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 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.
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