Sunday, 10 January 2010

How Does Education Help or Hinder the Road to Success of a Chief Executive: Chapter 2.

The continuing series of memories by Bill Whiting retired Chief Executive of B&Q. He reflects on his school days, the teaching resources and educational values learnt or missed that influenced his rise to top level management in a global operation.

 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.”Bill Whiting.

Chapter 2

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.
One day, for reason perhaps of a teacher absence, Baldy was taking our class when he had cause to admonish Neil Shields for some very minor offence. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but suspect that Neil had given Baldy a ‘wrong’ look.
“Get out here boy.” Baldy barked - and Neil duly rose and walked sheepishly to the front of the class where Baldy demanded he bend over.
Neil then put on an Oscar winning performance of total innocence in the face of profound injustice. Slightly bowed and with an anguished and flushed face he shook his head in disbelief and said “But why Sir? Why? I haven’t done anything.”
We all looked on and froze. Oliver had just asked for more in the workhouse.
“Of course not boy.” Baldy retorted, quick as a flash. “I always cane boys for doing nothing. Bend over!”
This was of course a master stroke from a man with total power and who could not only cane boys, but also had no need to explain why. Neil could provide no answer to the wonderfully closed nature of Baldy’s statement and so took a severe whack and struggled not to weep as he returned to his desk rubbing his buttocks.
Afterwards Neil told us he really had done nothing, but we suspected the truth was that after being told off he’d given Baldy a look which fell slightly short of fear-fuelled humility. Thus, strictly within the context of the prevailing rules, we all thought that Baldy was most probably entirely justified.
At the other end of the rule breaking scale, one day a robust lad called Robbo actually punched a teacher. This was the school equivalent of an inmate attacking a guard in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It called not only for a minimum of six strokes, but even worse, the punishment had to be carried out in a fairly rare and frightening ritual manner.
At the end of morning assembly, with all pupils and teachers gathered in the hall, Baldy called Robbo up onto the raised stage. No mention was made of the crime or the prescribed punishment. Perhaps this was simply because everyone knew anyway – or maybe it was just Baldy’s way of demonstrating again that he had no need to justify his actions.
Robbo bent over in full view of a hushed school. Baldy picked up his cane. The hated Jap was all set to behead the prisoner.
Robbo took six strokes and they resonated loudly as Baldy clearly put all his strength into their delivery.
But for all Baldy’s efforts it was a triumph for Robbo. He did not cry out or weep at all – and he later showed off his very severely bruised arse to at least a hundred of us. Robbo’s reputation soared and he secured a legendary place in the school’s most prestigious though strictly unofficial list of war heroes.
Although punching a teacher was a dire offence, it was perfectly okay for boys to punch each other and fights frequently broke out in the playground. A cry of ‘scrap’ quickly attracted a big audience. If it went on for more than a few minutes, the fight would be broken up by a teacher, but otherwise it would be left to fizzle out on its own.
 I presume fighting was expected of boys and it was tolerated - in rather the same way that we can observe a large gathering of chimpanzees shown on one of those TV nature programmes. The older chimps step in only if the fight amongst juveniles becomes inconvenient in some way to them.
In a similar vein, it was perfectly okay for older boys to piss on new entrants to the school – though only in close proximity to the toilet wall.
The toilets in the playground featured a brick wall, maybe about five feet tall, with a long urinal on one side and playground on the other. Young boys can project pee a very long way indeed and many could spray it right over the toilet wall. Many new boys would be pissed upon as a result. And then, after a few days familiarisation, the playground side of the wall would resume its curiously empty appearance in that otherwise crowded and bustling space.
However, the greatest moments for us came when we could ‘get at’ teachers without punishment and the fact that all such opportunities were taken enthusiastically perhaps justified in some way the rather brutal disciplinary regime the teachers normally exercised.
Certainly, any weak teachers would be exploited without exception – and one such was a young science teacher at Stamford Road.
Like all teachers he would regularly throw out questions to the class, hands would be eagerly raised and someone chosen to answer. But one day, we hatched a plot whereby no-one would appear to be able to answer any question.
To achieve this, we first had to ensure compliance from our meeker brethren – and especially that of ‘Crawler Arch’ who was programmed to live on teacher approval. All pupils were informed that anyone answering a question in the class would be ‘got’ at playtime - and for extra security someone was posted behind Crawler with a clenched fist.
It was a chemistry lesson and the expected questions were duly asked; “What gas is needed to make something burn?” and so on. But on each occasion we all gave pained and puzzled expressions, ‘ummed and erred’ out loud and scratched our heads.
The questions got easier as the teacher sought to overcome the problem. Then finally, he took a glass tumbler and poured some water from a tap into it. He held the water up and said “What’s this?”  Again we all displayed very visible and audible signs of mental stress – and this time he broke. He threw the full glass into the sink and smashed it and cursed.
Teacher 0 – Boys 1
Another great favourite of ours was Joe Wilde, our religious knowledge teacher, commonly known as ‘Holy Joe’. Joe was a very fat man with a booming preacher’s voice and a rather theatrical manner. Perhaps true to his faith, he did not cane or hit boys or even hurl blackboard rubbers at them. However, as Christian martyrs before him had also found, entering the lion’s den without a whip, was asking for trouble.
Our best ruse with Joe was to go to the wrong room for his lesson. Joe was not a full time teacher at the school and so he always used whichever room happened to be scheduled as spare or vacant when he was due to work. But if Room 2a was designated for Joe’s lesson we would find another empty one and wait for him there - with a prepared deceitful claim that we thought this other room was the correct one.
After quite some time he would find us and enter the room in something of a rage. “You young sinners!” he boomed.
Teacher 0 – Boys 1
But the greatest victory we scored was against our greatest adversary, Baldy. ( to be continued next week in chapter 3; Bill meets Baldy head on.)