The flight back from Geneva that evening gave me some time and space to get my thoughts together. There was none of the rage I had felt when I had been fired from Akai 13 years previously. Instead, what I felt was a mix of great relief and sadness. The sense of relief had been something I expected, as working for Norman and Eddie would have filled me with horror. This feeling was vindicated later that same year when a friendly head hunter shared his experience of dealing with Norman But more of that in due course.
The sadness was an unexpected sensation. I had spent all those years working for a company in roles that had provided me with enormous challenges, to which I had usually been able to rise. The company had given me a superb business education, which I have since come to realise was peerless. It had also provided me with rich and complex problems on which to apply my new found knowledge. I still count some of the solutions I arrived at to be amongst the greatest successes of my career. It was sad that middle management had not always been able to step back from their personal positions and embrace a new reality. Strategic thinking had been subordinated to the protection of personal gain in many cases. Nevertheless, I knew I was going to miss the company, the challenges it had provided and the people; even the ones who had frustrated the hell out of me.
One worry luckily I didn’t have was financial. At least I was confident that I would find the next position before money became a problem. With the savings I had accumulated and the severance pay I had received life wouldn’t be too bad. I was under no illusions though as the UK was still recovering from a nasty recession. For the moment I put that from my mind as I had more immediate matters to deal with. I had an apartment in Geneva with more stuff accumulated over the previous year than would fit into a suitcase and I had to get it back home. I made plans to drive over in a few days. Speaking to a couple of my old team I discovered that they had already had a farewell lunch together but on hearing I was returning for a couple of days they decided to do it all over again – with me.
So, after a few days catching up on my sleep and delighting in being back home with Denise, I headed back over the Channel and through France to Geneva for the last time. The lunch was bitter-sweet. I was touched that they were all prepared to give up their time to meet with me once more. It was apparent though that a number felt a lot less philosophical about the situation than me and it was clear that at least a couple were going to find it very tough to get another position as good as the one they had lost. One saving grace for them was that Swiss welfare payments were a whole lot more generous than the UK but only for a time. When the hugs and kisses were over we went our individual ways and I began the long drive back.
Back home in Yorkshire my first priority was to shake off the excesses of too many meals and probably too much to drink. So, Tilly our Rottweiler joined me for long jogs across the moors around our home and gradually I began to feel good both physically and mentally. Without a break I started work full time on the hunt for the next position. In the following 6 months I travelled 20,000 miles attending interviews, networking and researching the market. Contacts I had made were unstinting with their time and advice and the many head hunters I either approached afresh or renewed acquaintance with were generally extremely helpful. Together with the advice I had previously received from Max, I was becoming more focussed and more professional in my approach.
Discussing the very exact profile a client had drawn up for a position I was reviewing with an extremely helpful recruitment consultant he suddenly enquired, “It was the same Norman that had run FKI that bought your old company, wasn’t it?” When I nodded he went on, “God you had a lucky escape! I had a brush with him a few years back. He contacted me and said he was looking for half a dozen MDs. Well”, he went on, “I thought Christmas had come early, so I asked Norman to let me have candidate profiles and I’d get back to him with a plan and an invoice for the amount we charge upfront.” It seems Norman had responded, “Don’t waste my time with stuff like that, just get me the candidates and I’ll see if I like any of them.”
Things were certainly a lot tougher than they had been the last time I was ‘between positions’. I was that much older, that much more senior and the number of openings higher up the greasy pole were that much fewer. It became clear quite quickly that, despite my extensive contacts, I wasn’t going to walk into a senior role in the industry I had just left. I think I was known as someone with strong views and a different perspective on things and that didn’t appeal to many. In any case longevity in position was a hallmark of the industry I had been in and there was no game of musical chairs to join in. Moving industries once again looked the most likely route back into gainful employment. This bothered me not one jot as I had already worked in 6 diverse sectors and had found problems were invariably generic.
Drawing on the experiences I had accrued in my role in Geneva I reflected on the behavioural skill set that my role had really needed. When I compared this with the psychometric feedback I had received over the previous few years, I realised that I had really been a square peg trying to fit a round whole. Whilst the experience and knowledge I possessed had been more than sufficient for the role, my behavioural profile lacked the key political skills required. I had the influencing skill alright but I clearly lacked what Phil Thurston at Harvard had referred to as ‘rat like cunning’. My first approach to a problem or resistance was usually to summon the power of logic and rationality. If that didn’t work I rarely shied away from a full blown, full frontal attack. I could build and receive the loyalty and support of a team, I could understand the biggest of pictures and what was required to solve the underlying problems. Yes, there was much I could learn of politics but, as I saw things, I was far more suited to leading than being led.
But my mind was beginning to move in a different direction. During the final months in Geneva I had started to think of working alone as a consultant and had sounded out a few people I knew who had created successful careers in this way. The advice had been to specialise rather than risk being known as a jack of all trades. The obvious specialism was marketing strategy and I was pondering the prospect of setting up and promoting my own business when, in one of those amazingly serendipitous moments, my phone rang.
The call was from Gerard, the finance director of an old customer I had known for many years whilst with SylvaniaUK. He explained that they had a problem he felt I might be able to assist with. Was I interested in meeting to discuss the situation? A few days later I travelled down to Croydon to meet Gerard and Steve, the MD of Jerrard Bros PLC. The company had been founded by Steve’s father and uncle, had done well for many years but now required a new supplier of a key product. Would I help them? I said I would let them have a proposal. During the visit it became clear that the company had reached a plateau over the previous few years and I probed for reasons. I said I would also let them have some thoughts on working with them to address this issue also. A couple of weeks later and after some good natured negotiation we had a business relationship based on two projects.
Almost straightaway I received two more approaches for significant projects and following discussions, proposals and more negotiations I found myself engaged to complete both. One was a feasibility study for a foreign manufacturer looking to enter the UK market and the other was assisting a company looking to acquire one of my old, major competitors. Very quickly I became extremely busy and drew a halt to any idea of seeking a new employed role. I revelled in the freedom of working on projects that interested me at my own pace (although to agreed deadlines). By now it was summer and I fell into a routine that, when I wasn’t travelling, I often cycled long distances in the Dales. I would start early and return by midday and then work through until mid evening. I had always found cycling conducive to thought and now I could actually keep fit whilst doing something I really enjoyed and apply my mind to various problems at the same time.
During my job hunting process I had followed a highly targeted approach seeking opportunities that had not even been advertised. Each day I would scour the business press looking for news items concerning major companies that were either contemplating or had made major investments or acquisitions. Whenever I came across a situation where I felt I could add value I would write to the chairman or chief executive (often to their home address so my letter wouldn’t be screened by a secretary). I would either compliment them on their success or wish them luck with their plans and then spell a short but precisely targeted couple of sentences laying out how my experience could assist. I would follow these letters up with a call aiming to achieve a meeting. Several of these approaches got me in front of senior people. I hadn’t succeeded in getting a new job from this approach but I decided I could use the experience to win new clients.
Another opportunity for creativity had arisen when I lost out after being down to the final two for a position running a national chain of builders’ merchants. Having invested the time to carry out a great deal of background research on the firm and its competitors I thought it would be foolish to waste it. I called the new MD, introduced myself as the guy who came second, congratulated him and suggested we meet as I had a proposition. He was sufficiently intrigued to agree to meet me. When we met I made the suggestion that as he was busy getting to grips with a big new role there was a way I could help. He listened very carefully to what I had to say about the industry, the position of his company and the issues I had identified. He considered for what seemed an age and then said he would be pleased to receive a proposal. I went away and submitted a detailed proposal for a very focussed consultancy project. He accepted but not before something else got in the way.
Towards the end of my period of applying for jobs I met a head hunter with whom I had established a good relationship. Out of the blue he called me months later to say he had an assignment he felt was well suited to my experience. We met and I listened to the facts he laid before me. His client was Ross Group a small UK PLC with a number of businesses in electrical products. They were seeking an MD for one of the group companies, Selmar Industries, itself a group of three businesses manufacturing in West Yorkshire. The previous MD had departed after running up losses of £3.0m. Smelling a dead horse, I declined to take matters further. However, a couple of weeks later he was back on the phone pushing me to meet the Group MD at the company’s factory, “It’s just down the road from you, I’m sure you’ll get on famously with Neil and if you still decide it’s till not for you, well fine.”
The following week I duly arrived at Selmar’s factory, which was housed in old mill premises in a tight, wooded valley on the outskirts of Brighouse. My heart sank; it looked a tip. However, my head hunter chum was right about Neil with whom I quickly established a rapport. He had also worked in major corporations and there was a basic understanding between us over how businesses should be run. Nevertheless, after several hours of discussions I politely declined to take matters any further. A week later Neil came on the phone to chat and pressed me to meet the chairman, “Nothing to lose, see what he has to say, eh?” A long trip down to Basingstoke the following week produced a firm offer, which I rejected. They responded with an improvement and promises. By this stage, I have to admit, it had become something of a game, so I pushed on and won more concessions. Finally I accepted but not before I had negotiated approval to continue my work with Jerrard Bros.
I was back running a group of businesses and was confident that I could improve them. Would it work out? Or had my pugnacious nature set me up for trouble again?
Image courtesy of Eliasbadi.com