‘If something is not what it claims to be, what is it?’
Like any public servant of a few years’ standing I have an extensive collection of name badges from conferences, training events and other gatherings. Unlike Wayne (in the excellent Wayne’s World movies) I have never gathered these together onto a single wall as an artefact. Mine are in drawers, on shelves and littering the floor of a briefcase I don’t often use.
I’ve been coming across them as I’ve been sorting through stuff and liberating space (and me) from the tyranny of the possessions of my old life. I did think for a wild, and slightly odd, moment of creating my own piece of art with them. Laying them out in neatly ordered rows in a collector’s drawer like Darwin’s beetles. Each with a careful label giving dates and taxonomy.
Or maybe having them as a piece of interactive art allowing people to use them to assemble my career in whatever way the job descriptions and events they reflect prompt. I suspect it might be a bit hard to anyone outside my world to assemble them in the correct order (I had a bit of trouble myself).
Over recent weeks and months I have been gathering a fresh collection to add my existing exhibits. I have joined networking fora for local businesses and been schmoozing. Contrary to popular belief most public servants do not spend all day schmoozing so this is a new field of endeavour for me but it’s one I am determined to crack.
At the first few of these events I simply registered my name. Each time I duly picked up a badge from registration that said, ‘Mr RPS’ and set off to mingle. I’m pretty shy and, topically, have a slight stammer (albeit pretty well controlled) so putting myself out there has been a bit tough. But opportunity is hardly likely to find me if I hide in the coal shed.
As you advance towards a group you can see folks’ eyes do a quick all over check. (Presumably to decide whether flight or flight is the right action.) Then it’s eye-contact time and shaking of hands. Pretty soon thereafter you can see their gaze slide down to your chest or lapel or wherever you’ve fixed the badge.
I quickly found not having at least some sort of tag below my name was missing a trick. For anyone who hasn’t been to one of these networking events they are rather like speed dating on … well, speed. People quickly size people up for potential alliances or threats. So a descriptor helps.
Even if it is something quite left-field (not too left-field for the audience obviously) but anything that gives rise to a question, ‘That sounds interesting but what is it exactly?’ can not be bad. So my growing collection of new badges have labels that I hope are more meaningful and interesting than my first collection.
I have started to organise what I say about me and what I have achieved in different ways too. Opening up with, ‘I’m being made redundant after 20 years of public service. The b******s,’ rarely leads anywhere useful as a conversational opener. Instead what I try to do is talk about change management or systems implementation or cost reduction or sustainability or new management information systems or any of the things I have had my sticky paws into over the years. But I set the scene in terms of turnover or volumes rather than it being about the public service.
I save up the ‘public sector’ reveal until people have had a range of other evidence to use to create their image of me. For some public servant is an immediate turn-off.
But that’s not all their fault. Business people have a false impression about the public service fostered – sometimes deliberately – for political and other reasons. And, I have to say, we equally mistake what many business people are all about. I was at an event recently with a bluff rough tough manufacturer: Bradley Hardacre personified.
In our chat I learned he hates rules and regulations (not too surprising) but not because they stifle profit but because they stifle genius. ‘Imagine the Sistine Chapel job’s HSE risk assessment.’ He loves his folks to have fun and ‘generally take the p***’ especially out of me. We all count.’ No one gets blamed for making a mistake. ‘I hired a pillock as MD once … but I think folks have forgiven me now.’
And what really got me was what he said about why he was in business … it was for the enjoyment, the fun, the buzz … if all that was right how could a business do anything other than turn a profit. And believe me his turns a very healthy profit.
It’s all about values he told me. Know what you truly believe and build a business life on it. Easy.
Now, the smart-alec media loves lampooning this sort of stuff as being the preserve of the ‘hopeless’ public sector but I think my new mate – his term not mine – would give that short shrift. We public servants make a mistake too when we think all that motivates the world of business is a big fat return, trebles all round and the devil take the hindmost.
Life is never that simple or dull. I have caught myself at odd moments in these events wondering whether I’m there under false pretences or a false-flag. In short, am I a fake? I hope not.
What I have been trying to do on this journey of discovery is work out what I’m about. Not by reference to my job title but from first principles. To do the thing my new mate recommends and apply that self-knowledge to whatever work you do.
Not easy. But interesting. Particular for someone, like me, who had fallen into the trap of defining themselves by what they did rather than by who they are.
I hope there’s a living in it …
Meanwhile you may be wondering where my opening quote comes from. It is, of course, from the pen of the incomparable Alan Bennett in A question of attribution. The piece has Sir Anthony Blunt in conversation with the Queen. They talk about the difference between real and fake, a discussion that has deeper resonances for Blunt. It’s wonderful. Have a look.