Chapter Three: United I fell
The next picture I want to show you is less comfortable to write about, but if I am going to ask for your trust as I show you around this exhibition, it is important that you see I have curated this space for you and have not just popped into IKEA for a bit of inspirational wall art.
I left Cheltenham & Gloucester in the summer of 1999. If lawyers were footballers, television pundits would have commented at the time that I was a promising player who had done well so far; industrious rather than creative, a good team member, who was consistent and reliable. The sort of player teams need but for whom the epithet “unsung” was made.
At that time I knew I was neither rounded nor anywhere near the finished article, but I had a fancy job title and I was riding on a wave of corporate success that felt very comfortable to sit on; perhaps too comfortable. I worked hard, but somehow it was easy. C&G was always profitable, always winning and always the darling of the business pages. It was fun, but there came a point when I felt that I was separating from the corporate self-congratulatory messages and the invincibility narrative.
I have learnt a lot about myself in the last twenty-five years and one of the things I can trace back to 1999 is that I do not really trust success. It’s quite nice and all that, and who doesn’t like praise and a bit of money to go with it, but success doesn’t fit me. It’s like putting a gold lamé jacket on an anxious introvert.
I don’t blame this feeling on anyone else but me, I know it is not altogether healthy, and it is a feeling that sometimes frustrates me a lot, but when things are seemingly going too well I feel like I have been invited to a party where I don’t know anyone.
I have come to accept that I am hardwired not to expect to succeed, not to trust it very much when I do, and to feel that the struggle before success is where I properly belong. Ironically, my comfort zone is not very comfortable.
Looking back, and now knowing myself better, it is no surprise that I left C&G when I did. To continue the football metaphor, it was a classy, well coached Premiership team, and I moved to United Assurance who were a relegation threatened Championship team with an illustrious past, but a very uncertain future.
Sadly, United Assurance was united in name only. There were too many new faces brought together at the same time, and it didn’t allow for an executive team to build any momentum before market pressures finally lost patience and dictated that the game was up. United Assurance was sold to Royal London in 2000 and there was I, barely a year into joining them, negotiating my exit.
I know it looks like a major career misstep and it is a very fair interpretation of the bare facts. I left a great job in a great company to take a role in a failing company that hardly lasted twelve months. And yet, I have never regretted my decision to leave C&G nor my decision to move to United Assurance.
I didn’t like how success made me feel. It confused me because I knew I had so much more to learn about leading and following and how to make a difference, and yet success was letting me off the hook to learn. Success was the fickle friend who told me that I deserved it, and to fill my boots, but inside I knew I had hardly touched the sides of exploring what I wanted to do and how I wanted to be. I could also see from some of the people around me, that if I truly believed all this was deserved, I was probably one step away from becoming an insufferable arse.
I left C&G when I knew I could grow no more. C&G had been a wonderful opportunity, with wonderful memories and people, and it gave me the platform I needed to properly understand my purpose.
United Assurance however, even though it was messy with incomplete hopes, helped me to see what I needed to know about myself. That said, goodness me, there were some bleak tough times. There were so many days at United when I dreaded going into work; days when I didn’t know where to begin and days when nothing made sense, especially me. I felt I had arrived in a remote foreign land not knowing the language, all my luggage containing skills and experience was lost, and I was suffering from a sort of cruel amnesia about how to do my job. It was terribly lonely, but at United I also started to understand some very positive things that have stayed with me forever.
These were the days when I began to realise that being a lawyer might not be my heart song. These were also the days when I started to see that the present moment was more important than anything past or future. In a new role, it didn’t matter what I had achieved somewhere else. That story was just a footnote in the new play, not the blockbuster origin story in my blockbuster career franchise. Now is when we make a difference, and we make a difference by being ourselves.
Moving from the outward success of C&G to the outward failure of United, also taught me that you can never judge the quality of people you work with by looking at the share price or by reading the accounts. In a failing company, it is the leaders who have let down the employees, not the employees who have let down their leaders. There are always extraordinary stories in dysfunction, but you must listen and you must care to find them. When people come to work they want to succeed, but if they cannot make their difference, we only lose their contribution to the metrics- du-jour, we do not lose their talent or their kindness, or their passion.
Above all, I learned that there is always a need to do the hard yards of building trust in everything we do. We can never assume that trust will follow even a great idea or a great plan. Trust is the breath that keeps the team’s body alive; and it doesn’t sit visibly in a business school case study or in a technicolour dream deck of expensive slides.
Today, Lawrence and I often talk about these ideas in our work, but back then I had to figure these things out for myself. If I had known Lawrence then, when I was so lost and often alone, he would have told me that we are all passing through, that nothing is certain, and nothing is permanent. He would have told me that this too will pass, but that listening to colleagues and trying to make them feel just a little bit more comfortable would help me too. Kindness never needs a budget or permission. He would have said that I was doing just fine, and that starting in a new role is harder than anything we ever imagine, and that my confidence was bound to be brittle with so much change in my life. And he would have told me therefore to care a little less about knowing the answer and little bit more about doing what felt right for me in the moment.
United I fell, but I was falling into my future, letting go of things that would otherwise hold me back and holding on to new feelings and new thinking that I hoped would allow me to explore a new way to make my difference.
Take care. Paul xx
To be continued…