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on opportunities to learn

Last week I was chatting on line with a former colleague who I first met when he was in one of the Belfast offices of the firm we both worked for. Amongst our reminiscences the Scottish office also came up and our conversation has sparked many memories of working with the top men in both locations.

I first worked in Belfast in the mid 1980s and for anyone trying to operate across Ulster in those days there was a significant challenge, but one which our main man dealt with remarkably. Across the water in Scotland there was also the bi-partisan effect in parts, but also an environment where, in business terms, Edinburgh and Glasgow were the top dogs with Aberdeen third albeit in a different league. All of the rest were nowhere by comparison, but they were politically, with a small p, important and the main man there was godlike in status.

My role in working with these men was to bring about some of the organisational changes that we needed to make to keep ourselves competitive. At the same time I was also dealing with some other powerhouses around the rest of the UK with Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester all powder kegs in their own way, but these were places where confrontation was the primary tactic of resistance to new ideas and they were easy wars to win because the opposition was united. Scotland and Northern Ireland were different; here there was a need to balance the various needs of those who had to accept change.

Both of our main men were great talkers, but they were greater listeners. They could both gently start an argument and then, apparently without trying, draw out the crucial points and bring the parties around to safe ground where some form of agreement could be reached. It took courage and judgement as well as patience. Leadership and trust were crucial components as was consulate skill, but there was also a deep understanding of the cultural issues that they faced in their respective areas.

They would play me as necessary, sometimes the villain, but often allowing me to be the one who proposed the way out of an impasse. In the end they always delivered that which the business required and it was areal privilege for me to walk with them for a while. Opportunities to learn like that don’t come along too often and I am very lucky that I had mine for I not only got to learn from them, but also made two important allies without the business.

An example of how that could help came a little later. One of the big consultancy companies had been hired to implement certain recommendations and had run into a wall in Scotland. I got sent in to try and break the deadlock and so headed up to Edinburgh to meet with our people from the three main cities and the consultants. On arrival I found that instead of my usual freedom of access to HQ I was told to wait in reception for the others. When we were all assembled we were taken upstairs, but =not by the direct route to the conference room, rather to the board room where we would have to pass the big chief’s office.

As we walked along the corridor out he popped and greeted me like a long lost son acknowledging his own people and the consultants with no more than a curt nod before going back into his office. It had been beautifully stage managed, but with that one gesture he had made it plain to both his own people and the outsiders that I had status in those parts and carried his seal of approval. Brokering a deal was child’s play that day as I walked in the shadow of the local giant.

Opportunities to learn; take them when you can.

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