difficulty to cope with the hearing challenges presented by a room full of students. Ideally, I would wish to increase the enterprise work with students and resume non-executive and mentoring work. But…

I well remember the days, many years ago, when I had hearing like a bat and could make out every instrument in an orchestra. But I also remember the sleepless nights because someone in the next hotel room was snoring loudly.

So, life may not be perfect now….but at least I have an ‘off’ button and can enjoy the sound of silence whenever I want.

Advertisements

The Business of Life Chapter 41 – when the attack comes (part 2)

I am somewhere inside Airedale hospital and in acute pain, the worst pain I have known in my life.  A stern but sensible looking female leans over me and informs me that I am having a heart attack.  I feel nothing except pain as she goes on to tell me that I am to be taken to Leeds where they have a specialist unit and they will perform angioplasty and insert a stent if necessary.  I am to go in the same ambulance.  Some conversation is going on with Denise over following the ambulance.  I am glad not be involved.When the attack comes (part 2)

“I’m in pain!” I tell the assembled throng.  They tell me that they can give me more morphine and soon a needle is in me again and then I’m being wheeled down those corridors again with Denise telling me she will see me later.  I feel alone but relieved to see my two ambulance men; they are good guys and I trust them.  We soon set off and I hear the siren again.  I try to work out where we are and succeed some of the time.  I am surprised at how fast the ambulance can go and how it doesn’t have to slow very often, when I’m not thinking of the pain.  My chest is being crushed.

I’ve always prided myself on what I feel is a stoic like ability to ‘hang in there’ through the worse times and I concentrate on doing this now.  I feel like I’ve been doing it forever; hanging in, holding on.  It’s not working.  I pull down the oxygen mask that has been placed over my face and I am ashamed to hear myself suddenly pleading.

“Make the pain go away!”

I have no shame.

I get a squeeze of the hand and stern instructions to replace the oxygen mask but they can’t make the pain go away.  I decide that all morphine can do is slightly blur the pain, perhaps take it down half an octave but the volume stays the same. The oxygen is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.  The pain rises to a crescendo and then gradually it reduces, ever so slightly it dulls a little and then a terrible wave comes again.

I’m going to be sick!

I vomit into a paper bowl.  It doesn’t feel better the way a good chunder usually makes one feel.  The ambulance man tells me that morphine can have that effect.  On goes the journey.  I dimly perceive that the sun has faded and been replaced by dark cloud or fog.  And it’s colder still.  How much colder can I get?  I think we must be going up Otley Chevin and try to work out how much longer it will take.

I vomit again.  I feel like the worse kind of shit. 

We speed on ….it’s taking forever.

I want to writhe around to ease the pain.  I do and it doesn’t   I try being even more stoical but it’s becoming a hard role to play.

Dully, I sense we must be nearing wherever in Leeds we are going as I am vaguely aware of a cycle of braking, slowing, turning and acceleration.  And the fucking speed bumps again, the cruel, fucking speed bumps.

Suddenly we have stopped and I am being wheeled out of the ambulance.  I feel cold as I am wheeled down corridors once more and then into a large room with a group of people – waiting for me.  I don’t have to wait – I must be important.   I am transferred from the stretcher onto another gurney-like bed where soon people are working on me.

 “Lie still.” I am instructed.  This is difficult, as I have found (relative) comfort (mental not physical) in a resumption of my writhing.  Something is happening in my groin.  I distract myself by looking at a bank of monitors to my left and over my head.  I decide I don’t like what is going on and concentrate on the pain.  From the bit of my brain that is still able to function I start to recall the comments made to me by my business partner, Roger, who had angioplasty and a stent inserted 6 weeks earlier.  Roger is a big guy who has battled MSRA and terrible pain for many years due to spinal damage before falling prey to angina.  I recall him telling me that the insertion of the stent was the worse pain he had ever experienced.  “Oh, fuck!”

“You really must lie still!” one of the hovering team sternly instructs me (I have decided to award them this description as they seem to be indulging in some sort of co-ordinated behaviour).  I wonder if he’s ever had a heart attack.  I think I stop moving for a moment before resuming a sort of slow, rocking, writhing and wait for the pain to get worse as I now believe it will.  Will I be able to cope I wonder?  This pain is bad, very, very bad.  Will I be able to withstand much, much worse?  Fiddling is still going on in my groin area, I am aware of this but it no longer has relevance to me.  I am detached, properly, not the semi-detached variety, but I am lost in my pain and the expectation of worse to come.

A slap on my shoulder brings me out of the depths.

“You’re done!” he tells me, whilst briskly ripping plaster about the size of the Isle of Wight from my chest.  “They’ll take you up to recovery now.”  I am shocked.  The pain didn’t get worse.  I am aware of being moved on the gurney by following my progress across the ceiling.

Somewhere between the room where they did things to me and the recovery ward, I think it occurs in the lift, something happens.  I am not sure at first, I have not been sure of much for some considerable time, except the certainty of the pain.

The pain has gone.

I feel normal.  The pain has not eased – it has gone.  I have no pain.  I HAVE NO PAIN!

I am soon wheeled into a small recovery room where a chatty nurse tells me she is going to attend to the incision in my groin where the entry was made into a main artery.  Soon I am sporting a large clamp-like apparatus over the wound that looks like something Lakeland Plastic sell for various kitchen tasks.  Then follows a short lecture on the dangers of moving too much and how I am to inform them if I feel a damp sensation in my groin.  I realise that my sense of humour has returned when I hear myself telling her that they would probably notice the blood on the opposite wall first, it being a main artery we’re talking about.

They then show me a couple of before and after screen prints of my heart.  The before shot shows one main artery completely blocked and another one almost closed.  The after shot shows the main one flowing clear and unblocked.  Amazing.  I ask for copies but am informed that is against some regulation or other.  I begin to feel like a third party again for a moment.

Soon a very cheerful nurse comes and tells me that they have saved me some dinner – am I hungry?  My brain is working once more and I calculate that I must have been having my heart attack for something like 7 or 8 hours.  My sense of humour really returns when I see that the meal they have saved me is macaroni cheese.  I have had a heart attack and they’re feeding me cheese!  It tastes like the best thing I have ever eaten.

Shortly my affable male nurse arrives this time proffering a pair of PJs at least two sizes too small.  He tells me it’s all they have and I accept them as they seem clean and better than the gown I am wearing.  We laugh together and it’s a great feeling.

I lie back and a wave of unbelievable relief and gratitude flows over me.  I am alive and I feel great.  I have survived a heart attack.  I speculate that this is how soldiers wounded in battle must feel when they know they have come through it and won’t have to return to front line duties.

Denise arrives with our neighbour, Michelle.  I feel like I am the luckiest man alive.

Image courtesy of thetherapeuticresrourceblog.blogspot.com

The business of life (chapter 19 – the end of a dream)

With my wife recuperating from her major operation and my business life far from stable, I had to develop a strategy that would allow the greatest chance of keeping everything together.  Once again I cancelled business trips and kept close to home until Jean could achieve what she considered was sufficient strength to resume some semblance of daily life.  Work was now out of the question for her and with it the dream of a degree that she had tasted all too briefly. I found strength for myself in a process of compartmentalisation.  By dividing my life into discrete segments I tried to preserve time for the things that were important in my life; time for Jean, for the children, for work and lastly for myself (cycling and playing trumpet in a terrible but enthusiastic band).

By the time Brian had moved on leaving the role of managing director of GTE Sylvania vacant, I felt I was holding the constituent parts of my life together.  Jean had encouraged me to apply for the job and I was awaiting news of the procedure.  My probing had revealed that there were at least 4 other candidates from within the global company but evidence of a selection process appeared non-existent.  Finally, I got a call to advise me that Gregg, the European President was coming to the UK, would interview me and then join the rest of the senior UK team for dinner.

I collected Gregg from the airport and drove him to The Devonshire Arms, a beautiful country hotel in the Yorkshire Dales that he enjoyed.  I had known him for approximately 6 years, although not closely.  I was aware he was a lifelong employee of the company, possessed of a mercurial attitude to the business (you never knew where he was going next) and a volcanic temper.  Seated in the elegant lounge with our coffee, Gregg got around to what passed for an interview and demonstrated that, whatever other skills he possessed, interviewing was not one of them.  It was like playing a game against a competitor who had no real experience or skill and didn’t want to be on the court.  Frustration (and more than a little doubt) was beginning to rise in me when we were interrupted by a call for Gregg and he excused himself to take it in his room.

What seemed an eternity passed while Gregg was on the phone and it gave ample opportunity for my fears and doubts to surface.  By this time I had spent 6 years with the company and had achieved significant success but had not returned to a full general management role. I was also 41 and one year behind the schedule I had set myself of attaining an MD’s role.  The thought of working under any of the other candidates filled me with gloom and I realised that I was going to have to leave if this appointment went against me.  Gregg then returned and shared with me that one of his oldest friends had died suddenly.  “Ah hell, you just never know what life is going to throw at you.” he said shaking his head and then, slowly looking at me with tears in his eyes, “Look, I’m going to give you the job.”  The evening went by in a blur shared with my colleagues at least two of whom had emerged unsuccessful.  Celebration at home later that evening was a quiet and emotional hug.

Margaret Thatcher was elected to a third term and Ronald Reagan was challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall when I took up my new appointment.  One of my first duties was to sign a flurry of papers legally registering my appointment.  I don’t know if it was an error or a quirk of the corporate structure but I realised before I got to the bottom of the pile that I had also been appointed as MD of the ultimate UK holding company encompassing the complex web of businesses we then owned.  Technically I was now Brian’s boss.  I did a quick mental exercise and realised that, despite this, there were still ten layers of management between me and the president of GTE!  Flat management we did not have.

Life working for Gregg was never easy.  As he was based in our European headquarters in Geneva, I might go for several months without a meeting with him.  When we did meet either on one of his UK visits or at a pan-European meeting he always wanted a formal presentation.  He always travelled with one of his team and he would simply never sit and discuss subjects with you.  His style was that you either submitted to an inquisition on a subject of his choosing or, if you went to him with a proposal he would either attack it or ensure that you made a decision and not him.    He had a combative style, which may have been associated with his lack of height (around 5′ 5″) and, given he had one glass eye, you never knew if you had his attention or not.  The only time you ever got an easy ride was when he fell asleep in a meeting after lunch.

The time I loathed most was the day following one of Gregg’s board meetings in Italy.   We had a joint venture with Thorn in a manufacturing company there and Hamish, the Thorn MD, would usually succeed in winding Gregg up with a pack of half-truths or downright lies about our UK business.  I would then get a call the following day that interrupted my lunch in the staff canteen and would have to suffer Gregg for the next half hour bellowing down the phone at me on some issue that had been fed to him.

Being promoted ahead of my colleagues within the company I had worked within for years was a new situation.  All of my peers knew me well but not as their boss and I realised that, even putting the situation with Martyn to one side, they may not have welcomed my appointment.  I decided that this was irrelevant as my new role required a fresh start.  I had admired Brian and worked hard for him but I had to pursue my own style.  The first change I made was in not moving into Brian’s old corner office suite but staying put in my own.  Our margins were under pressure at this stage and it provided me with an excuse to not replace my previous position of Marketing Director.  The format of our management and board meetings I changed and was scrupulous in playing the role of chairman / facilitator.  I found that, with a combination of ensuring everyone’s full contribution and a variety of problem solving tools, we could resolve previously difficult issues with the team invariably making a unanimous decision without me having to reveal an opinion.

Worried about morale within the company, I instigated a company wide climate survey.  Results showed that the number one issue was a distrust of management, with a widely held belief that employees were not being consulted or informed on key issues.  Following discussion amongst my senior team, we agreed that I should speak to the entire company, share the survey results and ask for volunteers to join teams, to address each of the key issues (they had all recently been trained in problem solving techniques).  On the day of the meeting I made the assembled employees a number of promises.  Firstly, I would only hear the findings or recommendations at the same time they did.  I would also agree to any recommendation the teams made so long as the cost did not exceed our local country budget level, or contravene international corporate policy (if a recommendation did, I undertook to sell it to our company president).

I seemed to hold my breath for the next month, staying away from any of the team meetings and did not quiz any of my direct reports as to progress.  We assembled in the staff canteen on the day the results were due and the atmosphere I can only describe as electric.  Would the employees pressure for unrealistic changes?  Would my team leaders have handled the process democratically?  One by one each of the four teams presented their analysis and their recommendations.  I need not have worried.  The changes requested were surprisingly modest and reasonable and after asking further questions I was delighted to say, “OK, go ahead and implement everything and you will all receive regular feedback on progress.”  I learnt that together we could build a much more decentralised style of management, enabling us to make significant progress.  It also taught me a lot about trust and it taught me to empathise more with the feelings and views of the entire company.

We made rapid progress and my first year as MD ended strongly and over budget.  The new structure within the sale team seemed to be working better and emphasis on refining the customer groups we worked with was producing improved margins.  However, despite this and the more harmonious climate amongst the management team, I was sad to receive Martyn’s resignation.  He had received a good offer and had made up his mind to go; all I could do was to wish him well.  I missed him but it was almost fifteen years before we met again and resumed our friendship but that’s another tale.  Sad as I was to see Martyn depart another event proved shattering and changed me forever.

Despite battling on and regaining some semblance of normality following her operation for a brain tumour, Jean had entered a slow decline.  One Sunday morning driving herself back from church just half a mile down the road she lost control of her car, hit the kerb and came back complaining of severe pain in her neck.  Urgent investigation showed that the cancer had spread to multiple sections of her spine, which then severely restricted her ability to be mobile.  We made enquiries and managed to move Jean into a Marie Curie hospice a short distance from our house where she spent the remainder of that summer.  The staff were angels, caring for her constantly but her decline was relentless and one night in late September whilst I was by her side she passed away.

We had been married for twenty years and neither my two children nor I knew how we were going to face life without her.

The business of life (chapter18 – Influence versus Power)

My wife had cancer and our world changed, the effects of which are still with my family today.  The immediate results of her illness were two major operations, radiotherapy and lengthy recuperation.  My wife was a nurse and well placed to understand her illness and the prognosis.  Despite her medical training she also took support and advice from the Bristol Cancer Help Centre (including a diet so heavy in carrots that her skin turned orange).  But she drew on of levels of courage and determination I never knew she possessed and gradually life went back to an appearance of normality.

Following this period, when I cancelled all travel to ensure that I was at home or close by, my focus returned once more to the challenges I knew we still faced as a company.  Our major competitors were heavily involved in the manufacture and sale of lighting fittings and this was important for a number of reasons.  By working with architects, electrical consulting firms, Local Authorities and large clients, competition ensured that their fittings were specified (usually ensuring the sale of their light sources within the fittings).  This power of specification ensured a large degree of leverage and influence over the electrical wholesale channel when it came to the supply of light sources and effectively inhibited the sale of our own.

The addition of a range of mainstream light fittings seemed to be a logical and essential extension to our activities.  Our European head office had already launched a small number of sophisticated (and expensive) fittings that were way ahead of competition in performance.  Unfortunately, these were niche solutions that were extremely difficult to persuade architects to specify or distributors to stock whilst we lacked mainstream products and an image as a competent supplier.  The logical next step was to introduce our own range of popular fittings with which we could attempt to establish our brand in this vital sector and overcome the barriers competition had created.

Having agreed this shift in strategy with my colleagues, I pressed ahead with further research into the market for lighting fittings.  Despite our own huge factory in West Yorkshire it made sense to outsource production, at least until we could justify investment in our own facilities.  After an extensive search across Europe, I located a manufacturer of the required quality in Eire who not only had spare capacity but who didn’t compete with us. Working with an industrial design group we produced and refined prototypes, which I tested using focus groups of architects, specifiers and electrical contractors.  Following a national launch supported by heavy trade advertising we achieved our initial sales targets.

Meanwhile, Brian had remained true to his word that he would support my career development.  An early demonstration of support was his engagement of a personal French tutor to start the process of preparing me for a career move into our European businesses.  This was followed by my enrolment in a management training programme that took place on both sides of the Atlantic.  GTE (our parent in its pre-Verizon days) had recently invested in its own ‘university’ spending $50m (30 years ago) building a magnificent redbrick management training school in Norwalk CT.  Spread over acres of prime real estate the objective was to provide a world-class business education.  Not only were the physical facilities superb but I studied under the best professors that Harvard, Yale, MIT,Dartmouth and Columbia could provide.

Eager to learn and with 20 years of business experience already under my belt, I soaked up everything I could that was at the cutting edge of business strategy and technique. Between programmes I found I could directly apply what I was learning to the challenges of my role.  However, the more I learnt the clearer it became to me that senior management, whilst supporting the concept of advanced management training, simply wanted a ‘business as usual’ life and would resist any moves that threatened change.  The scene was set for great future frustration on my part and friction with those to whom I reported.

One moment of levity at this time came from a delightful character, Phil Thurston, at the time Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. At the end of one programme Phil gathered us around and said, in his slow, hesitant drawl reminiscent of the actor Jimmy Stewart, “Well, guys I’ve taught you what I know about the subject and you’re well prepared.  But there is one additional quality you’re going to need in that world out there that I just can’t teach you – rat like cunning!”  Oh how right he was and how I wished I had found a way to acquire this vital quality.

Whilst our initial launch of lighting fittings had gone well the situation we were now finding was that the stock was not selling out of the wholesalers as planned.  Our sales force was now of high quality.  Having worked closely with Martyn on profiling, recruitment & training, my research now showed that we had moved from the worst image in the trade to the best.  Something else was wrong.  The sales force were supposed to start calling on electrical contractors, the critical group who actually bought the fittings from the wholesaler and installed them.  The problem was simple; the sales team weren’t making the contractor calls but the remedy was far from easy.

Whilst we had got good acceptance of our new product amongst our wholesale customers, and despite our advertising, they were finding it difficult to sell to the contracting trade.  We were an unknown quantity in a very traditional sector.  The solution was to split the sales force into two parts; one group continuing to sell into distribution and the second trained to enable them to design lighting schemes, obtain specification and to influence contractors.  I also started an intense period of public relations activity with the Electrical Contractors Association, building relationships with some of the key people in that sector.

During this same time I stepped up activity with our core customer group, the wholesalers, taking a number of those most loyal ones across the Atlantic to visit their major counterparts in the USA & Canada.  In this way we were able to demonstrate that whilst we might have been new to the UK, we were a company with a long and deep history of support to the distribution channel.  Another venture, in conjunction with a leading trade publication, was in forming of group we identified as the leaders of tomorrow and in creating training and development events for them (with appropriate publicity).  My latest research showed we were viewed by the trade as #1 for our sales force, service and trade support.

Despite these improvements in customer perception and growing share in the market for light sources, our progress in the new area of lighting fittings remained very slow.  Realising that gaining a foothold in this tightly controlled sector of the market was going to be difficult, I commenced a search for a suitable acquisition candidate.  Alongside this new strategy I continued to look closely at the performance of our sales team.  The technical sales team were small in number and it was clear that their progress was going to be slow against long established competition.  The main sales team however appeared to be neglecting the tasks set to them to support the new range and it seemed to me that they were staying within their comfort zone.  I repeatedly raised this issue with Martyn but little seemed to change.

During the time I had been working closely with Brian (and supporting him in every way I could) I had also been taking every opportunity to remind him of my general management experience and the unused competencies that I possessed.  I was constantly pushing for a wider role in the business either in the UK or inEurope. Additionally, I had also used external opportunities to demonstrate I was a saleable property (which did no harm to my salary but achieved nothing else tangible). As the fittings growth stalled my representations to Brian increased and I was actively lobbying him to put sales under my control.  Instead, in a surprise move displaying the judgement of Solomon Brian, appointed both Martyn and I to the board!

With a new stripe on my sleeve my CV improved but nothing else had changed and the problem of little or no growth in our fledgling fittings business was causing me great concern.  The strategy I had constructed and implemented with the support of all in the UK andEurope included the vital component of achieving a shift in the image of the company from a light source company to a comprehensive lighting company.  In practice this would enable us to break a stranglehold competition had on sales via the wholesale channel (the vast majority of the market).  Our pitch to major distributors had been predicated on our commitment to displace competition in a sizeable share of the fittings market that would lower the wholesalers’ risk in moving more light source purchases to us. The power of competition came from the constant threat to route specification business away from wholesalers if they reduced their light source purchases.  Failure to establish our fittings range was jeopardising our means of breaking this tactic.

The relationships I had with the management team within our European headquarters were also a source of frustration for all parties.  With many of the team I had an extremely close and productive relationship.  However, the European strategy (such as it was) brought me into constant conflict with both senior management and the various holders of the role of European Product Manager for our incandescent light sources (ordinary household light bulbs).  There was constant pressure for me to target the retail sector in the UK (several of our other major subsidiaries were present in this sector and achieved reasonable volumes).  All of my considerable experience in the retail sector showed me that we could never make any profits from such a move and I resisted strongly whenever the subject was raised. Information gained some years later shed a fascinating new insight into this issue.

Armed with a great deal of knowledge concerning the UK retail sector, how it operated and differed from its European counterparts together with a great deal of personal experience, overcoming these representations was like shooting fish in a barrel.  It earned me enemies though.  Instead, Martyn and I sidestepped the main problems of trying to establish our own brand by winning considerable private brand orders that for a while boosted our volumes.

Over the next few months a number of shifts took place that saddened and frustrated me but finally gave me some hope.  Over the previous few years life at home had returned to normal and, despite the residual effects of her illness almost 5 years previously, my wife seemed well and had returned to working in the health service.  A real boost to her self-confidence came when the local authority offered to sponsor Jean through a degree course.  She was elated.  The joy was short lived as a week or so later my phone rang and I heard the news that she had collapsed with what appeared to be a seizure.  More fits followed in the next few weeks as we waited anxiously for the test results.  It was with horror, fear and sadness that we heard the results; a large tumour in her brain.  An operation was quickly carried out but the outcome was that the tumour had been in an advanced state and the prognosis was terrible.  We battled on.

The disagreements with Martyn remained and I continued to plough on using a full frontal assault to achieve the changes I thought we required.  The result became an open rift and little progress.  What had been an incredibly successful working partnership (recognised across the industry) was no more.  It also cost me a friendship. At the time I heaped all of the blame upon Martyn and it took me many years to realise and accept that, had I modified my approach, we might have been able to reach an accommodation, preserve our relationship and make better progress.  I continued my hunt for a suitable acquisition target but became frustrated when it was made clear to me by our European management that I should desist in my efforts.  This frustration with senior management had not been enhanced by ourUS parent’s failure to pursue acquisition of our majorUK competitor (Thorn Lighting) in 1985 when theUS$ almost reached parity with the Pound (at £0.95).  An unbelievable opportunity missed.

All became clear a little while later when our European management proudly announced the acquisition of Rotaflex.  ThisUK business was focussed upon the design, manufacture, specification and sale of high end architectural light fittings via the Concord brand.  The group also included Linolite, a smaller company manufacturing and distributing ranges of niche, low value commercial fittings.  Neither of these companies would assist in achievement of the strategy that I had constructed and that had been accepted.  All of my difficulties remained.

A form of hope came when it was announced that Brian was to move to run the newly acquired Rotaflex group.  The opportunity for me to replace Brian was obvious but it soon became clear that I would have competition.  The overall growth we had achieved since I joined the company spoke for itself.  But had I acquired more enemies than friends?  Could I convince our irascible European president? I tossed my hat into the ring.

Image courtesy of http://www.jollypeople.com

The business of life (part 3 – another false start)

My sister worked at the time for Unilever in the grandeur of corporate headquarters in Blackfriars.  Home one evening, she announced that having spoken with the personnel department they had said they would interview me.  Having spent the last three months convalescing and generally treating myself gently (very gently in fact) I had to admit that I should really start the process of getting back to the world of work.  Meanwhile, my consultant had sternly instructed me that brass instruments were no longer a part of my life:  ‘Too much pressure on that lung, laddie’.  So, the much loved trumpet had been part-exchanged one afternoon in the Charing Cross Road for a classical guitar and I was already making great progress with my lessons.

Suitably sombrely suited, my interview went well enough and I found myself taken on as a trainee accountant in the Central Accounts Group.  My new boss was a remote ex army officer who barely recognised the existence of his new lad and I was quickly assigned to Mr. Crabbe his chief clerk.  Nothing much seemed to happen in our office for the first couple of weeks and a stultifying boredom soon settled upon me, interrupted only by dear old Crabbe’s routine.  At precisely 11.25 each morning, he would rise, take his paper and disappear off for precisely 35 minutes (I later found this was to Lyons Corner House where he ate the same dish at the same table each day).  When he returned he would sit upright in his chair and close his eyes for the remaining 25 minutes of his lunch hour.  With nothing else to do each day I was told to busy myself with the FT,  Stock Exchange Gazette and the Investor’s Chronicle.  Unfortunately, not a lot stuck.

An organ playing bachelor of advancing years Crabbe was a man of stern habit.  The first week of a new year would see him off to his tailor to be measured for a new suit which, when delivered, would form his ‘best’ for the serious responsibility of organ playing at his local church.  The old, best suit would then be worn to the office for the next year each day. Finally, his old office suit would then become essential garb for gardening duties.  Finally, the previous year’s gardening suit would soon be on its way to the church jumble sale.  Crabbe soon had me carrying out a regular programme of mental arithmetic each day and Mr. Michael, my boss soon had me crunching endless numbers for his new investment appraisal tool – the discounted cashflow.  I was never informed what the purpose of these number s was but got into trouble one day for shrieking with laughter when I read the detail of one project that referred to “a massive erection in Yorkshire” (it being a grain silo). For one week each month and three weeks each year the office routine became hectic as we went through the process of monthly and annual consolidation of the many operating company accounts and budget.  Staffed up for the peaks, the age of cost-cutting had yet to dawn.

With the sole window in our office looking out onto a light well, my horizons were literally inhibited (although the same was not true of my efforts to acquaint myself with the better class of young female employees this vast conglomerate employed).  Lunchtimes saw my cohort of fellow serfs (which now included said female company) dining well in our allotted staff restaurant of which there were 5 levels of ascending quality for the many layers of management.  Evenings called for study in book-keeping and economics.  I told myself I was living a more wholesome life, going early to bed, keeping good company and bettering myself.  The saving graces were that my guitar playing was progressing well, the company dentist had put right my years of oral neglect and I had acquired my first car and passed the driving test.  New horizons beckoned.

Worthy as the accountancy profession undoubtedly was, I decided it just wasn’t for me; I just had to get out into a more exciting and challenging world.  With not a word to my boss, I marched into the personnel office one day and announced that I thought that my talents would be much better employed as a salesman in one of the operating companies.  ‘Well,’ they said without to-do, ‘If that is what you think you are suited to, we’ll have to organise some interviews for you.’  True to their word, a week later I was informed that I should present myself for interview with a Mr. McColl the Sales Training Manager at the offices of Van den Burgh and Jurgens, the group company that made and marketed edible fats and oils (margarine and cooking fats to you and |).

Shortly before the allotted hour, I presented myself at the reception desk resplendent (I thought) in my very newest and most sober suit and was told to proceed to the 8th floor.  Waiting for the lift, I noticed a dour looking and completely white-haired elderly man limp across the lobby straight towards me, whereupon he stopped, stared intently at me with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen, walked a complete circuit and barked, ‘Hair’s a bit long, laddie!’  We proceeded in silence to the eighth floor where I realised, with some horror, that this was the said McColl when he ushered me into his office.  I was directed into a chair opposite his with the mid-morning sun directly in my face.  What followed was a series of quick fire questions that I thought I handled very well.  Then, with an engaging smile, he asked my about my interests. I let my guard down and mentioned cars, amongst a few other things.  Seizing upon the motoring interest, I was immediately probed as to the exact number of time the pistons went up and down in a four stroke engine; I replied ‘twice’ getting confused under a very swift change of mood.

What followed were some of the worst moments of my young life.  ‘You’re wrong, laddie!’ my tormentor spat out, ‘And, worst than that, you’re bloody arrogant with it!’  My memory is still tortured at the defence I put up, frantically trying to explain that I had been referring to the number of complete cycles of a piston. ‘Enough!’ he roared at me, ‘This is a bloody farce and I’m going to get our Divisional Director down here to see the rubbish I’m being sent these days.’ He reached for the phone and made the call in even more explicit terms ending with, ‘You should get down here now and see for yourself before I throw him out.’  Long minutes passed in complete silence as McColl’s pure blue eyes continued to bore into me, I swear without ever blinking once.  The door then burst open and in came an equally white-haired and very distinguished Frank Cryer.  The grilling continued for what seemed an age whilst I tried to convince them both that a simple error had occurred, I wasn’t arrogant in the slightest and that I did really have what it took for a career in sales.  Silence followed for what, again, seemed an age.  They, then, both looked at each other, smiled and Frank Cryer said, ‘Well, done.  We’ll get you on the next training course.’ And rose and shook my hand.

 A career in sales was about to start; could I hack it?

Image courtesy of Stanhope Plc

My life in business (chapter 2 – a false start)

You could say that I had it easy when, at the age of fifteen, I walked straight into an office job.  Many of my neighbourhood contemporaries followed fathers and uncles into ‘the print’ (nepotism was and is not the exclusive practice of the upper classes it is portrayed to be today).  Still they earned comparatively vast sums, sharing the cash proceeds of additional & fictitious men signed on for the particularly lucrative Saturday night-shift under such names as M. Mouse & D. Duck.  Little did they know their future as they waited unknowing for Messrs Shah and Murdoch to make dinosaurs of them.  Well, perhaps I did have it easy at first; with unemployment hovering around a genuine level of 350,000, competition for jobs was low.  But did it ensure I was set up for life?  Did it mean career success would surely follow?   That was something else, which as we’ll see was far from straightforward.

 Work in the swinging sixties started well for me.  Learning the basics of clerical work in the world of industrial and consumer finance at the Mercantile Credit Company was easy enough.  The language, culture and scams of the industry were quickly assimilated and I was soon made assistant to the office manager and commuting into central London on my first motor bike (my first experience of the NHS A & E service following soon after). The routine was stultifying and even the typists were boring.  One highlight full of excitement was being despatched to repossess an ageing Lambretta from an unsuspecting debtor.  But parallel to my commercial endeavours was a social world that was exploding into espresso bars, pubs, rock and roll, jive, miniskirts and a growing lack of deference to the establishment that was especially refreshing to an ex catholic organ pumper fluent in church Latin pronunciation.  Penguin’s publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover did much to provide additional and extremely relevant study material.

London’s music scene was exploding.  My haunts soon became the 100 Club, the Marquee, the Flamingo, the 51 Club and Eel Pie Island.  Flush with money, or so it seemed, I lived a double life.  I spent money on sharply tailored bespoke suits for the office where I tried hard to appear successful, but office hours over, a carefully cultivated downbeat style was adopted for nights out.  I still drank with my old South London friends in various local and East End pubs on Friday nights but my alter ego would meet with a group of more eclectic friends in a variety of West End and Hampstead coffee bars and pubs. I was never much of a drinker though, and it would be a rare occasion when I was not sober.  A hard drug scene had also blossomed into the mainstream of the London club scene but it never, ever, even tempted me.  My avid reading of the lives of my jazz and blues heroes had taught me that it was drugs that usually destroyed talent.

Carried away with the London jazz scene, I bought a trumpet and having soon gathered sufficient fellow adherents to the New Orleans style, I formed a band, the Storyville Shakers.  With enthusiasm exceeded only by an execrable lack of talent, we tried hard to swing into the London scene with a Sunday lunchtime appearance at a pub in decidedly unfashionable Lambeth.  The experience soon provided my first encounter with an iron law of music; organising a band is worse than herding cats – leadership 0, anarchy 1. I continued playing, sitting in with any bands I could.  A highlight was an afternoon spent playing in a band on the Aldermaston CND March.  I still remember a soaring solo I made (cribbed note perfect from a treasured record) on ‘Just a closer walk with thee’ as we marched past the Houses of Parliament. I had rebelled enough to have made a statement (or so it seemed at the time).

Soon, a serious manifestation of the World’s risky existence settled on my consciousness in the form of the Cuban Missile crisis.  Huddled over a pint in the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden with the Evening Standard trumpeting imminent nuclear annihilation, I feared my life was over before it had begun.  However, a few long days later, the crisis passed when Khrushchev blinked first.London resumed its swinging and I was able to concentrate on succeeding in both job and social life.  But, despite the success of the social revolution, there were still only 24 hours in a day and every one was taking its toll on me.

On a rare evening when I had actually gone to bed before midnight (if at all), I woke choking and coughing violently.  Switching on the light revealed a scene more a slaughterhouse than a bedroom; I was haemorrhaging. The coughing itself was nothing new; it had been with me for months along with a severe reduction in weight.  A few days before, finally realising all was not right, I had taken myself off to the doctor, been examined and referred for an x-ray that same day (things in the NHS worked back in the Sixties). Seated that afternoon in front of a fatherly looking consultant, he informed me that I had a shadow on my right lung and that it was TB.  The shock ratcheted up when he wanted to hospitalise me that same afternoon.  Blind panic set in; my world really was ending.  How could I just go into hospital that same day?  I argued and pleaded for a few more days to pull my mind and my affairs together. My pleading worked and I spent the next few days telling my girlfriend, band, other friends and employer that I was going to be away some time. That delay was a big mistake.

Whisked away in an ambulance with bells clanging (that’s what they did in those days) I was incarcerated in Grove Park Hospital, a TB sanatorium in South-east London, for what was an indefinite period.  Originally built as a workhouse over a century before, the building retained an all pervading grimness throughout.  The initial shock of restriction of liberty was far greater than that of the bloody incident itself.  Once I adjusted and gave myself over to my narrowed horizons, life was not too bad; apart from my backside which was fast becoming a pincushion from daily injections of the then wonder drug streptomycin (which was going to have very unfortunate side effects years later).

Daily ward routines were made tolerable by a delightful young Irish trainee nurse who used to chat to me (whenever Sister was safely out of sight) and share tales of her fumbling attempts to learn the art of injections with the aid of an orange.  Several days later Bridget arrived looking exceptionally nervous.  Sister declared that nurse would be giving me my injection that day.  Oh, shit! Her very first live attempt!  Buttocks bared, teeth & cheeks clenched and desperately trying to remember which of the many saints to whom prayer was likely be the most efficacious, I was most painfully impaled.  Slowly, over the next few weeks, the cough departed and weight started coming back.

My fellow inmates and I soon settled into a routine of sorts.  We all had to produce a urine sample on a weekly basis and much discussion and ribaldry centred on the varying colours and hues of our productions, lined up on the window ledge in the bathroom on Monday mornings.  Ours was a large ward with few patients, simply me and a young Jamaican lad, two Pakistani seaman and a middle aged Greek shopkeeper whose command of English seemed to be based around the ceaseless use of the interrogative “innit?”  One day a month or so into my confinement our tranquil existence was shattered by the arrival of an Irishman of the peripatetic persuasion.  Possessed of a particularly aggressive nature, he soon disrupted our harmony and confirmed the stereotype by disappearing one afternoon only to return late that evening.  He was not just drunk but roaring drunk, alternating bouts of atrocious singing with random acts of aggression.  The night sister merely attempted a feeble admonishment before locking the ward doors and leaving us to it.  A wretched and sleepless night followed.  My first encounter with the caring side of the nursing profession.

 One afternoon my old boss arrived and stayed long enough to tell me that I had been fired, leaving me with my ‘cards’ and a bag of grapes.  After several months I was informed that I would be able to take short walks in the grounds; oh, joy!  Clad in now ill-fitting clothes I wandered the gardens surrounding the hospital soaking in a state of semi freedom. Illcared for and downright scruffy the gardens might have been but to me they were a paradise found for reflective thought.  I soon decided that life was going to have change completely.

One bright winter morning some weeks later, I was discharged back into the world as a changed person with no career.  What now?

Image courtesy of FFFFound.com

In the Firing Line

Fired, let go, made redundant, kicked out or whatever euphemism you choose, lucky is the person who has not experienced the process or lived without the worry that it could happen at any time.  Given that it is so long since the last recession (not the start of the current one in 2008) this is a dilemma that many will be facing for the first time. So, what’s to do if you’re worried about the potential threat or, more urgently, if you have been recently let go?

 Before anyone questions my credentials I should explain that, having been fired 5 times in my career, I have both form and opinions and, in the current vernacular, I do have the tee shirt.  A brief summary of the sordid details

My first firing took place with me flat on my back in a hospital bed early in the recovery phase of a life threatening illness that was to take half a year before I was back to full health.  Getting my P45 in such circumstances was only slightly softened by the personal, bedside delivery from my boss.  Given the then indeterminate length of my stay at the pleasure of the NHS, I have to say that the actual firing was somewhat underwhelming in comparison to other considerations. My fault in the firing process?  Falling ill.

It was more than a few years before the P45 experience came knocking at my door once more; in fact it is more accurate to say that it was prefaced by a loud thumping on my office wall.  As this was the usual form of summons from my boss, the CEO, I legged it into his adjacent office assuming only that more of his workload was going to fall into my in-tray. “Boy, you’ve got a problem with the main board” was his greeting as he waved an envelope at me, “You’re fired”. The main board being 100% comprised of Japanese nationals was safely ensconced in Tokyo.  It would be fair to stay that, given that the contents of the envelope included a cheque of calming proportions, and the fact that my boss was extremely cordial about the whole thing “Nothing personal as far as I’m concerned”, the disbelief and rage took a few days to set in. My role in this affair was somewhat less benign.  I still believe that the decision was wrong but I had been guilty of arrogance and an inability to either adapt to changing circumstances or to learn how to play politics.

More years passed and this time found me bitterly unhappy, working in a European country famous for its gnomes and financial probity, doing a job I hated and, which I have to admit I was singularly unsuited for (politics really is not my bag) against a background of the business having just changed hands.  I had worked with the new owners for the previous six months whilst the due diligence process ground on and had come to hate them with an intensity rare even for me.  So when the Swiss equivalent of the P45 was thrust into my hand 10 days after the deal completed, a wave of sheer relief swept over me.  Apart from any role that my continued lack of political skills played I was genuinely in the wrong place when a new owner decided he really didn’t require a European headquarters.

The fourth occasion of an involuntary cessation of my duties came after two years of sheer slog, pulling a large subsidiary of a small Plc back from losses of millions to a break-even situation. Rage attacked me all the more acutely when I dwelt on how long they had allowed the previous, disastrous management to build up the losses in the first place.  So, my reward was another P45 episode.  What really had the rage in full flood this time was that they wanted me to work out my notice to save the cash impact of paying me off on the spot.  My pugnacious side was given full vent.  Aided by a decent lawyer and several bloody battles later I emerged into the sunlight clutching an acceptable cheque.  I think I had done everything I could to improve the business, my mistake being to have joined such a fragile Plc (it subsequently faded out of existence in the next few years). Finally sick of being at the whim of others, this was the episode that turned me away from employment and into a new career of consultancy, entrepreneurialism and VC backed buy-ins.

 An intense period of two years saw me buying 3 separate businesses with the aid of venture capital.  As experience has shown, the classic management buy-in, pursued with (reckless?) abandon through the 90’s, is an incredibly risky process (you simply don’t know where the skeletons are buried).  Robbed blind by the vendor on my first deal, matters were made worse by an incompetent business partner and a duplicitous supplier. I did everything possible to turn an impossible situation around but finally, when no other options existed, petitioned for an administrator to be appointed.  As I discovered within 24 hours, owning a business doesn’t mean that you are free from the risks of an ordinary employee and, yes, a brand new P45 was waiting for me. There is a long story concerning this business that I have touched upon in an earlier post but suffice to say I should have trusted my judgement and walked away from the deal in the first place.

A footnote to this last episode was finding that the Big 4 accountancy firm I had appointed as administrators, robbed the insolvent business blind, stringing the administration process out for 10 years whilst they took whatever cash they could get their hands on as management fees.  The creditors got not one penny and I lost a lot of money but I did learn that certain forms of robbery are entirely legal.

 Once I had overcome my early rage at being fired I found these experiences to be extremely liberating and (although you may not believe this) some of the happiest times of my career.  Was I stark staring mad?  Had the whole process unhinged me?  I don’t think so but what I do know was that when the pre event stress stopped, the calm was wonderful and the prospect of a new step in my career very exciting.  It provided time and space to be genuinely reflective and to be completely focused on the single new goal I had.

 So, what advice have I got?  If you are faced with the risk or reality of being let go, what should you do?  Part 2 (posting soon) will take a look at some advice I have acquired as a result of these experiences.

Image courtesy of planetill.com

Secrets of success (part 3)

Reading in the press over recent daysof the firing of Olympus CEO Michael Woodford after just two weeks in the role reinforced my view that executive life can be hellish (see my earlier post Executive life – nasty, brutish and short?).  In the case of Woodford, this is clearly something of an extreme situation (now involving the FBI). However, executive tenure certainly doesn’t get much more bestial than this.

Image courtesy of Scientific American

Lloyds CEO Antonio Horto-Osorio leave of absence, reportedly suffering from exhaustion & stress since his recent appointment in March this year, was a different matter and one that brought back painful memories.  Back in my early career and flush with the success that I had running my first two businesses (as a distributor of high end Japanese products), I took on a third role which involved crossing the divide and working for a Japanese company in consumer electronics.  At first success continued apace and then I fell foul of circumstances, the sin of hubris and a lack of political skills, before the stress took its toll.

 In the UK we kept revenues growing ever upwards supported by continuing brand building investment to which our Japanese parent company had committed.  Unfortunately, success in the intensely competitive US market eluded them, the losses there mounted and my investment was sacrificed.  Now, to be honest, there were aspects of the role that I had neglected (or didn’t recognise as important, believing that my rudimentary personal toolkit could meet all situations).  I increased my already long hours still further until I was notching up 90 hour / 7 day weeks whilst trying to fight what were intensely political battles with head-on pugnacity (believing that logic and rationality would prevail).  Late one evening, when I had crawled home exhausted yet again, I was interrupted by a call from head office in Tokyo demanding that I immediately  attend to a problem that had arisen.  I cannot remember the exact words I used but the gentle art of politics certainly eluded me that night.  I can remember the phone went down and I turned to the scotch.  I suffered what I can only describe as a breakdown and couldn’t work for weeks; something had to give and shortly after returning to the office I was fired.

Once the disbelief and anger phases had passed (God knows what I was like to my family during these weeks) the fog of tiredness and frustration lifted and I took stock.  Along with undoubted strengths, I realised there were some significant weaknesses that I had to overcome.  I had clearly moved up too far, too fast and still had much to learn in the arts of management and business.  I started the job search full of enthusiasm seeking positions in other industries, confident that the skills and experience I had were transferable. The next period was one of the happiest I had experienced for many years; the research and the job hunt were full time (but flexible) and I revelled in the time I had for exercise  It took me six months to find the right role, a level down (as marketing director) in the UK arm of a very large US industrial corporation where my experience was welcomed.

As soon as I joined my new company, I set about the process of filling the gaps in my skill set that I had identified.  My love of reading and learning made the task of acquiring these skills fun rather than a chore.  Having moved into the company as an outsider I also found my task easier as, when applying some new piece of knowledge or technique, no-one realised I was feeling my way along and accepted me as the expert.  We were at the time a World #3 behind GE & Philips and relatively new to the UK market, whereas competition was long established,  powerful and traditional but carrying the baggage of old mindsets and flawed strategies.  By a combination of detailed analysis, careful positioning and concentration on a tightly focused distribution strategy we were able to grow rapidly, doubling share in our major market.

A few years later I was promoted to run the UK operation and success continued for a couple of more years whilst we concentrated on the quality of our internal systems and processes.  However, by this time we were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with competition who were driving down the costs of production, feeding through into ever lower market pricing.  The business was already global with 90% of our UK production exported to the rest of the World and 85% of the ranges we sold in the UK being imported from our overseas factories.  Whilst our UK production facilities were new and efficient, many of the overseas facilities we had to rely upon were old, unproductive and located in European countries with impossible labour laws (something we have imported since!). Slowly and inexorably, our profits in the UK declined as I had to suffer far higher prices on our imports than competition.  I found myself under increasing attack for failing to overcome this structural problem.

Now having been educated to a very high standard by my employers (by the best US business schools) I was not short of an analysis of the situation; nor a prognosis.  Faced with the news that I was to face the company president on an forthcoming UK visit, I set about a robust analysis of the situation facing the entire company.  For those of you who are interested, my model was Michael Porter’s Five Forces and what emerged was the fact, clear as day, that our global industry was doomed to low profitability (for reasons too complex to go into here). Unless our ultimate parent company (a US telops giant) was prepared to invest heavily in new and fewer production facilities across the Globe, we were doomed.  On the day of my meeting, the US president sat quietly and asked pertinent questions, whilst my boss (the European president) turned puce and kept attempting to move me onto what I was going to do to meet the UK budget that year.  At the end, big US boss thanked me for the presentation and asked me to send him my full analysis.  Well, my name in Europe was shit from then on and I was accused of ‘intellectual arrogance’ and ‘executive burnout’.  What happened?  Profits continued to decline and 18 months later the US parent put the whole $2bn business on the blocks.  By then I had been ‘forgiven’ and moved to European headquarters in Switzerland.  When the sale finally went through, I lasted 10 days before ‘being let go’ by the new owners. Joy returned to my life.

So, whilst my burnout with the Japanese was real, as were my shortcomings (and the ulcers) the next outcome was far from the diagnosis my colleagues made at the time (rarely had I been so clear sighted).  The situation had elements of pure farce akin to the tragedy being played out across Europe today.  The entire senior European management frantically attempted to prove that the situation could be turned around if only everyone pushed harder.  Moral; when you’re in an existential crisis, face facts, learn afresh and do the right things (even if they are unpopular); don’t just keep repeating the same things and expecting a different outcome.

 This period of my career had been a rich learning experience.  From the Japanese I learnt the skill of attention to detail plus the need to recognise and manage stress.  From then on I attempted to minimise my own stress and trained my team to do likewise.  From the Americans I discovered a great commitment to learning and development from the very top and owe them for a fabulous management education. But the great pity was that offsetting these ideals and learning were the layers of middle executives serving out their time, defending their turf and resisting change at all costs. What a waste of investment, training, careers and shareholder return. More soon.

 

 

Shouldn’t we care more for our elders?

Yet again we have more terrible news of the failings in our much vaunted National Health Service.  The Care Quality Commission today reports on its findings into inspections at 100 acute NHS hospitals inEnglandand announces that fully 20% were not delivering care that met the standards the law says people should expect in terms of dignity and nutrition.  One in five hospitals failing to meet legal requirements in these basic areas despite the additional billions pumped into them over the last decade or so.  How can we spend so much and get so little in return? Why does such a large section of the caring profession get it so wrong?

Image courtesy of Nursing Times

As I’ve blogged before (‘No way to run a health service’ June 2011) I’ve had both first hand experience of our NHS, been married to a health professional and seen some of the failings at first hand. Now don’t get me wrong if you think that I’m someone who doesn’t believe in our health service; it has saved my life on two occasions. But that doesn’t mean that it is without blemish. Just consider, it employs c.1.5m people and, sure, not all of these are going to be up to scratch in the care stakes. But 20% of hospital failing to meet legal requirements? A sad but true story first.

A few years back my late mother was admitted into one of the major London teaching hospitals as she had suffered a fall. I travelled the long journey down to visit as soon as I got the news and what I found shocked me to the core. Mum was groaning in apparent and considerable agony some 20 feet only and in full sight of the nurses’ station where 7 or 8 nurses and doctors were doing various things (including sharing jokes). It transpired that mum had received no assistance to relieve herself since being admitted earlier the day before and clearly had been ignored. Any ‘profession’ that can permit this level of indignity to be visited on another human being has serious failings.

The National Audit Office in a separate report today finds that 80% of hospitals were in some financial difficulties and two thirds had weak leadership and management delivered poor quality care to patients. According to The Kings Fund, of the funds invested in the NHS under Labour somewhere over a third went on increased salaries “and the returns, in terms of better care, higher productivity are somewhat elusive so far”. So, despite an increase from £52.9bn in 1998 to £118.3bn in 2010, nothing much to show in efficiency gains. Now, if as a chief executive of a public or private company I had gone to shareholders and asked for this sort of percentage increase and then said I had nothing very much to show for it, what do you think my survival chances would be? Especially if I had incurred a far vaster liability in terms of ‘off balance sheet’ (in the form of PFI) commitments for years to come

Now to be fair, the Government had to pay for the effects of the EU working time directive for junior doctors and for sharply increased costs of criminal negligence claims. But who agreed to the former and who created the environment for the latter? Sure, the cost of drugs rises inexorably but the waste in the system is incredible. There is almost no other subject that gets politicians and the public rushing to their respective corners as the NHS. It’s curious but mention profit in connection with healthcare and it’s battle stations at once. The fact that a private company might be efficient enough to make a profit is anathema to the likes of the Guardian readers. But mention that an equal or far greater amount is being simply wasted and you get a shrug or, at best, hands wrung, eyes averted.

The adverse effects of shifting demographics have been known to governments for over 25 years and caring for our elderly is going to take more than a few platitudes. Democracy has failed us because, frankly, the political elite haven’t had the guts to tackle the issue of funding healthcare in a sustainable manner. Does it matter if the care my mother (or yours) receives or the dignity she is afforded came from a profit making organisation that didn’t waste the funds we invest from our taxes? The health professionals may be capable of delivering care but don’t kill them with targets. And just because we are talking of professions don’t fall into the trap of assuming they know how to lead a multifunctional team and manage vast budgets.

The NHS was, in fact, an all party wartime coalition effort (despite the fact it was a labour government that was in power to introduce it in 1948). We are now in the midst of a crisis in healthcare that has been decades in the making and it will take a great deal of time to come up with a sustainable solution. We need, somehow, to take control of the means of a solution out of the party political system.

Don’t we owe it to our elders to spend their final years with dignity? They brought us into this world; shouldn’t we try to make their passing as comfortable as we can?

Walk a mile in my shoes

OK, I’m back and this is not a whinge but, I admit it, I’m bored.  Having had my shoulder operation last Friday, followed by a couple of day’s horrendous discomfort, I now seem to be free of pain for good parts of the day (so long as I forget the break dancing).   But, with my right arm totally enclosed in a sling of vast proportions, baroque complexity and a rather sinister shade of black, I find that I am, well, disabled. I am not able to do all the things I usually do and having to depend on my dear wife more than I am used to (and perhaps more than she bargained for, bless her).

Image courtesy of Breg.com

Actual shot here, folks, of the Breg Slingshot3 for the inquisitive (this guy seems to actually be some sort of masochist).  Joking apart, whoever at Breg who designed this beauty knew what they were doing.

Now, of course, my ‘disability’ is only temporary and my wonderful surgeon tells me I should make a full recovery and the full use of my right arm and shoulder in time.  How do I know that Prof. Ernest Schilders is wonderful? Well, apart from his reputation, I have the video of the action that took place.  No, you don’t want to know the full details; suffice to say that what appeared to be solid engineering took place and that a variety of tools and screws were used that any DIYer would have …..given his right arm for.  Perhaps to show after Xmas lunch mmmm?

I also have to make special mention of Caroline, Fay and Quanzee; three more skilful and compassionate members of the nursing profession, you would struggle to find.  Thank you, ladies.

Perhaps I have always taken my own body for granted.  True it has never permitted Olympian feats but, by and large, it has done what I required of it and mind and body have always seemed in harmony. But now, with my right arm completely incapacitated, I have a taste of what a disability really is.  I have a small glimpse of how life must be for those who are, for whatever reason, not able-bodied (apologies if that’s not the correct PC phrase).  I, at least, know that I am going to be back to normal in time but I cannot simply comprehend the mental anguish of a soldier, or indeed anyone, who has lost a limb or a faculty that is never coming back.

OK, I have been getting progressively more deaf for years now and manage(?) by spending ludicrous amounts every couple of years on the latest technology in a vain attempt to claw back some of the loss since the last pair.  This has enabled me to maintain a business career and for my own little disability to go largely unnoticed.  This morning the beautiful Denise chauffeured me down to our health centre where I was to have the stitches removed.  Margret, our practice nurse, was kind, solicitous and perfectionist in getting the little critters out almost before I was aware of their going.  However, I did notice something new, just a glimpse mind, that while I was seated and the procedure was carried out, the two ladies in my life at that moment, and for all the right reasons, were robbing me of just a little bit more of my independence than I felt comfortable with.  What would it be like if I had suffered a permanent disability and really did have to rely on others more than I feel comfortable doing?

Typing has never been strength but this post has taken me more time than I care to admit, hunting and pecking with a couple of left-hand fingers.  I now know just how frustrating, truly frustrating, it would be if this was as good as it was going to get.  No guitar practice either.  So, I’m good folks, but spare a thought for those less fortunate than us; not just for their physical impairments but for the mental adjustments they have to cope with.

Looking forward to normal service more than ever….