Last month I attended a re-union of the training department of what used to be one of the big accounting firms before they all merged to become the Big Four. People came from Scotland and Singapore (and via Southern Rail) and the outpouring of emails after the event spoke of the warmth and familiarity of a team coming together a quarter of a century after they were closed down.
Reunions aren’t normally like that. They tend to be alcohol-fuelled attempts to regain a bygone age, if you go to them at all. So what was different? My sister in Australia recognised it. She had been one of a bunch of ordinary folk who came together at the setting up of the Swan Brewery in Perth. Mostly unqualified amateurs, they soldiered together to make it the best of breed in the brewing industry. People came from all over the world to learn from them. And then Alan Bond bought it, whose fame and fraud caused its closure.
“Camelot” is sometimes used to describe the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Something admirable but cut short. My sister can tell you about Swan Brewery (and its reunions). This is about the Camelot of our training department. What made it admirable? Well, we did all those things that you read about in textbooks but here’s a bit of what it looked like:
As a 30 strong department that wasn’t in the front line we were a soft target for providing summer jobs for the offspring of partners or their friends. The newbies all got a talk from me which was ‘don’t expect special treatment, make the coffee, man the photo copier, do anything to help until someone notices that you’re OK. Then you might get something bigger to do.’
I got a call from the father of one of our young charges. He was the finance director of one of our top clients and he was outraged that his son was doing donkey work. I told him politely that there would be no preferential treatment. He went off muttering about speaking to someone about me.
His son did well with his donkey work, building his credibility with our people and building his own confidence. Eventually, he got trusted with putting together the boxes of materials for a three day seminar that was to start the following Monday in Beaconsfield. The course co-ordinator asked him if he would like to go to the hotel on Sunday night and check that everything was in place for the instructors to start the following morning.
Filled with pride at his first operational trip he arrived to find that the hotel could not locate the crucial boxes. Faced with the prospect of failure he turned around and headed back to London HQ – to do the job all over again. By one o’clock on Monday morning he had finished. By two o’clock he was confronting his angry parents (in the days before mobile phones).
I do not know what he said. I can only imagine that they could see that this was important to him. That he had accepted a responsibility and he would not let go. His dad got up at dawn and drove him to pick up the boxes and deliver them to the waiting instructors. The seminar started as planned.
So the reunions of the Brewery and our training department were full of folk who had the luck to be part of something that helped them on the road to discovering what they were capable of, who they were, and what was important to them. And when you’ve got that, you’ve got a group of people who are comfortable with themselves and with others. Small wonder that it was a warm and rewarding evening.