Tag Archives: Sociology

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

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

Finding the elusive balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Maiden-voyage-travel.com

The business of life (chapter 7 – on gaining a broader insight on life)

Business was not without its occasional pleasures.  From time to time various dealer conferences were attended in venues a littler warmer than off-season Eastbourne (my wife joining me for one welcome trip toMalta).  Another memorable trip for a number of reasons was a visit David organised for 3 of us target busters to a number of our fellow European distributors.  The great surprise upon gathering at Heathrow was being ushered like royalty through departures and out onto the tarmac where the company jet was waiting to fly us off to Copenhagen. 

Our first evening passed fairly quietly and an early flight the following morning took us to Odense. After a very short meeting at our distributor’s office we were taken to a delightful restaurant where beer and schnapps commenced at around 11.30 and flowed until some time after 5.00pm.  A very long evening and night followed and saw me the next morning (following about one hour’s sleep) suffering from a monumental hangover.  Somehow I managed to survive the drive to the ferry and was dragged into the bar where I promptly announced I wanted to die.  The barman took one look at me, poured a glass of dark brown liquid and instructed me to drink it down in one; I did and it had the most incredible effect.  Instantly a deep calm settled upon my very fragile stomach and within another 5 minutes my head cleared.  I had discovered Gammel Dansk.

The Beatles may have long departed but Hamburg was still memorable.  Deciding to wash the travel dust from my bones and sweat out the remnants of the previous day’s alcohol, I joined one of my colleagues for a visit to the sauna in the Intercontinental where we were staying.  Not realising it was for mixed sex we marched in as naked as nature intended to be greeted by a very Germanic blond (in similar state of nudity and using her towel simply to sit upon) with, “Hello English”.  Given we had not uttered a word I am still trying to work out what it was that gave us away.

Dinner that evening was in a very upmarket restaurant in a converted wharf building.  The conversion had been carried out in such a way that there were a number of tiered levels permitting a panoramic view across the docks through full height windows.  The evening was relaxed with wonderful food, lubricated with David’s usual expensive selection of wine.  The clientele was decidedly cosmopolitan, expensively dressed and generally decorously behaved; with one exception.  Taking in my surroundings and glancing around the upper tiers of seating (which was in the main affording an expansive view of a sea of knees and the underside of tables) I couldn’t believe my eyes at a scene playing out one tier up.  A couple, clearly the worse for wear were, not to put too fine a point upon it, pleasuring each other (probably in the mistaken belief that what they were doing could not be seen under cover of the table).  This little demonstration of libidinous incontinence played itself out even whilst they were being served by staff, who effected not to notice what was going on right under their noses.

Richard, one of my colleagues, was strictly teetotal and had swept through the trip so far without even a sip of alcohol.  Having missed our flight from Hamburg, we arrived very late inAmsterdam and rushed through check-in at our hotel to get to the bar, which we found was just closing.  The barman said not to worry as he would rustle us up something to keep us going.  True to his word, he reappeared a few minutes later bearing a large grin and an ice bucket filled to the brim with an orange fluid declaring “Screwdrivers!”  “What are screwdrivers?” enquired Richard with a worried look.  “Oh, it’s just a Dutch version of orange juice.” David assured Richard, who rapidly downed a large glass. He declared it very acceptable and said he would have another.  And another and so on, finally becoming very animated when the bucket was drained, demanding more.   The following lunchtime Richard announced he had by then realised the terrible trick that had been played on him….but would try a beer.   He continued drinking through the rest of the day and most of the night.  He never returned to his former self.

Walking back to our hotel that night my colleagues decided they wanted to see the red light district, so a detour to De Wallen was duly made.  Our short (I promise) walking tour left me with two lasting impressions, one hilarious and the other deeply disturbing.  We had wandered along one side of a canal looking at the wares on offer in the various little windows when a commotion started further along the canal.  We elbowed our way to the front of what was a very jocular and large crowd to find a group of a dozen or more Scotsmen.  Clad to a man in their national dress and very much the worse for wear, they were noisily negotiating terms with one of the ‘angels of the night’ through her open window.  Finally a suitable financial arrangement was agreed, the door was opened and they ALL trooped in at once to a vast cheer from the assembled throng.  The curtain was pulled and we drifted away with the crowd.  The room couldn’t have been much larger than the bed it contained.

Further along the canal there were various small theatres offering ‘live sex shows’, which none of us had an appetite for.  As we were making our way back to the hotel, a smartly dressed trio came into view.  Probably husband and wife in their late thirties, the couple were hand in hand with an angelic looking little girl of not quite teenage years.  They paused to look at the offerings of several theatres before all nodding agreement and walking into one that promised the most outrageous show.  No objection was raised by the doorman and they disappeared inside leaving me feeling decidedly sickened, a sensation that has never left me and that returns whenever I recall the incident.

Quite what business lessons we learnt from this European study tour (despite the meetings we held with our various European distributor colleagues) I am not sure but certainly they have not stood the test of time.  Suffice to say that I gained a much wider appreciation of the social customs of our near neighbours and that it was now crystal clear that my strict religious upbringing had done little to prepare me for some of the more mentally (and physically) challenging aspects of international travel.

Over the next few months I received a morale boost with a move to take over the Central London region covering the majority of our major accounts.  My earnings continued to improve and I ended the year taking home more than three times that which I had in my role with my previous company.  This was fine from a financial perspective but it was far from sufficient in terms of either job satisfaction or self-fulfilment.  I continued to push both David and Peter at any and every opportunity for advancement; I must have been a complete pain in the a*$!  Then, the situation began to look much more hopeful with the news that David was leaving.   I liked David immensely, had enjoyed long ‘business’ lunches with him whenever we could fit them in and learnt a great deal from him, but I was aching for the chance to move on and up.  I began to visualise myself in David’s role and was mentally planning changes I would make.

Almost immediately matters took a turn for the worse when Peter informed me that I was not being given the chance to replace David and lead the team; David’s role was going to Keith one of my team mates, another old hand from the photographic trade.  My heart sank.  A nice enough guy and great company socially but it was clear to me that I could learn nothing from Keith.  Arrogance on my part?  Maybe, but I had studied my team mates carefully for the last year or so and knew that they were now trailing me both in sales performance and the knowledge of how to innovate. A series of meetings with Peter & Keith culminated with a deal being struck; I would support Keith, he would keep out of my hair and the company would support me to fund a study programme to equip me for a bigger role.  Courses at the Institute ofMarketing followed and I started evening classes once more.

One evening some months later I received a call from Peter.  Could I cancel whatever I had arranged for the next day and come into the office to meet him and Angus?  An urgent situation had arisen that he wouldn’t discuss on the phone.  Had I screwed up somehow? Or, was this the chance I had been waiting for?

Images:  Gammeldansk.com / Youropi.com

 

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

My life in business (Introduction)

About 20 years ago when my career was going through a patch of the doldrums, and being bored beyond belief, I started writing.   A short story roared off the pen in double quick time and then ‘the novel’ loomed large in my ambitions.  An outline was quickly sketched out and an initial series of chapters flowed before I hit the wall.  There was a need to do some serious research (background for a critical chapter) but I never got round to it as the career took an unexpected lurch forward once more.  Despite constant revisions of the material I had already written over the intervening years it progressed no further (as the research remained neglected), languishing in the dusty recesses of one hard drive after another.

 Following my retirement last year the keyboard beckoned once more as I started to map out my ‘third age’.  The sudden transition from working flat out for so many years to having all the time in the world was not an easy one. Writing was the one thing I had always said I would take up when I retired; but where to start?  I wasn’t ready to resume work on ‘the novel’ (the research remaining undone). However, having investigated social media for my last business, I decided to take the plunge and The Retrospective Entrepreneur eased into the blogosphere in the middle of last year followed shortly by my first tentative tweets.

 The last 6 months have been a revelation to me.  Followers have been won, friends have been gained from both sides of the Atlantic and views from across the spectrum have been obtained The welcome I have received from you all has been humbling and I have learnt that opinions I have taken for granted are but a small voice in the vast and varied world of social media.  Exposing myself to views from the opposite end of the political spectrum remains challenging and brings home the irreconcilability of views on many subjects.  However, these differing views have given me insights that I would never otherwise have been exposed to and I am learning, slowly, to think before I hit the send button.  I have also been driven to tears on more than one occasion at the sheer determination shown by ordinary folk in the face of far more serious obstacles than I have ever experienced.  I have roared with laughter at the humorists amongst you and at the depth of experience and insight voiced on political, economic and social issues on a daily basis.  I’ve been put in my place more than once and learnt a great deal in the process.

In just over half a year I have notched up 40 blog posts covering a wide variety of subjects including many anecdotes from my career, trying to be relevant on topics of current interest.  Taking stock of my posts I can see that the posts and subjects covered are but glimpses of experience and knowledge gained at various points in my career.  I can now see that these posts lack a unifying timeline and narrative to enable them to make more sense.  The things I have done, the successes I have had, the failures and setbacks I have experienced have made me the person I am today.  My parents and ancestors provided the genes and the personality I possess; my parents, educators, business and society have given me a framework against which to test that personality.  I am privileged to have had a great (if somewhat unconventional) education and many chances to learn the good and the hard lessons that life can throw at one.  It has taken me a great deal of time to find the details of some members of my family that I never knew and I regret bitterly all the questions I never asked of far too many I did know.

So, I have started to write my autobiography.  Not an outpouring of the most personal details (they belong, quite rightly, within my family) but a narrative covering my business career, as faithfully as I can. I have written the first series of chapters and  I am going to start publishing on my blog.  Some of the experiences and subjects I have touched upon before but, hopefully, putting them into a chronology and providing additional detail will enable a fuller picture to emerge of where I have been and why I am the person I am today. Some of the characters you have met before but many who have had a formative influence upon my career are new.  Some of the characters enter the narrative as themselves and some will (as before) assume new identities to protect the innocent and the guilty.  Whether I can sustain the narrative and whether you will have the interest or patience to stay with me, we shall just have to see.  I don’t hold out my career or experiences to have been better or worse than others.  But they are my experiences; it is my career, it has made me who I am and I can only hope that it has some relevance in a world that is changing so rapidly.

Do let me know what you think of my recollections, favourably or otherwise. Feel free to share your own opinions and experiences.  I’m not giving myself a time schedule; we’ll just see how it goes.  First chapter this week.

Image courtesy of Fanpop.com

An Underclass Foretold

Before the rioting and looting stops and the hand-wringing and political point scoring get out of control, I’d like to take you back to 26th November 1989. Whilst the Velvet Revolution was reaching its climax in Prague, that Sunday, an American academic, Charles Murray wrote an article for the Sunday Times magazine, entitled “Underclass”. Murray is now J. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  Yes, this is a right-wing think tank and Murray’s writing is often highly controversial (none more so than The Bell Curve) but, with a Bachelor’s in History from Harvard and a Doctorate in Political Science from MIT, he always brings a cogent and learned analysis to support any argument.

Image courtesy of TNT Magazine

With the concept of an American underclass already firmly established (though with causes hotly disputed) Murray was asked in 1989 to look at the UK to ascertain if the factors that he believed drove an underclass in the USA were present in the UK. Heading off early criticism, Murray started by defining an underclass; he was “not referring to poor people, but to a subset of poor people who chronically live off mainstream society (directly through welfare or indirectly through crime) without participating in it. They characteristically take jobs sporadically if at all, do not share the social burdens of the neighbourhoods in which they live, shirk the responsibilities of fatherhood and are indifferent (or often simply incompetent) mothers.

 Three Factors were held to be critical in terms of early warning signs of an impending problem.

1. Illegitimacy – but not simply babies born to unmarried mothers.  There were, as Murray was quick to point out, many children living in happy two parent marriages outside of marriage in addition to excellent single mothers (and single fathers) that may also have been divorced or widowed.  Murray pointed out that British births to unmarried mothers went from under 5% in the early 1950’s skyrocketing to over 25% by 1988.  However, the birth rate was not evenly distributed but heavily biased towards those areas with populations predominantly of the lowest social economic status group (V).  However, for areas such as Nottingham and Southwark this percentage was already over 40%.  This was not a randomly distributed trend but as Murray explained “With just two measures, the percentage of people in Class V and the percentage of people who are “economically inactive” the illegitimacy ratio in a community can usually be predicted within just three percentage points of the true number.”

2. Crime.  In Murray’s words “Crime is the next place to look for an underclass, for several reasons. First and most obviously, the habitual criminal is the classic member of an underclass, living off mainstream society by preying on it. Habitual criminals, however, are only part of the problem. Once again, the key issue is how a community functions, and crime can devastate a community in two especially important ways: first, to the extent that members of a community are victimized by crime, the community tends to become fragmented; second, to the extent that many people in a community engage in crime as a matter of course, the community’s socializing norms change, as different kinds of men are idolized by boys and the standards of morality in general collapse.”

Murray then proceeded to quote the crime statistics for England which demonstrated a level of violent crime throughout much of the 1950’s of below 30 incidents per 100,000 people rising by 1988 to 314 per 100,000.  These levels of violent crime are also highest in the areas where the highest numbers of those in social class V are to be found. Murray held that crime had become safer in Britain throughout the post-war period, and most dramatically safer since 1960 in respect of the chances of being caught,  being found guilty and of going to prison.  In Murray’s words “The landmark legislation was the Criminal Justice Act of 1967 implemented in 1968, which for the first time introduced parole to Britain, mandated suspension of all sentences of less than six months, and in a variety of other ways legislated the same philosophy of criminal justice  which for the first time introduced parole to Britain, mandated suspension of all sentences of less than six months, and in a variety of other ways legislated the philosophy of criminal justice–less use of prisons, less talk of just deserts, more therapy and  the advent of “minimal intervention.”  Talk of ‘Rights’ was beginning, too.

 3. Voluntary Unemployment.  I suspect that Murray was quite deliberate in his choice of words here; rather than referring just to unemployment, he was quite specifically identifying those who had chosen to exclude themselves from the workforce.  He pointed out that (in real terms) unemployment benefit had grown to a level that it was capable of funding an idle lifestyle (especially when combined with the cash economy and the proceeds of crime).  However, he also spelt out the difficulties that presented themselves when attempting to move from benefits into work.  Gone, too, were the attitudes of an older generation who would take a job that meant less money each week in preference to what they perceived as the stigma of the dole.

The combined effect of these three factors, Murray held, was driving the creation of an underclass just as they had in the USA. Before anyone rushes to the barricades shouting about the evils of Thatcherism, all of the above trends were firmly established before Margret Thatcher came to power. Murray was back writing in the Sunday Times once more,10 years later, spelling out the cold hard facts that clearly demonstrated that his predictions were being proved to be correct.

This is but a crude précis of Charles Murray’s article (all of which can be found at AEI) but can any of us seriously dispute the thrust of his analysis? We may dispute the causes of this situation and many will as the social sciences and criminology have largely become the preserve of a Liberal thinking establishment. Nevertheless, can you honestly deny either these facts or the difficulty of finding solutions that are not merely sticking plasters applied to the margins of the problem? Certainly, who can now doubt that the Metropolitan Police have gone from being ‘institutionally racist’ to being hamstrung with a deadly combination of political correctness and ‘health and safety’ induced inertia?

Charles Murray closed his article with a quotation written about Britain for a British audience: “There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for the poor. So many hospitals to receive them when they are sick and lame founded and managed by voluntary charities:  so many almshouses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.  In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness and you should not now wonder that it has had its effects in the increase of poverty.”

 This was Benjamin Franklin speaking in 1766.

And in case you wonder why I write about such matters on a business blog who can doubt the effects of these recent activities upon our economy and on the climate for starting, growing and maintaining a healthy business?

Do you have any answers as to how we treat this cancer in our society?