All good things must end. So with a month left on the clock here in Kenya, I am reminded that the ‘next stage’ of life looms.
At the end of 2009 I took a break from the day-in day-out drive of running a business – partly because I was burnt out, and partly because the market had also burnt itself out. Running a recruitment business in the largest recession in living history is just not that simple, or fun.
The year 2010, however, was a revelation. Despite a slow market, I managed to win some first-rate executive searches that kept me financially alive.
However, the true discovery was that when free of the ‘timetable’ of working life, the pressure of managing people, and the expectation that comes with running a business, I could do a much better job for my clients and I started enjoying myself again.
I love running these searches and I am extremely good at it, if I might be so bold. Last year, I helped a large foundation find a key campaigner, who achieved one of the biggest environmental success stories of the last decade. That feels good. That makes all the naysayers fade into the background.
It is not about the fees, or beating the competition to win these searches, but about meeting fascinating people, finding the right person for the right job, and the results of that elusive combination. For me, there is a joy when a candidate I have placed in a role comes back two or three years later and tells me their life changed because of our interaction. In the case of the search above – if only Mother Nature could talk, I think she would’ve sent me a Christmas card.
But recruitment can be a disheartening and cruel business, hence my reticence to leap back in. Other recruiters have dragged the sector into a money-centric realm with a poor reputation. Tell someone on the board of a company that you are a recruiter and they often make their excuses and leave, desperate to avoid the hard sell. People look down their noses at you and lump you into category. ‘Why would you, Tom, want to do that?’. You’re bright, they state – surely you can find better things to do?
Don’t worry. My rebellious nature would have me running off to do something else if it didn’t feel right.
So the question now, about the return, is how to balance my discovered simplicity with my working world? How can I retain the joy of interacting with outstanding people and helping companies find exciting and rewarding people without it dragging me into complexity? Can I retain the lightness that a lack of concern with materialism brings, while working in a cut-throat industry, where the hungriest fight hard and dirty?
I think I can.
But I need to be mindful of all I have learned and how happy I feel.
I must set myself some guidelines – some mnemonics – to prevent materialism, competition and ego dominating my drive. Instead, I want drive that is propelled by flow, simplicity and a desire to do good.
This plays out to a bigger question. How does the desire for simplicity interplay with the competitive capitalist world? How do we find the ideal balance?
1) One of the key points is remembering that when people are in ‘flow’ and happy, they often work more diligently and efficiently.
Therefore, there must be a trust. Trust that with passion will follow reward, rather than the other way around.
By retaining and focusing on the areas that feel right, things often come right.
2) In my case, recruitment often involves networking and getting one’s name out there. This means hard work and a degree of pushiness. How to ensure that this remains healthy?
The key, I believe, is to remember the power of people. By helping the right organisation find the right people, I can help make a small difference. Driven by this force – the force of good – I can stomach a few rejections by people who do not have the time to realise that I am a different type of recruiter.
3) In the pursuit of money, or success, people often abandon their integrity and their authenticity. When a salesperson sells something he would not buy, or an investment banker sells toxic assets, or a lawyer suggests a complicated solution to a simple problem (which in my eyes seems the norm) – each is compromising their values.
Instead, I must remain true to myself. This means choosing the right pieces of business, for the right type of client. It is hard when someone wafts a large cheque in front of you, but in fact, it is often less rewarding in the end when all the other factors are combined.
4) Take breaks. Work in a way that is right.
One of the reasons that I burned out was that I worked in the way I was expected to. Anyone who has read about starting a business can feel that the only way to succeed is through working like a slave to get things started. Tales of people sleeping beneath their desks and years of struggle are all too common. As such, I found myself working sixty- or seventy-hour weeks believing that it was the only way to succeed.
Yet this just was not effective for me. Perhaps it works for some to have this discipline but I found myself enslaved. That meant I did not enjoy it so my work suffered, as well as my life.
Instead, I will try to work efficiently, rather than ‘putting in the hours’. I also need a change of scene now and again, out of the office. That makes employing people more difficult.
Instead, I will try to work alone, with support from Odesk or Elance to help lighten the burden, rather than rushing to employ people and scale up.
I will also set up alone, rather than with partners, as I mentioned in my previous post. It sounds lonely, but it enables freedom, simplicity and focus – it also prevents someone else compromising your direction.
Although the politicians of the world will lament my poor contribution to their employment figures – I want to build an organisation that is efficient and simple, rather than large and complex.
For me, a company that has a turnover of £250 thousand per year with one employee and the freedom that brings would be preferable to a £25 million business with a hundred people. Especially as the manager at the top might end up with a similar pay packet, if that is his / her motivation.
I may miss the fellowship of ‘company’ (is that why they’re called companies?), but for now I can offset this with the freedom this brings.
5) Maintaining routines and not getting swept away with work is critical.
My current routine and desire to write could easily be compromised with the cut and thrust of business.
Instead, I promise to continue to wake without an alarm clock, wherever and whenever possible (I am a few years away from having children, at best, so this isn’t just a cunning claim in the knowledge that I have exterior forces that will awaken me). I promise to spend the first thirty minutes reading in bed, before getting up. Not a book on management techniques, but a novel, or a book of personal interest. Then, I will start by writing in the morning, until I have written a few pages, before I start to think about work.
When I do get ‘back to business’ I will make sure that my first action is not checking my emails, but going over my list of things to do and working on the important first, preferably offline.
During the day, I will take several breaks to wander in the garden or even, as I did when I was working last summer, to spend an hour or two going to the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath in the mid-afternoon.
All this might sound too pleasurable and easy to achieve. Not waking with an alarm clock, I hear you say, ‘I’d bloody well do that if I could’. Well, believe you me – maintaining the kind of calm morning routine I have mentioned is surprisingly difficult when faced with an onslaught of ‘things to do’. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to maintain this kind of routine when you’re barraged by emails.
Within one’s working day, I believe (to paraphrase Antoine de Saint Exupéry) perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away.
6) Finally… although there are many more pieces to the puzzle that I am sure will rear themselves, I must remember not to attach too much importance to all that I do.
By reminding ourselves of our insignificance, and impermanence, the desperate desire to achieve, succeed and win fade away. When we remember these things, business fails to retain its lustre and the pleasures of simplicity, wonders of balance and desire to retain one’s life appear, as if they’d been there all along.
Here's me, last night, next to my new house, trying to prevent the days from ending so quickly...