An Unqualified Success?

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We’ve all found our way to where we find ourselves by different routes. It’s incredibly hard to ascribe success to any one decision or piece of good fortune. I do think that, in my own small way, I’ve been successful and (after no small amount of prompting) I thought it would be useful for me to recount how I got here. It was whilst waiting for a flight home from Glasgow with my good pals Sarah Boyd and Sukh Pabial that I first told the story I’m going to repeat here. They have been kind enough to tell me it was interesting enough to share more widely. If that proves not to be the case then the fault is entirely mine. If you aren’t interested in hearing my story then I’d urge you to click away now.

I was born in Bristol in 1971. My grandparents were very definitely working class. When I was born, my father was a medical student and my mother a nurse. We lived in two small rooms let by the kindly Mrs. Box. Later came my brother and two sisters. I enjoyed nursery. Painting, singing, reading. Then came primary school. I didn’t enjoy that nearly as much. It’s fair to say I was probably a bit difficult to teach. Nobody could clearly explain to me the point of the stuff we were being taught. I can’t remember if I had any aspiration to be anything in particular in later life. No dreams of being a fireman or a train driver. I don’t think many of us us dreamt of being famous.

From the age of seven, my parents put themselves through financial hell to send myself, my brother and sisters to a very good private school. It’s teaching results were exemplary. I however, continued to be a pain in the arse (I’ve never really grown out of that, as regular readers of this blog will probably be aware). I missed out on two scholarships, mostly through lack of application. I put together a (in retrospect, rather disrespectful) week of readings in chapel from The Hothouse Society. I bunked off lessons, choosing instead to sit in darkened studies listening to The Sisters of Mercy, smoking out of the window. I tried to go out with girls. I went to the pub and hung out in coffee shops. I drew rude cartoons of the teachers and other pupils. I was good at English, French, Drama and Art. I loved Biology and German but some peculiarity of curriculum scheduling meant I couldn’t do these and also my other preferred subjects. And still nobody could adequately (in my head at least) explain what the point of it all was. I felt like education was a factory assembly line.

I became very good at doing the bare minimum to get by. There was, however, one thing I loved above all else. I joined the school’s Army cadet force. It meant that Monday afternoons were spent outdoors getting muddy, learning to shoot and operate radio equipment. We went on adventure training weekends to the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia in Wales. I learned to climb. And how to kill and cook chickens. To build a waterproof shelter with a poncho and bungee cords. To live self sufficiently in challenging places. We went climbing in the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye. We had some hair-raising close calls in the mountains and it was, all of it, utterly exhilarating. I fell deeply in love with the great outdoors. With the natural world. In 1986, when I was fifteen, I went to the school theatre to see a presentation on an exciting new opportunity. Rapt, I sat for an hour in the dark as a slide show, accompanied by Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene, revealed the beauty of the Arctic. At the end of the presentation it was announced that the school was going to put on an expedition to the remote Spitsbergen archipelago, 500 miles from the North Pole. I resolved to go.

But I was fifteen. And there were others better qualified than I. I applied and was disappointed to receive a letter declining my application. But there was a twist. I was offered one of two reserve places. And that meant I got to be involved in supporting and planning the expedition. It consumed my every spare moment for the next 8 months. My ‘O’ Level examinations passed by unremarked. In the Easter of 1987 I trained for two weeks in Scotland with the team. It was then that one of the full members of the expedition broke his ankle. And I was called up. I was going to the Arctic! In the summer of 1987 we spent seven weeks conducting scientific work and mountaineering in one of the few pristine wildernesses left on the planet. The Polar regions and exploration became the abiding passions of my life. The day before my sixteenth birthday I was given the honour of leading a first ascent of a previously unclimbed peak. We surveyed bird populations, measured lichen growth, charted glaciers and sat in a packing crate during the night armed with a high-powered rifle guarding against polar bear attack. It was heaven. Three years later, we did it all again. This time in the Canadian High Arctic where we were joined by wolves and musk oxen and chased hares across the tundra with outsized butterfly nets.

I left school in 1989 and had a summer job as a clerk with a firm of patent attorneys. I’d scraped a handful of modest ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. Most of my contemporaries were off to university. The next stop in the sausage factory. A very small number were doing vocational degrees. The remainder were going because that’s just what you did. I didn’t want to go to university. I couldn’t see the point. In any event, I’d decided to join the Army. Back then, all of the advertising for a career in the Army emphasised the outdoor pursuits opportunities in the peacetime military. Right up my street, I thought. I went on a potential officers course with my sponsor regiment in Aldershot. That’s where I got to see the reality. A khaki office job. So I dropped out. If I wasn’t going into the Army it would have to be working life some other way. So I took a job working as a beer tester and laboratory assistant in a brewery and did part time stints as a barman, eventually managing a pub.

I then had my first attempt at leaving Bristol. I ended up living in a caravan in a car park behind a restaurant in Barry Island, the restaurant trade in Barry not being what I’d been led to believe it was. A friend came to visit, took one look at what I was up to, threw my suitcase in his car and drove me home. Back to Mum and Dad. An ignominious failure. Things weren’t looking hopeful. I had a series of temporary roles. Sorting parcels, cold-calling, telemarketing, more pub work. My Mum’s parents died within a few months of each other and I went to Toronto with her to visit relatives. On the flight home I realised just how unstuck I’d come. On our return I heard that a local mountain sports retailer was recruiting for a managerial post and decided to apply. When I turned up for the interview I found out the job was at their Covent Garden flagship store. I was offered the job on a Thursday and the following Tuesday I moved to London.

Most of my school friends were working too by now, but skint and paying off huge student debts. But it felt like I was ahead of the game. I had disposable income. And London was great fun. There were parties and clubs and galleries and museums and the Spice Girls and restaurants and climbing walls and the parks. And I met my wife. That bit was very good. She was a competitive rower. The husband of one of her crew offered me a job. As contracts manager at his furniture business. I got to go to Italy and to Venice. I got highly commended for a chair I designed at the Milan Expo. I designed bespoke furniture for some of London’s top restaurants and for a hotel in Barbados. But when we decided to get married we also decided we were going to go travelling. So we did. It meant we wouldn’t have jobs to come back to, but we were determined to go see some of the world while we were relatively free of commitments. We travelled the length of South America, chilled in Thailand, toured Australia and skydived in New Zealand.

When we got home I got an evening job in a pub. Full circle indeed. And then one day I saw an advert in a recruitment agency window for a post room assistant at a financial services company, a division of Close Brothers, the investment bank. You get to see exactly how a business operates if you pay attention when you work in the post room. And then I worked in loan admin. And then as a credit underwriter. And then as Deputy Head of Operations. It took five and a half years. It was hard work. I paid attention. I learned a huge amount. The work wasn’t lovely, but the people were. I worked with and for people. It made me good at what I did. The business benefited by consequence. I went to work for a competitor, recently purchased by one of the big Icelandic banks, as Head of Operations. We were invited to hear the group CEO speak at a reception in London. He said (and I quote) ” You’ve got the brains, I’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money!”. 18 months later I was on the board of the business when we sold up to Close Brothers and the bank collapsed as the financial crisis hit.

In 2009 I joined CBRE to lead the roll out of a global facilities management help desk on it’s biggest integrated outsourced FM account. It was an enormous, complex undertaking with a globally distributed team. We were successful. Why? Communication. We talked. The whole time. To everyone who’d listen (and some who didn’t). It’s the only way to lead and manage with a large and disparate group of stakeholders, many of whom made competing demands on our time. We weathered TUPE, redundancies, data issues, tears and tantrums. A lot of the time we had great fun. I moved on to be Global Head of Operations for the nascent Workplace Strategies practice. I worked with an incredible team of very bright people, learning about all of the things that need to be considered when you set out to create a great workplace.

Then, in 2012, I was made redundant. I took 6 months off. That Christmas, my wife said to me “You know, you’re not getting any younger. You really ought to do something with your art.” So I put some cartoons on Twitter. And people loved them. And they asked if I’d do some for them. So I did. And they loved those too. And they shared them on Twitter. And other people saw those ones. And they asked me to work with them on all sorts of interesting projects. And they asked for my advice too. And they liked what I had to say. And that’s why you’re reading this blog today.

I still can’t see the point of much of what we teach kids in school today. And I still think going to university shouldn’t be just another checkpoint to tick off. It’s great to see that some employers are now not looking for a degree as a determining factor in applicants. My 10-year old daughter has recently been assessed as being dyslexic. But she’s only dyslexic because of the way we measure educational outcomes. School made me mad when I was her age. It still makes me mad today. And I only got here because I never stopped learning.

 

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2 comments

  1. […] I’ve read two inspiring blogs. Read them here and here. Blogs where I wish my story was like theirs. Maybe I could say that I was the one who […]

  2. What a fascinating read! What you don’t mention Simon is that – on several occasions – people clearly spotted your potential and gave you opportunities, which you made the most of. Your postroom comment echoed with me and so did the bar work. I learnt a great deal from working in a pub one summer (mental arithmetic in particular), and from acknowledging receipts for charitable donations. Gap year jobs. Later, as a cheque signatory for the charity I worked for, I learnt how, staff apart, we spent our money – biggest cost was food in residential services. You demonstrate how there are always learning opps if you – as you put it – “pay attention”.

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