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Friday, 21 November 2008

The lie of the land

I looked down the garden and saw my then three year old son poking around in the long grass looking intently for something. Thinking Teddy might have made a bid for freedom from the daily indignities imposed on him by a three year old boy, some other special toy had been lost or there was some particularly interesting cat pooh I walked down to talk to him and see what he was doing. 'I'm looking for the fairies that you and Mum said were at the bottom of the garden' he said. Yeah that's right, in a moment of whimsy the previous day one of us must have trotted out, unthinkingly, the myth that fairies could indeed be found at the bottom of the garden.

So what other untruths have we told our kids I wonder?

Father Christmas
Snow at Christmas
Peace on Earth
The tooth fairy
The Easter bunny
The DFS sale will finally end one day
You can do and be anything you want to be
Education is the route to success, happiness and wealth

Let's examine those last two.

Can you be anything you want to be? This is the line peddled to children as they grow up. Hard work, focus, dedication and a commitment to your dream will make it come true. Except of course, for the majority of people it simply doesn't and you can't. I mean you can't have more than one President of the USA at the same time (unless the Americans come up with an innovative job share scheme), or British Prime Minister and if they then get re-elected then you end up as old as John McCain hoping that, in his 70's he's going to make it to the POTUS at last but, darn it, some youngster pips him to the post. You might want to pilot a 747 but if you have spectacles with lenses that are as thick as double glazing and you can't see the the ends of your fingers let alone through the window then your options are sadly limited, though I suspect the pilot that landed the aircraft that bought me back from Paris the other night on Ryonjet might have slipped through the net. I think he thought we were the Mole from Thunderbirds as we tried to drill into the runway on landing rather than bowl along it as is normal practice.

That's not to say we shouldn't encourage our youngsters.
We tell them that they should always try hard, they should be the best they can be, that very few things come easy in life, that things you worked hard for are much more worthwhile than things that come easily, that if they do not clean their bedroom we'll have to declare it a health hazard with the World Health Organisation, that teenage spots really do not mean the end of your life and girls really don't mind, that school shoes do not clean themselves and that drinking more than six pints of Best Old Badgers Piddle is bound to have severe consequences the following morning and you can clean the toilet. No, we perpetuate the myth that you can do anything and, if you can't make the dream, then you are, by definition, a loser.

We then compound that by defining success as money or possessions. We don't say 'Wow fabulous bunch of great friends you have there, they'll stick by you through life and never let you down' or 'What a fantastic appreciation you have of art/literature/philosophy' or whatever or even 'What a lovely partner and beautiful kids'. No the emphasis is on salary, house, car marque, possessions and, if you don't have them, then you must be a failure. Instead the world seems to favour the arrogant git that has a large German prestige car, is on his third wife, his kids hate him but, because he is the MD of Consolidated HooHahs and Tinkly Winkly Bits Inc and lives in a large Tuderbethan new build on an anonymous but strangely desirable estate built over an old plague pit, it is a good thing. How come?

But by not being honest and telling our kids the truth that, yes some people do make it to the very top (and that they just might) with even fewer making it to the top without trampling over the souls and lives of many others to get there, and actually luck plays a huge part in what happens in life seems to me to be just wrong. I am surrounded (well not literally of course because that would make this room very uncomfortable and far too warm and I'd have to keep making them all coffee and offering biscuits) by irritatingly smug people where I live (and they are usually men) that say such things as 'S'funny the harder I work the luckier I seem to get, anybody without a well paid job is just shirking and doesn't want to work' and then looking at me in a meaningful way. If I were given one super power I would wish to be able to shrivel to the size of a gherkin anyone who says that. Do they not realise that they have been supremely lucky not to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time like so many others? It's not your innate skill and loveliness that has kept you in a job matey boy, it's largely luck and having had opportunities. Oh how I'd like to kick some butt like a bad ass mother sometimes. But being British I just tut, tut.

Let's consider education. I can count to ten in Latin, vaguely remember stuff about ox-bow lakes and Pingos (as opposed to Pingu who is far more interesting), recite a few poems by John Donne and Wordsworth and recall the periodic table. However what people who pass exams are very good at doing is repeating back some barely analysed information you've been told to the very people who told you it in the first place. You could argue that it is the 'University of Life' and what you learn after you leave the education system that is more important. You get older and wiser in the ways of the world and discover that knowing the structure of an iambic pentameter is not helpful when Sales are telling you that the order bank has fallen off the edge of the known world or HR want to sack 50% of the workforce. Lots of people are very intelligent in some ways but stumpingly dim in others. Have you noticed that the IT support team can often fix a networking problem but have no idea how any real world application works i.e in other words the very thing you need to finish the quotation for a very important customer who wants to give you large amounts of money. "Just reboot and that will fix your Excel problem'.

Then, armed with all these qualifications, you enter the world full of hope and badly managed expectations: 'You can be anything you want' and a B.Sc. degree in Badger Care and Squirrel maintenance is a passport to wealth, success, regular sex and a new iPod every six months (might get one of those degrees then). And then you find that half the world is anti-academic 'Oh no I don't value those GCSEs and degrees, everyone has them, give me someone from the School of Hard Knocks, Illiteracy and Obsequious Fawning' or 'Look, this is my opinion OK that's all you need, just find me supporting arguments to back it up and make me a coffee and take the dog for a long walk while you're at it'.

So older, wiser and vastly experienced we 50 + year olds are, with much eclectic and valuable business knowledge at out fingertips (and I can still complete the declension of mensa, mensam plus discuss elementary badger care as well). So why is so difficult to find a full time job after a certain age? Is it something uniquely British not to value enthusiasm, experience and knowledge and do we all have to emigrate to somewhere like the States where they seem to do so, although they also value personal ownership of assault weapons and powerful handguns which is much less of an attraction.

Remember I am going to get that superpower. Then there'll be a lot more gherkins around soon.


I've just read a review of a new book, 'Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell that goes into this topic in more detail. For example 'Bill Gates was lucky enough to attend a school in Seatle that, very rarely for any school in those days, had a computer connection to a manufacturer...his talent for programming was given an...opportunity to flourish...came of age just as personal computers became a reality...he had talent and entrereneurial vision...but also opportunity and luck.' The Times: Books: Saturday November 22 2008. So there.

And this (thanks Neil) - you couldn't make it up could you?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Bored position

When my job was made redundant for the first time, in the recession of the early 1990s, I swore to myself.

I need to finish that sentence; I swore to myself that I would do anything to earn money rather than sign on the dole. I duly went along to the Job Centre, a misnomer if there was ever one, as during the last major recession there were virtually no jobs where I lived unless you were prepared to relocate to Kirkaldy. The Job Centre person looked at my qualifications, of which I have a fair few, and said 'There's nothing we can do for you is there? Any job we have here will bore you in a few days.' And that was that. Sign in triplicate that you promise to look for work really (wink, wink), see you in two weeks and next please.

This presents us with a dilemma doesn't it? The answer is yes if you're still thinking about whether it does or doesn't. If you thought 'no' then the rest of this blog would seem pointless, although some would argue it crossed over that line many months ago. When the unemployment numbers are rising faster than flood waters of the summer of 2007 and the number of jobs are falling at an equal or greater rate then if follows that finding a job is gonna be a bit tougher than usual.

I wanted to shout (explain patiently yet assertively) at the Job Centre person that you need to let me worry about whether I'll be bored or not because my prime aims are to stop the bank repossessing my house and to feed my wife and baby and for that I'll need an income. Even if that means flipping burgers for many months which I would be quite prepared to do. But no, prospective employers clearly do a paper shift and instantly exclude anyone with too much experience. Or any experience in many cases because they don't leave enough space to put in more than one GCSE on the application form. And if you lie on your application form then that excludes you as well. Perhaps I no longer want to commute for hours each day but be able to walk to work; perhaps I no longer want to deal with the daily doings of hundreds of members of staff; perhaps my experience would help a company survive during the recession?

Some one left this comment on an earlier blog of mine 'There's no age discrimination now, of course, so I'm getting replies of 'too experienced'. Too experienced for what? Too experienced to do the job you're advertising? What will happen if someone too experienced did the job being advertised? Maybe they'd be too good at it. That would never do.' Well quite.

Personally I'd prefer a fully trained pilot flying the aircraft I'm on rather than someone young but cheap. And if the paramedics have to be called I don't want to see them stop and look at a handbook before treating a serious injury or calling Control and asking for the best way to stop excessive bleeding.

Marvin the Paranoid Android 'with a brain the size of a planet' ends up parking cars for the restaurant at the end of the Universe. At least he got a job. I end up wondering just why, if companies need part time labour, most automatically seem to exclude any one who is, or seems to be too experienced, whatever that means. I read there are plenty of jobs available 'but no applicants.' I apply for these part time jobs and all you hear are the sounds of the tumbleweed blowing through the abandoned town with the faint but ghostly cry of 'too experienced' in the wind.

When I was first made redundant I thought 'OK if I am too experienced for some jobs I'll take some of the free training on offer and be retrained to a level where I am just trained enough for a different sort of job and would therefore be considered.' Got to be creative when you are out of work and looking for a job. But the Job Centre wouldn't have this at all. 'No Mr EoTP you are well qualified already and therefore too qualified to qualify for training for different qualifications. Do I need to qualify myself?' I asked whether they had heard of 'Catch 22' but they stared at me blankly. I did manage to blag my way onto a course at the local university aimed at senior managers who were long term employed. I'd only been out of work for a few weeks but had to find some way of getting more training. The course was filled with senior managers, in their early 50's, most of whom had worked in the financial services industry (isn't that all very spooky?). See what experience brings? I've seen all of this economic downturn before, it's just Groundhog Day all over again. And the way to solve it is...well I'm not telling you because you won't employ me. No you'll be sorry, you wouldn't take me on because you thought I'd be bored. No I really am sulking now.

However I've had a rant once again. Let me leave you with an upbeat message with these two quotes from Marvin the Paranoid Android that, I feel, best sum up the whole 'you're too experienced' thing.

'Well I wish you'd just tell me rather than try to engage my enthusiasm' and 'Wearily on I go, pain and misery my only companions. And vast intelligence, of course. And infinite sorrow.'

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Interim results

We had a careers office at my school. To enter to it you had to get past the school leopard guarding the entrance way, scale the 250 metre high turret that had every third stair removed, get through the barred and locked substantial wooden door that was booby trapped in many cunning ways, smoke a Players full strength cigarette without vomiting or turning green and then recite a substantial portion of Ovid, in its original form, to the guardian of the room, a wizened and ferocious goblin (well actually the school chaplain but the lighting was poor). He would then give you one of two dog eared and fusty career pamphlets and encourage you to a) join the army b) join the police or c) be fed to to the school golem. Being a public school you were expected to go straight to Oxford or Cambridge and then into the Foreign Office or some such Civil Servant career. Anyone that said they were considering anything that smacked of being an artisan was considered a dangerous Communist and probably a Russian spy.

Where am I gong with this? I'll tell you if you are still with me. When you go to many career councellors, after 'R' day*, they often take a similar line but without the Players cigarette. They listen sympathetically, note your full career path to date, nod wisely at your cores skills and competencies and then wince when they note your age. 'Ah' they say sagely savouring the moment, 'have you considered consultancy or interim management?' and then sit back as if they have delivered the meaning of life. We'll deal with consultancy another day but let's have a short wander through the fields (or back lawn anyway) of opportunity and interim management. I feel that there are things you need to know, much like a career in the army - did you know that people shoot at you it's not all international travel and marching up and down in lovely uniforms.

Interim management is a numbers game. There are X interim management companies. There are Y to the power of five possible candidates. Yes, there are many, many more candidates than positions. Therefore, to have any chance of even being considered for an interim position, you have to register with (and I have calculated this in Excel) 3427 agencies in the UK.

If you are then selected for an interview (or win the Lottery, the odds are similar) you then have to make your own way, at your own expense, to the place where the interim job is. It could be anywhere. Well philosophically speaking I suppose it always has to be somewhere. Anyway, as it is an interim position they, the prospective slave master (I mean temporary boss) does not have to treat you in a fair and meaningful way during the interview process and can end the interview on the basis they don't like your suit and tie or skirt, or both if you are feeling particularly bold that day. And in my, limited experience, when you get the job you are often on a very short period of notice, 'just finish your coffee and be off with you'.

There are, I'm told, people who do very well out of interim management. I'm also told there is gold to be found at the end of a rainbow. I'm also told that the successful interim managers also spend over 25% of their income on marketing themselves so that they can move quickly into the next position so as to avoid 'resting'. This is actually quite a problem. Here's an exemplem from my own life, once again.

EoTPs exemplem for this week, plus a recommendation (for free)
I had a very successful run as an interim marketing manager for a local company who wanted marketing support but couldn't afford a full time marketing manager - I worked for them for 6 days a month for well over a year. I was on a one week contract renewal. Failing quite spectacularly to heed my own advice I stopped looking for alternative work after about six months as it was all going so splendidly. Then suddenly it wasn't. Economic downturn, very sorry, you did wonderful work, still here? And that was that. What I should have done was
a) charge much more (to cover the hard times, but it so hard when some one says what is your daily rate and you so much want the money and are afraid to sound grasping, and expensive, and yet not desperate.).
b) work very hard at looking for alternative interim management work whilst actually earning.
c) sign up to another 3425 interim agencies as I was only registered to two and one of those had gone belly up during the year.
So, if you find this sort of life appealing (or you find the idea of actually earning an income again instead of being offered sous chef positions at your local Job Centre) then go into this eyes wide open and not be seduced by the careers counsellor. A good question for them is 'Have you actually ever done any interim management yourself?' Watch the body language and for other clues such as 'Well Mr EoTP next client is here, must go', exits stage left at speed.

EoTP hasn't quite finished.

There is one other aspect to interim management that should be mentioned and that is you are never quite a member of the team. Now interesting dynamics start going on here especially without the formality of having a particular place in the organisation's hierarchy. No body seems quite sure how to place you - are you important/dogsbody/secret consultant looking for victims/in the wrong office? I mention this only as I recall, as someone on secondment once, going to a confidential meeting one day, sitting there listening to all these secrets and stratagems being discussed only to realise, after a while, that I was in the wrong meeting - and no one had questioned my presence.

I apologised to Mr Blair and the rest of the War Cabinet and made my way out.
They've never asked me back.

* That would be Redundancy day, do keep up.