A couple of years later, we had a sales conference at the Grand Hotel Eastbourne, which was memorable for two main reasons. When I arrived there was a new Rolls Royce parked so near the entrance, it was almost blocking the way in. Propped on the dashboard was a small, neat plastic sign proclaiming; ‘This vehicle is the property of James Saville esquire, porter at the Royal Infirmary Leeds’. Sure enough, a leather-clad Jim could be seen each day solicitously attending to the Duchess, his beloved Mum.
As a result of this particular conference I got suitably motivated upon hearing that a new sales team was being created to be in charge of a whole new product line and that a sales manager was being sought. Well, at the first chance in the bar that evening, I buttoned holed my regional manager (dear old Bob MacIndoe) and proclaimed that I was that new sales manager. Bob gazed seriously into my eyes, put his arm around my shoulder and walked me into a quiet corner. “Tony, my boy,” Bob proclaimed, “there are some of us who are cut out for demands of the leadership role and some of us that will continue to be great salesmen; you’re one of my best men. Keep it up.” I was stunned but soon recovered to resolve that I was going to make sales manager, with the company or not. I have often looked back trying to figure out if Bob genuinely believed that I didn’t have leadership potential or if he was really smart and merely winding me up. Whatever; I lifted my game again.
We salesmen continued to undergo a great deal more training, to a level I began to realise, even then, we could never apply in the restricted role we were employed to carry out. Looking back I realise that we were guinea pigs for every new concept in the field of selling and even psychology. One particularly intense week was built around the use of the T-group, a concept I much later learnt was based on the work of Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory and Group Dynamics. I cannot recall the exact methods employed during that week except we endured the intense use of emotional interaction, leaving us feeling exposed and drained each day. Towards the end of the week, one of the group, who was clearly struggling with the demands (and relevance) of baring his soul to the rest of us, broke down and stormed out, leaving the building and the company.
Having moved through a succession of sales territories, by my 3rd year I was responsible for the largest territory in the UK (in terms of sales volume). But with all the training and sales success I was now bored and unstretched. One week was much the same as another and it was a rare day when work wasn’t finished by midday at the latest. Within the strictures of a fiendish plot designed to keep us working throughout the day, our orders and call reports had to bear the last postmark from our territory. So, when the sun wasn’t shining, hungry for learning, I turned to libraries, museums and the law courts for ways to fill my afternoons. Of these the magistrates’ courts and the Quarter Sessions (as they were then) fascinated and horrified me with. On the one hand I witnessed liberal and benevolent attitudes to hardened criminals who committed appalling crimes, and on the other (comparatively) harsh, menu driven and arbitrary ‘justice’ for the likes of the motorist. Photography was also a hobby I could pursue during my afternoons of leisure and little of the London of the early 70’s escaped my lens.
Married and with a young family, money was then becoming an issue. We were not profligate spenders, far from it, but with my wife assuming the full time role of mother and inflation gathering pace (and hovering close to 10%), we were really stretched each month. An advertisement for a sales manager in the photographic industry caught my eye one weekend and I applied. Interviews followed that I sailed through exhibiting both the extensive knowledge of sales technique that had brought me success and, what for an amateur was, a fairly comprehensive knowledge of photography. They said they’d be in touch.
Meanwhile, an event always spoken of in hushed tones was the Selsdon Park Course. Less a course than a goldfish bowl, this was the company’s management selection course to identify those with talent for the first rung of the greasy pole. So, when I got my invitation to that year’s course, I was elated (and delighted I had obviously proved Bob MacIndoe wrong….or had I?). Whilst I prepared for the set pieces of the SPC (delivering presentations on a range of subjects), I took the opportunity to have a quiet word with some of the management who had progressed along this same route. What I found was a little unsettling; there was a small salary raise to start with but you lost the company car and expenses and paid for your own travel. It was worth it they all agreed, but it would take a few years to get back to the financial situation I was existing on at the time. However, I decided to give it my all and joined the other hopefuls drawn from all over the UK one Sunday evening at the Selsden Park Hotel.
My contacts had also advised me that a sound way to display ‘management qualities’ was to be up at the crack of dawn swimming in the hotel pool, especially as McColl would be there without fail. So, at 5.30 the next morning I padded down to reception to enquire as to the location of the pool; it was outside…and it was now early October. Hidden behind a neat row of privet hedging I found a generously sized pool and took a header in only to find that the wretched thing was unheated and seemed to be just a few degrees above freezing. I surfaced and looked around for McColl hoping I could get the exercise thing over before I died of hypothermia; no McColl. I swam lengths as fast as I could in a vain attempt to warm myself but the minutes ticked by until I decided I could bear it no longer and decided that was it, McColl or not. As I was climbing out, he appeared, beaming from ear to ear to declare, “Reception said there was some nut that decided to go swimming half an hour ago. Well done laddie.” After that first day, I delayed my trip by half an hour and swam for as long as he did (just about on my limits).
To say that the first day was stressful would be an understatement and I was relieved to find a few minutes to myself to phone my wife much later that evening and relate just how shattered I was.
“Never mind,” she responded, “ you’ve got it!”
“That new job, they want you to start as soon as you can.”
I floated through the rest of the week on a cloud of self-confidence I never imagined that I could possess. We were put under the microscope in every possible way but I loved every minute. One beautiful moment of satisfaction came when, in a role play exercise, I found I had to conduct a year-end interview with a failing member of ‘my team’ – who just happened to be ….McColl! The meeting (under the watchful eye of an observer) quickly acquired an intense feeling of reality as two highly competitive individuals battled for ascendency within the rules of the brief. My desire to not only come out on top but to do so having demonstrated real leadership potential was complete. As the meeting drew to its conclusion I could see in my protagonist’s eyes that he believed that I had not done quite well enough. I waited until he was almost out of the room before calling him back, putting my arm around his shoulders and giving him the ‘Dutch uncle’ speech whilst looking deep into those ice blue eyes. “I believe in you,” I murmured in his ear, “and I know you can do far better.” A barely suppressed grin flickered across his face.
A week later I was told that I had come out at the top of the group and would be receiving a management position when the next vacancy arose. I phoned my prospective new employer and accepted their offer. The role was to provide 15% higher basic, a better car, an open-ended commission scheme and it had the management title (sales manager) already. I had shone from a field of 350 in a blue chip company and was moving into a team of 6.
What this the right decision? Was I turning my back on a fantastic career opportunity?
Image courtesy of Asiarooms.com