Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Does School Help or Hinder the Road to Success of a Chief Executive

A burning question, how much does educational schooling really influence the career of  a successful businessman? Over the next eight weeks we are serialising the career of Bill Whiting, retired Chief Executive of B&Q during its huge growth phase overseas. It is a fascinating and humorous read.

When I was Chief Executive of B&Q, I was asked by a business school if I could help them out with a project. They were inviting a series of people to give a talk entitled “The secrets of my success.”

The programme was to run for a number of weeks and the idea was that each week someone who was deemed to have reached the higher echelons of the business world would explain the main reasons behind their achievements in climbing the corporate ladder. Thus students would be given helpful insights to help them fulfil their ambitions.

I thought about this for a few moments and then said: “You know, I don’t think I can help you there. I haven’t really got a clue myself. I think I might have just got lucky.”

I think the college organiser thought I was just being deliberately obtuse and guessed I was rather reluctant to give up my time. They obviously did not have anything in their curriculum designed to enhance their students’ skills at being lucky or benefitting from happy coincidences and strokes of providential fate.

So I was pressed a little further. “No, seriously.” He said. “People can find this kind of thing really helpful and inspirational.”

I paused for a moment to savour the flattery, but then explained that I was in fact being serious.
“I tell you what though.” I then added in a helpful tone. “If you ever do a course where I can come along and the students can then explain to me why I succeeded, I’ll be there.”

The conversation ended amicably enough, but I suspect my name may have been jotted down on their contact page marked ‘Unhelpful sods’.

Anyhow, when I came to write down this brief history of my career from secondary school to retirement, I had no ambition for it to serve as a guide to success for anyone. But it did occur to me that should it ever be read, it might be illuminating if people told me why they thought I had managed to get a lot further up the slippery pole than most other people have.

I could then offer to attend college events and make a useful contribution as an exhibit for analysis. Alternatively, if after reading my memoir, other people are also unable to explain my success, then I can offer my manuscript as an open-ended enigma designed purely to stimulate discussion and speculation on career planning.

In any case, what follows is a list of memories spanning forty years. I’m sure many of them would strike the reader as entirely unimportant, but of course they are nonetheless the things which stayed in my mind. And they include some of those small and apparently inconsequential incidents which occur and which, quite mysteriously only loom large in later life.

I am aware too that different people have a different take on the world and often see the same situation in entirely different ways. A triumph for one can be a disaster for another and a single incident is quite capable of being seen as everything from very funny to very sinister.

Corporate histories in particular are regularly re-written and it isn’t at all uncommon for new chief executives to look at a company and say the same kind of thing that many plumbers do when they look at a sink – “Jeez – who the hell did that?”

So I don’t claim that every memory I have is all the truth or even the only truth. I simply claim that this is the way I saw it.

And anyway, sheltered in retirement and secure in my standing with my family and friends, I have nothing to prove, no exam to pass, no burning ambition to fulfil and no reputation to build or embellish.

As the Chinese say: “Reputation is like a cake drawn in the sand.”
You can’t eat it folks – and in time it just gets washed away.

One of the more alarming things about being retired is that I have suddenly been able to read and think a lot. And in doing so I have become increasingly aware of how much I don’t know. So perhaps it is appropriate that I begin this book at school in my early years as a teenager - for as every parent is aware, that is the only age when one is young enough to know everything.

In 1959 the clearest signal a child could give that only modest occupational prospects lay ahead was to fail the Eleven Plus – so the fact that I failed it with flying colours does add a nice pinch of pepper to the career dish that I eventually managed to conjure up.

For boys, success in this landmark Eleven Plus exam meant entry to the Grammar School. In Kettering in Northamptonshire, this was then a sparkling new heavily-glazed building packed with state-of-the-art academic facilities, including language and science laboratories. Many acres of playing fields were also attached. Boys wore compulsory school ties and uniforms, played middle class rugby rather than the working class football and were groomed from day one to take GCE examinations, strive for university and aspire to a profession in later working life.

Meanwhile, Eleven Plus failures such as myself, made their way to a Secondary Boys School such as the one in the town’s Stamford Road. This was a heavy Victorian building completely surrounded by a high brick wall which gave it the appearance of an institution which was, once inside, difficult to escape from. Its facilities included workshops for woodwork and metalwork (Design and Technology) - and its toilet facilities, with entirely uncovered urinals, were located at the far side of the concrete playground. At this school, the brightest pupils were groomed primarily to aspire to become skilled tradesmen - and the rest were prepared as fodder to feed the economy’s multitude of semi skilled or unskilled job vacancies.

Stamford Road School had a uniform of tie and jacket badge, but I cannot recall seeing anyone ever wearing it. This was largely because few families could afford to spend money on such unessential items and, anyway, membership of this school was not something to boast about or advertise. Also, everyone knew that if they were foolish enough to turn up clad in such a manner, a good thumping would be delivered swiftly by the more aggressive inmates. Thus, unofficially but very effectively, the school operated a compulsory non-uniform regime.
The stark contrast between these two types of school and the different cultures they created would today generate outrage. But in those days this was not to my knowledge seen by anyone as being particularly problematic. It was simply a reflection of the class- divided and deferential society which then existed and which was largely accepted.

And of course the education system didn’t just reflect prevailing attitudes – it reinforced and institutionalised them. In fact it may have done this more vigorously that even I believed until recently.

At a reunion of my primary school, a classmate who went on to the grammar school and subsequently into an educational career, told me that he believed I had in fact passed the Eleven Plus, but was marked failed as I lived on a council estate. The primary school’s catchment covered a large part of a council estate as well as an extensive area of privately owned homes.

My old chum said this ‘markdown policy’ was quite normal practice and wasn’t done for any overtly evil reason, but to recognise the financial burden of the grammar school and indeed the cultural tensions that would arise at home for a council house boy educated there.

I have no idea if this is true – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t. But I did weigh up the evidence for his case. At the time of the Eleven Plus exam, I was positioned in the top third of the top stream in the primary school - and later I rose rather higher in my professional life than anyone else did in my primary school class. And yet, as the only council house boy in the class, I was also the only one to fail the crucial exam. Also I cannot remember anyone else from the council estate who ever passed the Eleven Plus - including all of my three sisters.

But even if my old school pal’s theory is true, I do not carry any sense of resentment about it. It’s all too easy today to condemn past attitudes with the benefit of hindsight and with today’s rather than yesterday’s values as the measure. My experience is that there are good and bad people scattered everywhere in the world - and that has always been the case.  And in a hundred years from now we shall no doubt be ill-judged ourselves by a generation which will have entirely different experiences and hold markedly different values.

In any case, I always think that if you have wound up in a good place, then nothing should be regretted or wished to be changed. For all I know, had I not gone to this undoubtedly second rate school, I might have been run over by a bus cycling to the other one.

And anyhow, I enjoyed my time at the secondary school and made some very good friends there, some of whom I remain in contact with to this day. What’s more, for all its faults, the school did turn out pupils with basic literacy and numeracy abilities which I believe would shame quite a few of today’s comprehensives.
Above all, discipline in the school was very good compared to modern standards – reinforced no doubt by a parental culture which was big on tough love. Kids then would often get up to mischief and wrong doing, but everyone did know right from wrong and, as a result, there was an acceptance of due punishments. Indeed it was a world where, almost universally, working hard, abiding by the law and showing polite good manners and community concern were standards which generally prevailed.

Nevertheless, even then one of the greatest sources of pleasure for kids was to seek ways to break the rules and annoy adults and get away with it. But at least annoyance could be achieved by committing relatively harmless offences. Today, when there is a much higher tolerance of indiscipline, fairly serious misdeeds often have to be carried out before an adult crackdown is provoked.

On the other hand, most people today would be quite horrified by the level of corporal punishment administered in my school in the 1950’s. And this wasn’t confined to the school. Not only did parents give boys in particular a regular whack round the ear, it was also quite acceptable for neighbours and indeed for policemen to do the same for misdeeds which society widely recognised as warranting correction.
Indeed, a neighbour would be thanked by a parent for doing so – no doubt because it was seen as providing perfectly proper and helpful support to the community’s cohesion. It also meant that adults represented a uniform barrier to misbehaviour with no confusing ‘grey areas’ and little opportunity for kids to play one off against the other for advantage.

This attitude was extended to teachers in very full measure. Teachers were in those days members of a highly respected profession. They had full responsibility for the maintenance of school discipline and were trusted to exercise it.

As a result, the cane was in regular daily use in my school. It was always used on the buttocks of a bent over boy and most often one stroke was administered at the front of the class - though as many as three on some occasions. One stroke could be delivered for as small an offence as ‘talking in class’, even by mistake, at a time when silence had been proscribed.

The cane certainly hurt and left a bruise that remained visible for some days – though these scars were often worn with pride as ASBO’s are often said to be today. Certainly the cane was to be avoided where possible, but it wasn’t greatly feared. The main thing for the caned boy was to make sure he shed no tears and was seen to take it ‘like a man’. We were certainly not being groomed to weep in the streets at the funerals of future celebrity princesses – or to lay bare our emotions on the Jerry Springer show.

However, we were well aware that some teachers caned more often and harder than others, though this didn’t necessarily win them more respect. And there were of course many teachers who had that natural authority and charisma needed to win respect and keep order with very sparse resort to physical punishment. Nonetheless, a poor and disrespected teacher who caned hard, fared somewhat better on the discipline front than did his poor and disrespected ‘soft touch’ colleague.

I cannot remember the real names of some of the teachers as they were all given nicknames and these are the ones which have predominantly stuck with me. One of the hardest caners, however, was a female teacher we called “Hoppo”. Cruel you might think bearing in mind that she had a club foot and limped. But by curious coincidence her name was also Hopkins so perhaps it was just meant to be.

Hoppo had a thick cane and wielded it ferociously, but ‘Sid’ the English teacher had a thin one and we often debated, without resolution, as to which type of weapon was the most painful.

The most painful caner of all, however, was the headmaster, ‘Baldy’ Adams. Baldy was a short, stocky man who would have won any Nikita Khrushchev lookalike competition and who seemed to have much else besides in common with Soviet dictators.

He was a prolific caner and I recall two contrasting occasions where this was demonstrated. ( this article is being serialised in alistairowens blog. Bookmark the blog to see Episode 2 next week )