31 May, 2020

Serendipity …..

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  What’s happened to the news?  Where are those quirky items for me to hang a daily blog on?  Yesterday’s news included virus, lockdown, partial un-lockdown (= lock up?), Trump and the WHO, virus, riots in America, lockdown, possible space launch, possible un-lockdown, scientists on lockdown, Cummings again and, if I haven’t mentioned it already, virus.  Not much for me there.  Lots of sympathy for those suffering, naturally, but hard to find a juicy story that I can shamelessly hijack for a blog entry.

I suppose this is one though, in a few sentences: one day in 1970, near the souk in my little township in the Sudan, I saw some angarabes, the rough beds mentioned in the 16 May blog.  They were out in the open air with sheets being bleached by the sun’s rays.  What was happening?, I asked.  Cholera, they said.  Some people had died.  The government hadn’t reported it to the World Health Organisation and never did.  And that was it.  It seemed to have been contained, or perhaps it wasn’t true.  The locals were concerned though, and the Sudanese headmaster of my school advised students and teachers not to go to the souk; but nothing more was heard of it.

Space launch: if I’d not already talked about the moon landing – blog 17 April – I’d do so now.

In the absence of a current events link then, a couple of anecdotes from around 1990 on the theme of Serendipity: Happy Chance.

In 1987 aged 39 I returned to the UK after almost 20 years abroad in the Sudan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.  A Master’s in Business Administration followed, in London; and then the hunt was on for a job.  Looking back now, I reckon that those two decades had given me experience and maturity beyond those of the average 40-year-old Brit in Britain: totalitarian regimes, tough physical environments, remote and sometimes dangerous situations, in my 30s responsible for an educational establishment with over 100 staff and 1000 students, adapting to and navigating through different cultures, managing major projects, involvement in government-to-government negotiations, trouble-shooting, fire-fighting, and despite everything generally succeeding in keeping goodwill all round.  I hadn’t seen it in that light however, until faced with job-seeking in the UK.

Armed with all of that, plus a Master’s Degree in Business, wouldn’t it be easy?  Apparently not.  The general corporate view in London, where I lived, was that someone like me had actually lost 20 years of experience: if you hadn’t been in the thick of UK life you wouldn’t be able to cope with the demands.  I understood the point but I thought it rubbish.  It seemed to me that a good recruiting exec with nous, insight and appreciation of the potential of someone from outside the narrow Brit culture, would at least offer a job on probation. Nothing happened for a few months though, until I went up the stairs.

I lived then, and still do, in a Georgian terraced house converted into flats, each flat accessed by a central staircase.  Charles, an American professor of organisational development, owned another flat and would come over to London from time to time as a consultant.  We knew each other, and one day on the stairs I mentioned the situation to him.  The next day he told me that he was working for a company which he thought might have a vacancy for someone like me at a senior level, so he’d check it out and would let me know.  A few days later he confirmed it, and gave me a contact to write to.  It could have been any one of a thousand companies.  It was British Aerospace, which had employed me for 11 years in Saud Arabia, employment that had ended when I left the Kingdom.  This was remarkable – for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to contact BAe.  Anyway I applied, was interviewed, and was given the job of Deputy Director of Management Development; and within 18 months I became the Director with a global role.  Serendipity on the stairs.

Part of the job was to work with major business schools in UK and France to tailor programmes specifically for groups of BAe execs from different business units around the world.  Over a couple of weeks they’d learn, get to know each other, network, and build the ‘family of businesses’ within the BAe conglomerate.  At the end of each programme we’d have a rather extravagant private dinner somewhere.

The BAe programmes for the most senior execs were delivered by INSEAD near Fontainebleau.  Twenty or so execs attended each time, and at the end of each course we’d have a private dinner in a very fine restaurant in Barbizon, not far away.  A few weeks after one dinner a director of BAe’s Civil Aircraft business based in Hatfield told me this: the programme had been good; he had learned a lot; everyone had enjoyed the networking; but the main advantage for him had been the dinner.  His business had been seriously struggling with the design of passenger seats for the latest plane, and he had feared that a lot of money would have to be spent on further research.  By chance at the Barbizon dinner he had sat next to a director of Rover Cars, recently bought by BAe.  The Rover man had invited him to Longbridge where the cars were made.  He went there; he discussed the design of the latest car seats; and he realised that Rover already had the answer to his problem.  He told me that possibly £100,000 in research costs had been saved thanks to the INSEAD programme – but more especially thanks to the chance encounter over a meal.  Serendipity over the dinner table.

In the last couple of decades I’ve found myself helping to run a number of not-for-profit voluntary organisations based on socialising and networking; and for some years I was also a performance and career consultant for execs changing jobs, or changing careers, or uncertain of the way forward in their current positions. There are plenty of techniques for analysing and identifying priorities, and for digging into deeper personal qualities to reveal what an individual really wants and how he or she can best achieve it, but I always added that each person must try to make his or her own luck: socialising, often at random.  It doesn’t come easy for some, and in fact it’s never been easy for me; but one piece of luck can make a huge difference.  And I would sometimes mention the two experiences above: serendipity on the stairs and serendipity over the dinner table.

Sadly, serendipity hasn’t stretched to my lottery tickets.  But you never know ….

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