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A Little Piece of England
By Andrew Gurr
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Andrew Gurr
All rights reserved.
I gazed out of the window at the sunset over the darkening South Atlantic. An orange sun was dipping below the horizon, and a layer of cloud picked out the variations in colour with a changing beauty that demanded attention even from the bug-eyed. The brief stop for refuelling in the heat of Ascension Island lay ahead. Most of the passengers on the RAF Tristar appeared to be sleeping with a success that had always eluded me on aircraft. To travel sixteen thousand miles with one's wife for an interview had been an unusual experience. But then everything about this situation was unusual. Two and a half months before I had been contentedly settled in my job and the Falkland Islands was just a place at the extremity of the civilized world in which we had thumped the Argentines some twelve years before.
One day in late February, I had been sitting in the lounge with the Sunday Times on the coffee table, its sheer fatness defying the first unfolding. I peeled apart the sections and settled down to my after-lunch reading. I opened the Appointments section. Why should a gainfully employed manager find this such compulsive reading? Was I confirming job security, or merely idly curious? It can be useful to check one's market positioning and occasionally the more interesting possibility of being able to deduce that some business acquaintance is about to be replaced presents itself. If so, a quick phone call to the threatened executive to outline the assumed threat always helps to pass the time. Whatever the motive, it can be reassuring on a Sunday afternoon just to absorb the fact that so many opportunities exist. My eyes darted across the page. The adverts were supposed to catch the eye, but what concerned me was the fact that I seemed to be behind the pace on acronyms.
C.R.U.M. MANAGER REQUIRED – Fabulous package/Unbelievable benefits
At least 15 years' world-class C.R.U.M. achievement essential, you must demonstrate incredible innovative ability, yet be prepared never to use it as you accept modern slavery in this turgid company, going nowhere fast ...
I was struggling with the 'C' when something caught my attention. There at the top of a double-column box was an unknown crest that had a sheep and a sailing ship on it. The position advertised was that of Chief Executive of the Falkland Islands Government who, apparently, would ' ... probably be married'. It went on, 'The task is demanding, requiring energy, innovation, political sensitivity, considerable powers of leadership, resilience and the ability to work well under pressure.' But so what? All adverts say that kind of thing.
The Falklands were famous. The images and triumphs of 1982 were embedded in the national psyche and would remain there for a generation or more – but I had no idea that a chief executive was involved. It was rather quaint to imagine that one could apply for such a position. I reasoned that it must be an internal Foreign Office appointment, or there would be an Islander lined up for it. It was likely they had to advertise merely to salve consciences by proving that competition exists when it was actually absent. Or possibly the tentacles of the European Union had stretched to the South Atlantic, and therefore all opportunities must be advertised so that everyone, everywhere could apply for everything. In any case, companies, charities and even football clubs have chief executives, but not countries; and if they did, they certainly would not advertise them in the Sunday Times!
I expect it had been one of those frustrating weeks at work; maybe my biorhythm had reached its most restless phase, or the unusual nature of the advert played on my mind. Whatever the vibration, my wife Jean reflected it with surprising vigour when I shared my musings, by resoundingly advising, 'Go for it.'
I sent for the details of the position and they were both tantalizing and comprehensive. It appeared that the successful candidate would run a civil service, which in turn ran a mini civilization. There were companies to chair, committees to sit on, a multiplicity of services to provide, and to add to the package, the holder of the job was referred to as 'Honourable'. I had never imagined that anyone would ever address me as 'Honourable', and I unwittingly welcomed the vanity of the thought, but only for an instant. There were many acronyms to grasp, and they would prefer someone with both private and public sector management behind them. I could make a case for having that. However, they also required experience of launching oil exploration – I had acquired an 'A' level in geology thirty-one years ago, but that might not be enough. Not only would the successful candidate 'probably' have a wife, there was a strong emphasis on that very wife being 'dedicated and supportive'. Fortunately, I had secured the necessary wife some twenty-seven years previously, after a bruising struggle, and she had subsequently proved beyond all reasonable doubt the nature of her dedication and support. A requirement entirely new to me had also been slipped in: 'A developed sense of humour would be an asset.' Could I demonstrate the necessary state of development in this area?
I remembered a friend had once applied for a position where a sense of humour was stated as being desirable in the advert. He had decided that the logical approach would be to retell some of his favourite jokes in his letter of application. The fact that he had failed to get an interview may have been a commentary on his apparent levity, or possibly on the quality of the jokes themselves. I felt it wise to leave the jokes until much later in the process.
If you have read hundreds of other people's CVs you will know how difficult it is to hit the right balance. There are those who have had training in how to prepare a CV, and they usually apply boring rules and formats that are fairly evident to the scanner. Some end up being unwittingly pompous and others are downright scruffy. The last thing the consultant wants to feel as they sieve the CVs is that they are wasting time reading something that comes from a production line. Thus, the offering must be tailored and succinct. Above all, it must relate to actual achievements rather than responsibilities. Preparing one is not the work of an instant; nevertheless I brought mine up to date and stuck it in the post.
There was no kicking of heels in impatience; I relegated any idea of being Falklands bound from the 'highly unlikely' category to 'impossible'. Then, one morning, my PA announced that a Mr Sampson was on the phone from the Falkland Islands. That name had been in the advert; this was the incumbent, the one who would be leaving. The name had stuck because I remembered pondering the supportive nature of Delilah and whether his sense of humour had not been quite up to scratch. He spent several minutes waxing enthusiastically about the Islands, the job, the tax status of the colony, the travel, the house and the view from his office window. I looked out of mine – a grey car park near Warrington on a drab March day, with the sound of the M6 droning outside the window. He fondly described his as being over a picturesque harbour to distant mountains with the Union Flag flying proudly in the balmy breeze, the only sound being the occasional cry of a logger duck or giant petrel.
'Will I be interviewed?' I asked.
'Yes of course, the whole thing has been passed over to a consultant who will be in touch.'
'Why are you leaving?' This seemed like a key question in the circumstances.
'It's the end of my contract and I want to leave in August.'
Jean and I discussed it. It seemed a long shot, we had only moved house a few months before, and the children were not really 'off our hands' yet. There must be hordes of far better-qualified applicants, so there was no need to get serious. But the Chief Executive getting in touch did seem a bit unusual. If I were going to be interviewed I would need to find out far more about the place. I researched what I could, but the information was woefully inadequate. In any case, I was both settled and happy where I was.
The recruitment consultant began to earn his corn. He seemed a cheery fellow on the phone and he invited me to have a chat with him in London. He was equally cheery in person and seemed to be terribly impressed by the cobbled-together CV. He confided that there had been two hundred and fifty applicants but that only a few had been invited to take the test, and that he would really appreciate it if I could take it too.
'What sort of test?' I enquired, assuming the relaxed manner of one who is being pushed rather forcibly into a corner.
'When?' I asked, anticipating a few late night cramming sessions before the big day.
'How long will it take?'
'No more than three and a half hours.'
The corner was pretty narrow and there was no room for manoeuvre. In any case, I could hardly drive back north having given up on a simple test. I agreed to the cerebral exercises that normally constitute this kind of thing with an enthusiasm that was as hollow as it must have appeared.
Psychometrics can be entertaining. So you think you are numerate? Answer this:
Place the next two numbers in this sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, ..., ...
At first the 11 seems to be wrong – surely it should be 9? Then the 2 is wrong. But no, the answer is 13 and 17. These are all numbers that are divisible only by themselves – obvious, isn't it? Well, it may be obvious reading a book, but sat at a school- type desk in the anteroom of a recruitment consultant, it seemed like the kind of question Einstein would spend several hours researching before composing one of many available solutions.
There were more sinister implications away from the numeracy subject and into what I suspected was the personality area:
Please rank the following statements in the order that describes you best:
a) I regard global warming as a threat to civilization
b) I generally run up flights of stairs
c) I believe that children should be seen and not heard
a) I enjoy a good party
b) I regard global warming as a threat to civilization
c) I am never late for an appointment
a) I believe that children should be seen and not heard
b) I enjoy a good party
c) I generally run up flights of stairs
Scurrying through this kind of forced-choice question is so time constrained that any thought of deciding what style of manager they want you to be, or what kind of chap you really are, is not possible. However, the three and a half hours hurried to its close and left my brain wondering whether I enjoy parties enough or whether my habit of running up stairs should be regarded as good or bad. The cheery consultant indicated that marking the test would take some time – apparently a massive computer was required – and that I would need to return for another session the following week.
This time it was in Birmingham. Being a top consultant he had more than one office, and Birmingham itself presented yet another test. The City of Birmingham may be one that can be driven through by the local inhabitants without the need for a satellite positioning system, but I have never seen it that way. In fact, years before, I had spent some time as a salesman in this area and purchased a large-scale map so that I could find my way around. As a geographer I have always felt that I relate to maps easily, but I could never fathom the complexities of Birmingham. The roads appeared to move overnight. It was as though the map publishers also awarded the road-building contracts and kept changing the roads in order to stimulate demand for a revised edition. I uncovered some evidence for this scheme when I stayed in a city centre hotel and found that a gang of men was in fact moving the road outside my window throughout the entire night.
But all that was years ago, and had stood me in good stead – this time I used the ring road to perfection and found the right exit. The consultant had sustained his cheeriness and appeared to be very impressed by the results of the test. I had imagined that the outcome of the meeting would be my exposure as a random box ticker, but no, I had been identified as having all sorts of desirable characteristics. Jean would be pleased to know that after all these years.
Furthermore, this same series of tests had identified the shortlist of five and I would be one of them. The next step would be a torture far more complex and exquisite than the afternoon of psychos. The consultant happily announced trial by dinner with wives at the Army & Navy Club, and all five candidates would be there at once.
We were a strangely assorted group. There was a retiring air vice marshall (retiring from the air force, not in disposition), a colonel, and a businessman – complete with suitably supportive wives, as the original advert had demanded – and the 'Islander' candidate. The consultant had led me to believe in the token nature of this Islander but he clearly knew far more about the Islands than any of the rest of us. The air vice marshall had been to the Falklands as part of his job, and the colonel was with the pace on military matters. I was beginning to feel that I lacked some of the detailed knowledge necessary.
The assessors were just as varied as the candidates. An ex-governor plus wife, an ex-military commander plus wife, the present Chief Executive plus wife, an ex-Island councillor (no wife at present), the cheery consultant whose wife was unable to come at the last minute, and the Falkland Islands Representative in London, who was female anyway. The assessors took their job very seriously. They parted the candidates from their spouses and then they rotated around the table in between courses in order to obtain the maximum impact. I thought that if this had been France they would have had to carry their knives with them. They did take their napkins, though.
This kind of a meal creates an interesting atmosphere. The contents of the menu have long passed into oblivion, but I do recall the rather strained conversations in every direction. Sorting out the assessors from the candidates was bad enough, but being competitive, gracious, informed, conversational and interesting all at once while holding one's knife and fork properly and not belching was a good test of something. All the while, supportive wives were also being appraised. I noticed that Jean was having a particularly animated conversation with the ex-military commander's wife. The ex-governor seemed to be talking sense to me, but I had no idea as to how the evening was influencing any decision. I heard no belches, so presumably the impact had been neutral.
As we picked up our coats from the cloakroom, one of the candidates emerged with wife alongside. 'You wouldn't catch me working for this crowd,' he proffered. I had no way of knowing whether this was an advanced form of gamesmanship or whether the view was genuinely held. It had been an unusual evening, but then so many things about the Falklands were already turning out to be unusual. That sense of humour was clearly an essential requirement.
Situated in the basement of Falkland House in London were two claustrophobic rooms with the kind of air-conditioning system that only had two settings; Antarctic or clammy. On the day after the Army & Navy Club dinner, serious interviewing began with a panel in each of the rooms. Fresh glitterati joined the appraisers of the night before: a man from the Foreign Office, a previous Chief Executive, an engineer and so forth. Panel interviews are something of a lottery. Each interviewer seems to have a pet theme or question and there is no time to strike up any rapport or discussion. At the first one, Mr Sampson gave the impression of having stored up this googly:
'What would you do if you are Acting Governor and some St Helenans at Mount Pleasant Airport wanted to vote in a by-election?'
He seemed so pleased with the apparent complexity of the question that I realized a can of worms lay open in front of me. I remembered that Mount Pleasant was the military base, but that wasn't much help.
'Why should it be a problem?' I asked, desperately seeking more information.
'They are entitled to a vote because of residence of over five years, but have never exercised that right. The Islanders don't want them to, as they fear a dilution of control through the democratic process.'
'I would consult with all my advisers,' I stumbled, feeling that this sounded sufficiently like a civil servant.
'All right, you consult and find that the views are evenly balanced,' he countered.
Excerpted from A Little Piece of England by Andrew Gurr. Copyright © 2012 Andrew Gurr. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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