A star-crossed tale of words and numbers
People are often curious about my unusual career path. So for those considering studying English, a career in finance or in the cultural industries, or a later life move into teaching or education governance, this section may provide some useful insights.
We are all shaped by where, when and how we grew up. I am aware that I was dealt a good hand. As I get older I become ever more sensitive to the consequences in our society for those who are not so lucky. This is, in part, the source of my interest in exploring ways to improve the education system.
No one can claim to be completely objective in their views. We all have preferences and biases, conscious and unconscious, and mostly rooted in nature, nurture and stories. So this section provides some cultural reference points for a 'critical' reader by sharing personal and professional memoirs of a journey that has inevitably shaped my understanding, beliefs and values.
What appears below is primarily a personal record, written for my own sensemaking purposes. It is a bit longer than I'd intended, but I felt it was important to flesh-out some memories with the right amount of detail and colour. I don't expect people to find it all interesting, but I'll be pleased if you get something from it.
Growing up in Yorkshire
In the header of this page you can see my hometown Bingley, nestled in the Aire valley on the semi-rural outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire. It is a former market town, originally settled by the Saxons. The town was transformed in the industrial revolution by that trans-pennine marvel of mid-Georgian engineering, the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Bingley's charm as a natural stopping point for travellers through Airedale was sadly diminished in 2003. The culprit was a bisecting 'bypass' road which was locally-resisted for decades and involved moving the canal. Even so, canal enthusiasts are still attracted to the pioneering 5-rise locks, described as one of 'the seven wonders of the waterways'.
Bingley is not far from the Yorkshire Dales' gateway towns of Skipton and Ilkley, the latter being a short hop over its famous moor into beautiful Wharfedale. Over the course of my life the landscapes of the Dales, and the Lake District beyond, have been a constant source of inspiration. They connect me to an ancient past and provide a soul-comforting escape into an imagined world of pastoral simplicity.
I had a very happy and trouble-free childhood, growing up in the sixties and seventies as the younger son in a small family with a love for the outdoors. I was a sea-scout , which was rather ironic given that we were about as far away from the coast as it's possible to be in the UK. Even so, hiking, camping, canoeing and dinghy-sailing were regular activities, either with the scouts or with my family.
I loved having an older brother. I'm sure it contributed to the considerable freedom I had to explore and enjoy my surroundings by foot, bus and bike. In my teens I could often blend in with my brother's friends. This gave me illicit access to precocious pleasures, such as a few pints of the local brew, Timothy Taylors, in the Brown Cow on Monday evening jazz nights.
In my early years we lived in a small semi-detached house at the top of a steep cul-de-sac where the neighbouring children would drift in and out of each other's houses. We would 'play-out' unsupervised in ways which would no doubt be judged too risky by today's standards. Later we moved to a detached house in a slightly smarter cul-de-sac. Day-to-day life remained pretty much the same, regularly playing out with neighbouring kids, and doing more or less whatever we wanted as long as we returned home when expected.
Lifestyle expectations were quite different back then. Consumer advertising did not create the same level of aspiration, nor exert the same peer-pressure on children it does today. As it was for most people I knew, eating out was a rare treat, as were takeaways (with the exception of the chip shop). Holidays were spent in the UK, the best ones being in static caravans amongst sand-dunes or in farmhouses. I treasure these memories.
Unlike my brother who always appeared naturally well-groomed, I tended towards scruffiness and had no sense of fashion or personal style. I have no recollection of craving new branded clothes or other material possessions. OK, maybe I'll make an exception for Levi jeans and recorded music. The tiny number of records I did manage to acquire were from saved-up pocket money, or hard-earned from lugging a ludicrously heavy bag around the local streets on my weekly newspaper-round. Rather guiltily (given my career path), I should reveal that the main part of my 'music collection' was taped from the radio or from records borrowed from the public library.
Mum worked part-time in what always seemed like interesting administrative roles. The most memorable one was at the Airedale Agricultural Society, for several years running Bingley Show, the largest one-day agricultural show in the north of England.
Dad worked for many years as the finance director of a yarn-spinning mill. As a young boy I remember visiting him at work occasionally and thinking how imposing and old-fashioned it all seemed, with even a faint whiff of Blake's dark satanic mills. Years later I had a summer job as a night security guard in the mill. I enjoyed the experience and ironically saw the place in a very different light. I remember the friendly staff, many of whom were Pakistani, sometimes sharing their curries with me in the middle of the night. As the son of 'the management', I don't suppose they gave me the full picture, but I did get the impression that it was a civilised and mutually respectful place to work.
Bradford experienced quite transformational levels of immigration over the period of my childhood. It's difficult to describe objectively the family values one grew up with, but when in 2011 the government published its definition of Fundamental British Values based on respect and tolerance, they felt very familiar and authentic as the 'lived values' of my parents. In fact my mother would probably have called them common-sense Yorkshire values, especially if plain-speaking had been added to the list. It never ceases to amuse me how proud Yorkshire folk are of their county, and how they love to attach the Yorkshire prefix in a possessive way to just about anything considered worthy. Yorkshire Fried Chicken is one of my favourites, if only for the boldness of its cultural appropriation.
I was a reflective and mildly-introverted child. As a family we rarely talked about serious stuff such as politics or religion. I have a vague early childhood recollection of going to church on Sundays. It didn't feel like a strictly-observed commitment and it had certainly tailed off well before I became a teenager. I did however have a short burst of spiritual curiosity when I was 17. This led to me being confirmed in the Church of England and to flirting briefly with institutionalised faith through the college chapel community at university. Since then, attendance at church services has been rare, though I still feel enriched from time to time by ecclesiastical music, art and architecture.
My parents were not ostensibly political, other than the occasional gripe about the ineffectiveness of the local MP. There were no national newspapers in the house, and I had no grasp of current affairs. If you'd asked me about the strikes and power-cuts of the 1970s, I would have replied that it was that curious and rather fun time when we did things by candlelight and went to bed in jumpers. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it was only much later, through excellent movies such as Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997) that I came to realise the devastating consequences of Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal globalizing policies for the heavy industries and related communities of Britain.
Growing up I did have a vague awareness of the ongoing struggles that Dad's employer had with international competition in the textile market. Perhaps also because of the nostalgia my parents had for Bradford's grand past, I imagined that there was an evolutionary inevitability about the decline of northern towns and industries.
Bradford's industrial legacy
My unquestioning acceptance of industrial decline may have been partly because Bradford's heyday as 'the wool capital of the world' was already well past by the time I was born. This feeling of obsolescence was epitomised by a huge run-down mill which is a notable piece in the jigsaw of my childhood visual memory. It is situated only a stone's throw from where I was born, at a section of the canal on which I used to row when the river Aire was in flood. When it was built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853, it was the largest industrial building in the world (see the image carousel at the top of this page). Salt also built an adjoining village, Saltaire, providing his workforce with quality housing, education, health and other community services. This was regarded as highly progressive for its time, resulting in history remembering Sir Titus Salt as a great Victorian 'industrialist, politician and philanthropist'. The mill has since been sympathetically developed and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It houses, amongst other things, an excellent gallery for the artist David Hockney, one of several famous alumni of the school I attended.
I mention all this industrial stuff because I feel that in some ways I am a product of the self-confidence bestowed upon West Yorkshire by the power of its industrial past. But let me not get too distracted by these retrospective musings. I'm sure if current affairs or modern history had been part of the interview process for university I would have fared very badly indeed. It was not until much later (well into my thirties) that I developed any interest in politics and economics, or any critical understanding of contested ideologies and their consequences for society.
As was normal for their time, neither of my parents went to university. Mum started her A-levels and might have gone to university had her father not died when she was only 17. This made it financially impossible to continue into higher education. Dad left school at 16 and was articled to a local firm of accountants, before pursuing his career in the textile industry. An upside of his choice of profession was that when he had to do his national service in the 1950s, he got a two-year posting to Hong Kong and Singapore as an officer in the Pay Corps. This has always felt like an exotic international aspect of our family history. Writing it down now, I wonder whether it had a subliminal effect on my own career choices.
I attended the local state primary school which I believe was pretty good. Unfortunately the system changed when I was nine and I was then sent to a newly-built 'middle' school. The school was disorganised and the teaching was very poor. I learnt very little that year, though I do recall that I was able to turn out a creditable Victoria sponge cake. Luckily I passed the entrance exam for Bradford Grammar School, a single-sex direct grant school and attended there from the age of 11. Though independent, it didn't feel overtly 'posh' or exclusive, in part perhaps because around one-third of boys were on assisted-place scholarships. Sadly I wasn't bright enough to get one of those. Amongst the many things for which I'm grateful in my life, my parents' decision to invest in my secondary education is near the top. Gratitude produces mixed emotions and the perception that the local state secondary provision was so problematic is one of my motives for exploring and supporting ways to improve the education system in this country for all youngsters. My commentary (link here) on Peter Mandler's book The Crisis of the Meritocracy (2020) starts to capture some of my views on this topic.
The teachers at Bradford Grammar School were generally very good and humane, some of whom I liked very much. Discipline was robust and corporal punishment still existed, though it was rarely used, and even then quite tamely. Sport was encouraged and the school had a very good reputation for rugby. Despite early enthusiasm, I showed little promise in any sport involving a ball. Thankfully I found my strength in rowing, a sport which was generous in its frequent awarding of silverware, or more accurately pewter tankards. The tradition of having all sporting trophies presented at morning assembly in front of a thousand boys unquestionably boosted my confidence and standing amongst my contemporaries.
The school was academically impressive, though subject-specialism occurred early and there was not much of a focus on creativity. I've often wondered if I missed out on some important things, especially art and music. Also biology. Attending a boys-only school, combined with the complete absence of relationship and sex education, certainly affected my teenage confidence. My childhood was pretty much a girl-free zone and at the time this felt like a serious deprivation. Decades later I spent a couple of years teaching A-level and discovered that teenage girls are not always the sensitive and caring angels I had imagined in my youth.
I've always felt fortunate to have had complete and non-judgmental support from my parents for my choices in life. I never felt any pressure or expectations about subjects, careers or even going to university. The school had a proud track record of sending 20-30 boys each year to Oxbridge. I chose not to apply there, partly because of the risk of rejection, and partly because I had my heart set on Durham, a place I knew through my rowing. I was averagely competent at most subjects, but languages emerged as a preference. Bizarrely, up to the age of 15, I had very little exposure to literature, but on instinct I chose it for A-level, along with French and German, and then again for my university application.
My three years studying English at Durham did not quite deliver the mind-broadening experience which is often thought to be the point of attending university. It was pleasant and unpressured, but as far as I was aware there were no radical thinkers to disrupt my young worldview. With an almost entirely white student population, and a notable proportion of Oxbridge rejects, student life often felt less diverse and developmental than my childhood.
I typically had only six or seven timetabled hours each week. Tutors were contractually more focused on their research than on teaching, and this made them seem remote and inaccessible. As for motivation to self-study, in those days first-class degrees were very rare. It never even occurred to me that getting top honours should be a target. I managed to get a 2.1, though I think this was less down to diligent scholarship and more to do with my ability to produce a coherent essay in the expected academic style. In this regard I found Willy Russell's lovely film Educating Rita (1983) quite powerful and pertinent. English professor Frank (played by Michael Caine) tells the bubbly hairdresser and mature student Rita (Julie Walters) that she's finally managed to produce an essay which conforms to a university degree standard. Rita is delighted but Frank resorts to drink, tortured with the thought that in 'educating' her he has suppressed all the vibrant and ingenuous spirit she displayed when she first walked through his door. In this analogy I'm not exactly Rita, nor Frank, but the aspiration to express myself in academic language, and the ways in which this can obscure the simple joys of literature, certainly struck a chord.
In later life I felt it was a missed opportunity not to have studied harder at university and I think I would have liked more pressure and direction. I had to wait more than 20 years before I fully realised the intellectual thrill of things to which I should have been more attuned at university, such as critical theory and the relationship between language and power.
My time at university was not without highlights. My positive experience of rowing at school was something which served me well again at Durham. I chose not to row for the university crews as they had a rather snooty attitude to entering northern regattas, only entering elite southern events such as Henley. This struck me as an odd competitive strategy given that they never seemed to win anything. By contrast, I found success with the local Durham City club in a crew comprising rather rougher and tougher blokes, including a farmer and an ex-miner. We did rather well on the 'northern circuit'.
I hesitate to gloat, but vanity forces me to mention that the only time we did get to race against the university was in the Grand Challenge Cup. It was the 150th anniversary of Durham regatta (the second oldest in the country, after Chester regatta). A beautiful summer's day on the lovely winding course of the river Wear. The final was a close race with cheering crowds lining the banks. We beat the university crew, and the course record. The icing on the cake was that the presentation of the Cup, along with an unusual £500 cash prize, was in the ancient hall of University College, in the heart of Durham Castle. In my mind it was the romantic stuff of movies, 'class-divide, town versus gown, against the odds..etc.', though I'm not sure I could convince anyone that I was an authentic working-class hero.
The real and lasting 'win' from university was that it was where I met my wife, though we only overlapped there for one term. Four years later Fiona accepted my proposal on two conditions: (1) that I would always be open to exploring the world together, and (2) that I wouldn't become a boring accountant. I think I've met the first condition. I'm not the best judge of the second.
Because of the nature of her professional life as a consultant psychologist developing and applying trauma-informed solutions in the criminal justice system, Fiona likes to maintain a low profile online, so she won't feature much in my story below. Suffice to say that she has shaped me (for the better) as much as any of the experiences described.
The big leap from words to numbers
"Double-entry bookkeeping does have a kind of poetry, I suppose!" Thus sighed my English literature tutor on the news that I might apply to train as an accountant. Whether he meant it or not, I later discovered that he was right. Accounting can be a beautiful thing.
I had no career plans before taking my final exams at university. I had suffered a short but very intense and debilitating period of despair. During that time I lost all energy, joie de vivre and ability to focus. I had no goals nor vision of my future. The prospect of a working life in any job seemed unbearably dull and pointless. Today it might have felt normal to seek help for such depression, but it was different back then. I never properly acknowledged nor understood it, and thankfully it disappeared as quickly as if it had been a virus.
I had never felt any interest in Dad's accounting profession, nor in the textile industry (other than an interest in yarn-spinning as a metaphor for narrative), but I guess familiarity, insecurity, peer-pressure and market-demand all played a subliminal part. And so it was that I went to some interviews at the big accountancy firms and took my first tentative steps on the treadmill of professional life.
In hindsight, the competitive advantage of my degree from Durham is much clearer to me. But at the time, to my amazement, I received offers from two prestigious firms. A third firm rejected me on the grounds that they didn't believe that I really wanted to be an accountant. This impressed me because, despite my protestations to the contrary, they were right. Generously, they said I could reapply once I'd given the profession proper consideration as a career choice. I followed their advice, reapplied, and joined the large London office of the US firm Arthur Andersen & Co in late November 1985.
The first few weeks in London were spent sleeping on the floor of a friend of a friend. Eventually I found accommodation in Kensal Rise in north-west London. Now gentrified, back then it was rough. I shared a very shabby and mould-ridden flat with a friend and a couple of nurses who answered our flat-share advertisement. With partners coming and going, there were up to eight of us sharing one grubby kitchen and a tiny disgusting bathroom. No shower, no communal sitting area, it was much worse than being a student. Laundry was done in the high street laundrette amongst some creepy characters, and the grocery choice at the local 'mini-market' was limited and expensive. Trainee accountants at that time started on very low salaries, and for the first five years in London my standard of living was really quite low by today's standards.
My cohort at Arthur Andersen comprised a motley but colourful crew of reluctant decision-makers: i.e. arts & humanities graduates or early career-changers. Many dropped out before qualifying. It was much tougher than anything I'd done before. The audit work often felt like being thrown in the deep-end, having to assume responsibility for things which had not yet been covered in training. Studying for exams had to be mostly done alongside working very long-hours on client work.
By design, the exams were extremely time-constrained to assess how well we could perform under pressure. This had the effect of always feeling as though you hadn't done enough to pass. I stumbled at exam hurdles at each stage of qualification, and in 1989 I faced being thrown out of the firm if I didn't pass my finals. This would have been financially ruinous. Three of us had clubbed together to buy a two-bedroom flat and, because Fiona and I were getting married that year, we had committed to buy-out my friend's share. Then, in a perfect storm, our mortgage rate spiked to more than 15% and property prices fell. I knuckled down and miraculously qualified in December 1989, three months after our wedding. Fortunately we managed to hang on to the flat, but we suffered negative equity for a very long time.
For many years afterwards I would often wake up in the morning having dreamt that I had not passed my exams, betraying a deep-rooted fear that I did not deserve to be a chartered accountant. The truth, as I realised much later, is that I was not a vocational accountant and I do not have a great love of numbers. On the plus side, what I did learn quite early on is that success in any organisation has more to do with skills beyond the obvious technical ones. These include critical thinking, problem-solving and, perhaps above all, communication skills. Finance is the language of business and just like any other language, it can be nuanced and requires interpretation. In this respect, my study of English was more of an advantage than I had imagined. Another realisation from my early audit experiences was that companies, even well-known and reputable ones, are much less well organised than you might think. There are always possibilities for improving them, if you have a problem-solving mindset, an interest in people and processes, and a sensitivity to organisational politics.
The integrity and vulnerability of the accounting profession
I have great respect for the accounting profession. It has an essential role in the institutional foundations and values of our society. Respect for the rule of law is most commonly cited as the bedrock on which our liberal democracy has thrived, but I would argue that a trusted system of financial accountability is just as important. In that respect I am very grateful for the excellent training I received at Arthur Andersen. But I can't really say that I felt completely comfortable there.
The firm had a reputation for arrogance and there was strong pressure to maximise fee income. On one occasion I raised a concern with an audit manager, and then a partner, about a client's aggressive interpretation of a judgemental area of accounting practice. Their responses sowed a seed of doubt in my mind about their objectivity and integrity, reinforcing my intention to leave the profession once I'd qualified. Several years later the same client was charged with fraudulent accounting leading to the resignation of the Chairman.
Only a few years after that, in 2002, Arthur Andersen collapsed and disappeared completely, brought down by the firm's role in the fraudulent accounting practices at US energy giant Enron. This very public scandal had a huge impact on the profession and led to new international legislation in corporate governance. Fortunately I had left the firm 12 years earlier, so my career was not affected. I do have sympathy for former colleagues who stayed on at Arthur Andersen, the great majority of whom I'm sure had integrity.
As terrible as it was, the collapse of Arthur Andersen provided some reassurance for me that the financial system as a whole was a self-correcting ecology. I had a similar sensation following the global financial crisis of 2007-8. This time I was more dismayed by the head-in-the-sand behaviour of the whole financial community, including regulators. Their failure to prick the bubble of the 'snake-oil' derivatives market before it spectacularly imploded was deeply concerning. Many people knew instinctively that the products were unsustainable, and that their high risk was obscured by their complexity. Few were sufficiently knowledgeable, influential or courageous to act sooner.
Our whole global financial ecology is effectively a bubble, and one which sustains mind-boggling levels of debt. Perhaps a better metaphor would be a giant hot-air balloon (see image in the carousel at the top of this page) with a skin strong enough to withstand punctures that can be repaired before the balloon deflates completely. The balloon is inflated with narratives of economic inspiration and aspiration that require mutual trust to allow the balloon to expand and fly. The resilience of its skin depends on the depth of belief and faith that individuals, organisations and countries have integrity and that they can and will honour their debts. You can see this reliance on belief in the Latin roots of the language of finance: credo, credibility, credit. I was taught that a creditor is someone to whom you owe money, but it might better be described as someone who believes you will honour your debt.
At best, the financial system is a perfect and all-encompassing productive equilibrium of mutual moral obligation, of debits and credits. This is perhaps the 'poetry' to which my university tutor was referring. The system is not naïve, it can cope with a certain amount of dishonourable behaviour, the most flagrant instances of which get flushed out by control frameworks and good governance. But when corruption becomes systemic, when too many people accept that they have no agency to act or to speak-up, the ensuing crash will always be catastrophically wasteful.
We can see the same phenomenon with crypto-currency. It has some ideological libertarian logic, if you believe that money can be 'purified' of institutional control and the corrupting influence of human greed. Yet this requires an enormous leap of faith in a new credo, the narrative of mathematical integrity and algorithmic incorruptibility. There is an anti-establishment conspiracy feel about this narrative. To be frank, I am not intelligent enough, nor educated enough, to really understand the blockchain technology which underpins crypto-currency. This is not false modesty, I've not met anyone who can explain it to me in ways that don't swiftly betray their own shaky understanding. It is precisely this enigmatic aspect of crypto-currency which is, for some, an essential part of its risk-reward charm. As I'm writing this I'm reminded of Donald Trump's declared 'love of the poorly-educated' and their vulnerability to being exploited by disingenuous narratives. Until such time as crypto-currency can be understood and empirically triangulated by a wider community of people, it remains destined to be a high-stakes rollercoaster ride. One that rewards a few savvy and cynical gamblers who manage their exposure and know when to exit, but also one that ruthlessly exploits those who get blinded by their fear of missing out.
But I'm getting carried away. Returning to my story...
My first job outside the profession was at the French bank Credit Agricole which I took to gain the 'line management' experience expected of newly qualified accountants. It was far from a dream job, not least because the bank had entered the UK mortgage market at a very difficult time just after the housing-market spike of 1988. The bank's competitive strategy was to offer quite complex flexible mortgages to higher-risk customers, i.e. those who could not borrow elsewhere. I soon discovered that its systems were not up to the task of supporting its products, and I moved on after 18 months. The only highlight of my time at Credit Agricole was that I hired a young Spaniard called Alex who opened my mind to many things, and who has become one of my best and oldest friends.
A lucky break in the music business (PolyGram/Universal 1991-2001)
It's possible to look back on the trajectory of one's life and identify key moments of transformation. The first of these was that Fiona, who had not long started her own recruitment business in the economic boom of the late 1980s, became aware of a job at PolyGram. PolyGram was a publicly quoted subsidiary of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. It was already the world's largest music company, and had a distinguished history dating way back to the 19th century origins of audio recording technology. Knowing my love of music, Fiona put me forward for the role, declaring the potential conflict of interest of course, and I joined the company in 1991.
Through acquisition in 1998, PolyGram evolved into the Universal Music Group (UMG). Though I changed roles and countries several times, I spent almost ten years in this impressive organisation, seven of them living overseas in New York, then Madrid and finally Los Angeles. UMG's many business units are iconic brands in their own right, and now include: A&M, Abbey Road, Blue Note, Capitol, Decca, Def Jam, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Geffen, Interscope, Island, MCA Nashville, Mercury, Motown, Polydor, Verve, and Virgin. Many would say, and I would find it difficult to argue otherwise, that the group's market share (sometimes over 30%) is unhealthily dominant. But I can't honestly say that I felt that way as a young man in the 1990s.
For my first two years I was based in the global HQ in Berkeley Square, London. There weren't many layers of management and I had a very generous and supportive boss called Stuart Ells. Stuart enabled me to gain the attention of PolyGram's executive leadership: Dutchman Jan Cook (EVP and CFO), and Frenchman Alain Levy (CEO). I mention these three names because they had a consistently positive influence over my career for almost 15 years. They certainly wouldn't describe themselves as guardian angels, but from where I was sitting that's what they often felt like.
I was a member of a small team called Operational Audit. We were a flexible resource and we adapted our activities to the needs of Jan Cook, a former Philips executive who was a powerful figure within the company. There were some routine elements of financial audit, but what made this job so interesting for me was the opportunity to go 'off-piste'. By this I mean that I was encouraged to engage my instincts and curiosity, backed up by diagnostic analysis, in order to identify opportunities to improve the financial performance and the efficiency of the business.
When I joined PolyGram the fax machine was still the dominant medium for communication across the group's many international business units. Within my first year the groundbreaking new technology of 'email' was introduced. This might seem like a minor administrative digression in my story. Email may now have become a monster whose advantages are often eclipsed by its disadvantages, but in the 1990s email really transformed the organisational life of large and international businesses. I've often thought that recognising the possibilities and the protocol of email was a notable competitive advantage. Once again, I was grateful for my English degree.
I travelled overseas quite regularly on assignments, initially in Europe. My first big break came when I was seconded to a small firm of forensic specialists who had been engaged by PolyGram to undertake a review of worldwide procurement. We discovered evidence of practices which were at best negligent, and at worst fraudulent. Once remedied, the company saved millions of pounds in production, especially in the artwork design and printing of CD booklets and cassette inlays.
New York (1993-1995)
The fear of widespread problems in procurement practices prompted the decision to establish a permanent base for Operational Audit in New York to cover all PolyGram's North American businesses. Having received credit for some of the fraud discoveries, I was given the opportunity to move to New York to recruit and head a small team. So, aged 29 and in typically grand American style, I became a 'Vice-President'. Status seemed more important in US corporate culture and the VP honours included a prestigious window office on the 25th floor of Worldwide Plaza with spectacular views over midtown Manhattan (see image at the top of this page). We found a nice apartment a few blocks away, on the 23rd floor with equally mesmerising cityscape views, including over the Hudson river. It was a far cry from Airedale, and there were times when I really had to pinch myself.
The mid-nineties felt like a great time to live in New York. Although we witnessed a couple of shooting incidents near our apartment, we felt quite safe, regularly exploring and enjoying this extraordinary city on foot. The mayor at that time, the now-disgraced Rudy Giuliani, was widely respected and credited for having 'cleaned-up' New York. This didn't stop some of my colleagues thinking I was reckless for walking through 'Hell's Kitchen' on my daily commute.
My work was varied and interesting. It included activities such as:
the acquisitions of Motown Records and Def Jam Recordings, and the operational integration of Island Records and A&M Records.
Woodstock 94, an urgent intervention which involved a physically exhausting on-site marathon over four days. I worked alongside U2's legendary management team to limit losses at the financially disastrous 25th anniversary concert. Security, logistics and the specially minted currency failed from the outset, and at at times I found myself pushing through crowds with up to $50,000 in banknotes stuffed under my t-shirt to support the flow of food and drink to festivalgoers. I confess that the temptation to use my all-access pass to sneak onto the wings of the stage during the sunset performance of Carlos Santana in front of 300,000 people was just too strong to resist;
a review of the greenlighting process for PolyGram's movies.
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment was by then very much in the ascendant and on its way to being the first independent studio to be established in Hollywood in 50 years. It was helped by PolyGram's investment in Working Title Films, whose Four Weddings and a Funeral opened in a few cinemas in the US before its UK release in May 1994. My office was next to the film marketing department and I can recall their excitement about the lead actor they were looking after, an unknown Hugh Grant. 'He's a compatriot of yours' they enthused as if I should know him, 'who for sure will be the next Cary Grant'. Of course I didn't believe them, though I must confess that I subsequently became a big fan of Working Title's brand of hugely successful rom-coms.
The work was not all glamorous. Of the things I did in the US, the work which established my reputation there was, once again, the discovery of questionable business practices. This time the issue was uncovered through analysing strange patterns of sales and returns of CDs and cassettes. This required me to visit regional offices to question relevant sales and promotions people. In Atlanta, a sales executive very deliberately and unexpectedly opened his drawer to show me his gun. This was the point at which I realised I was well out of my comfort-zone.
I won't go into the details, but what I found was indicative of a version of 'payola' (paying radio stations to promote records). Prosecutions for payola had given the US music industry a bad reputation more than 30 years earlier, but the practice was thought to have largely died out. My investigation work eliminated the practice at PolyGram, at least during my time there. However, more than 10 years later I was sad to see the industry settlements with New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer. Music companies had apparently resumed their efforts to find devious ways to influence radio play through independent promoters.
After a couple of years, and having recruited my successor, I had a brief period of uncertainty about where my next move would be. At one point it looked as though it would be Mexico City, which in my mind meant investigating more dodgy practices, and probably in a more dangerous environment. To my relief, I was offered a role in Madrid as the Finance Director of PolyGram Spain. An urgent need had arisen there because both the Managing Director and Finance Director had been suddenly 'let go' due to 'irregularities'.
My personnel file listed me as having some level of proficiency in Spanish, so I may have seemed like the perfect candidate. In fact, my Spanish was limited to an O-level (GCSE) and a one-year subsidiary course at university in 16th century Spanish literature. Though excited, I felt anxious and rather exposed - Miguel de Cervantes and Garcilaso de la Vega would only get me so far. Before I left New York I managed to persuade the company to fund a two-week crash course at the Berlitz language school. This helped, but only a bit.
Of the many countries in which PolyGram operated worldwide, Spain probably had the strongest public brand awareness of the PolyGram name itself, rather than its constituent record labels. This gave it a greater air of corporate respectability than I'd experienced elsewhere. It was a market-leader. In addition to its huge roster of top international artists, PolyGram Iberica had a strong catalogue of local Spanish artists, including flamenco legends such as Camaron and Paco de Lucia. A film division had been recently created, including a distribution joint venture with Warner Bros. and with Spanish media giant Grupo Prisa. In short, I was very flattered to be offered this wonderful job which, as well as finance, included responsibility for distribution, IT and HR.
My immediate predecessor had been in post only a short time, but my real predecessor as Finance Director was a legendary character called 'Pepe' Alonso. He was the person who could take most of the credit for building the Spanish business in the previous decades. His profile and influence were reflected in the office I inherited, complete with its own bar, bathroom, couches and view of the National Auditorium and the Bernabeu Stadium.
I was still only 31 and I continued to have a slight feeling of being an imposter: a Head Office upstart whom no one had yet discovered lacked the proper experience for the job. This guilt was not helped by Fiona having found, after much searching, a sensational apartment for us in the elegant Barrio Salamanca. Madrid is, or was then, quite an old-fashioned, chauvinistic and class-conscious place. I don't think that the porter in our building ever accepted that we were sufficiently mature or well-dressed to live there.
In truth I would not have succeeded in this role without the support of my new boss, Paco Bestard, who took over as CEO at the same time. He was Spanish but had been working for some years in Miami. We both needed to prove worthy of the confidence which had been placed in us by the executives in London.
Paco's mentorship was very special. He kept a careful eye to ensure my lack of fluency in Spanish wasn't exploited by those who might have wanted to pull the wool over my eyes. He also made a big effort to help me make the most of the wider benefits of living in Spain. As an example, when attending a sales conference in the Sierra de Gredos, Paco took me horse riding one afternoon. I vividly recall him stopping to pluck fresh figs from a tree. A small gesture, but for me it was an epiphany for the taste-buds. It marked the beginning of an education in materias primas (raw ingredients) and the essential contribution of quality and freshness in Spanish food.
In our three and a half years there, Fiona and I took many short breaks to explore the beautiful regions of Spain. Wherever we went Paco would make sure we knew in advance what we should be eating and drinking. Other colleagues also went out of their way to share their passion for their country and its food. Sales director Jesus took us on the most spectacular three-day hike over the Pyrenees, staying in mountain refuges which provided astonishingly hearty fare (see image at the top of this page). My new hire (and still good friend) Pancho insisted upon educating me on the exceptional seafood delights of his native Galicia: a four hour lunch in La Coruña comprising percebes, navajas, pulpo, almejas, mejillones, ostras, langostas, bigaros, vieiras and camarones. All washed down with way too many bottles of the local Albariño, and followed by a bracing swim in the ocean. Though it took us a while to understand the gastronomic language and protocols of Spain, we certainly acquired a deeper appreciation of food that has stayed with us to this day.
After a while Spain also began to make me feel what it meant to be European. I had loved living in New York and exploring many other wonderful parts of the USA, but although I didn't quite achieve the level of fluency in Spanish I would have liked, I felt a deeper and warmer connection with people in Spain than I had in America. It's a complex cultural and historic connection which is hard to put my finger on. Perhaps it's best left unanalysed, but I certainly felt more at home in Spain. Needless to say that 20 years later I was very upset and angry when the British public were shamelessly duped by Boris Johnson and others into voting to leave the European Union.
Compared with my earlier and later experiences in the music industry, Spain was also the place where I felt closest to the music, and to the role that the record company played in its production and promotion. People are often curious about which celebrities I have met in my 15 years in entertainment. I generally avoid responding as I don't want to seem like a name-dropper. Frankly, I'm very shy with celebrities. I find it quite embarrassing to claim that I've 'met' people, when in reality the experiences were mostly fleeting brushes with stars who (quite reasonably) care not a jot about who I am. My interaction with the rude and self-absorbed Spice Girls would certainly fall into that category. But in Spain there were some special experiences. One was a dinner with the charming Enrique Iglesias. Another was an intimate party for the debut album of new signing Miguel Dantart. It was held at the lavish apartment of Capi, a well-known music producer, and was attended by the multi-grammy-winning artist Alejandro Sanz and some top flamenco musicians including Pepe de Lucia (the brother of Paco). As the only 'guiris' in the room, we did our best to remain unobtrusive as the evening evolved into an intense and mesmeric flamenco jamming session. It was another 'pinch-me' moment of privilege.
The most important professional lesson I learned in Spain was that if you find and nurture people who are more skilled than you, it generally pays dividends. After three years in the post I was credited with having stabilised the company financially and with building one of the best teams in the PolyGram Group. The truth is that most of them were already there and it just took a trusted person from London to provide reassurance. Such is the advantage of being an expatriate. So it was that by 1998 my Spanish successor was ready and I was ripe for another move. I was offered the job of CFO for PolyGram Film International back in London and I happily accepted.
Annoyingly this move was thwarted at the eleventh hour by PolyGram's majority shareholder Philips who unexpectedly decided that they wanted to exit the entertainment business. In what felt like a betrayal, they sold PolyGram to Seagram, the Canadian family-owned drinks group.
Seagram's CEO, the young and often criticised Edgar Bronfman Jr, had recently acquired MCA/Universal. Their smaller music operations were merged with PolyGram's larger businesses and renamed Universal Music Group. Already owning a major film studio, Bronfman saw no reason to continue investment in PolyGram Film, so it was absorbed into Universal Pictures. My opportunity back in London evaporated, and I was temporarily left high and dry in Madrid.
The new leadership of UMG went through an exercise to decide which PolyGram staff they wanted to hang onto. Fortunately I was put in the 'keep' bucket. For reasons I never fully understood, they flew Fiona and me out to Los Angeles and gave us the VIP treatment for a whole week to persuade us to move there. It would have been rude to say no, not least because the alternative was redundancy, so in March 1999 we moved to 'Hollywood'.
Los Angeles (1999-2000)
In the eyes of many people, for whom working in Hollywood is a life-goal, I was 'living the dream': a Senior Vice President at Universal, with an office on the studio lot, a beautiful Spanish-style house with a large pool overlooking a golf-course, and a garden with implausibly abundant orange and lemon trees. What was not to love?
I was CFO of Universal's US sales and distribution arm, responsible for a massive $3 billion of annual turnover in CDs and videos. In addition to Universal's own vast catalogue, this included several third parties. One of them was Playboy and I was invited once to Hugh Hefner's notorious mansion to renegotiate their deal. I politely declined.
People were generally welcoming and superficially affable but for some reason I struggled to figure out how to get things done. I'm oversimplifying, but it felt like people either did not want, or did not know how, to collaborate in ways with which I was familiar. The culture was influenced by ego and status. You were expected to assert yourself and your decisions, or defer to others, rather than exploring the best solutions through analysis and dialogue.
There was a second problem. Inflated by the status endowed by the huge scale of the operations, this was not really a senior executive role. There were several other senior business and finance leaders in the Universal hierarchy who had overlapping responsibilities. The functional scope of the job was actually quite narrow and would have been better served by someone with specialised experience of logistics and customer credit management. In short, the job was not a great fit for my skills-set.
If I'd had a passion to build a career and a life in Los Angeles then perhaps I could have put on a performance, suppressed my anxiety and adopted the permanent smile that everyone seemed to wear. But in truth I felt deeply unhappy at work. So, with the much appreciated support of Universal Music CFO Boyd Muir, I negotiated my move back to London just a year after arriving in LA.
Digital disruption and the dot.com boom (2000-2001)
Still employed by Universal, I returned to the company’s international headquarters in St James' Square in March 2000. For the first four months the company provided us with a flat just off Marble Arch and this couldn't have been a nicer way to fall back in love with central London during the beautiful spring and summer of that year. Later we moved out to Richmond and spent the next 10 years developing Bute Cottage in Petersham.
My return to London in 2000 coincided with the peak of the dot-com boom. Though we wouldn't know it until much later, it was also the historic peak of the global recorded music market. Over the next few years the value of the industry declined by about a third due to the impact of unauthorised file-sharing. But at the time London was buzzing with the anticipation of further extraordinary growth yet to come. It was a particularly exciting time to be in a record company: full of bright sparks, blue-sky thinking, and beautifully constructed PowerPoint slides.
I was asked to project-manage the development of an embryonic and innovative concept which we named Voxstar. The project aimed to capture the potential of new media and technology and transform the consumer experience of engaging with music and artists.
Voxstar was a revolutionary new technology platform for music, not just for Universal’s content, but open to all artists; and not just for the paid download of recorded music, but offering a broad experience of content and community, news and chat, access to artists, games and competitions, streamed music, and live webcasts. All this would be provided interactively via new digital technology, channels and devices as they emerged. Moving away from the old business model of music to be sold and owned, there were new experiential values to be exploited and monetized. Choice, convenience, personalization, empowerment, flexibility, discovery, immediacy, exclusivity, community and mobility were the determinants of value for the 21st century digital consumer; or so we believed. As a logical consequence of serving these needs, revenue would flow from a number of new channels including subscriptions, ‘freemium’ products and services, advertising, sponsorship, licensing, artist-branding, merchandising, ticket-commissions and more. The main risks, as they appeared then, were not that we were strategically misguided, but that others would beat us to market, or that we would be blind-sided by a “killer-app” which eclipsed our own innovations.
Universal committed over £15 million of development money to Voxstar but we sought third-party funding, not only to mitigate the risk, but also to demonstrate the independence of the new venture from Universal’s traditional business. The new millennium investment environment was intoxicating. Despite growing evidence of an already bursting dot-com bubble, in late April 2000 the major telecommunications operators still had the confidence to bet their futures in the largest ever UK auction. They bid a jaw-dropping and ultimately crippling £22.5 billion for licences to operate the third generation (3G) spectrum which they believed provided the platform to enable phones to take over from computers as the gateway to broad and ‘rich’ media consumption. Music delivered by mobile phone was very much at the forefront of these hopes.
In that climate, demonstrably prudent behaviour was symptomatic of lacking a vision. Skepticism was for spectators and losers. It therefore seemed not at all absurd to find myself sitting in front of the world’s leading investment banks, inviting them to commit £50 million for a 20% stake in something unproven and yet to be built. Only a few months later, our fate seemed secured when Voxstar was designated as the music partner for Vizzavi, the mobile internet portal recently constituted as a billion-euro joint venture between Vodafone and Vivendi. We stepped up our ‘burn rate’, or negative cash-flow as it should have been more soberly described. Many people deemed burn rate to be indicative of the boldness of one’s ambition, being confident that revenue streams would emerge if the online user ‘traffic’ was ‘sticky’ enough. “Build it, and they will come” was the mantra.
Sadly, Voxstar, Vizzavi, and 3G services in general were all ahead of their time, and naïve in their ambition. Aspirations for a brave, open and collaborative new world were misplaced. Rightsholders found it difficult to understand the mindset of digital music consumers and were reluctant to licence music to platforms they did not control. Mobile phone companies did not understand or respect the process of artist management and music curation, seeing music content only as a commercial commodity. So, despite being fully-staffed and ready for launch by the spring of 2001, Voxstar was prevented from going public by a lack of confidence and consensus regarding competing digital strategic priorities amongst the various stakeholder decision-makers in London, New York, Los Angeles and Paris. In a tense and awkward meeting overlooking the Arc de Triomphe, Vivendi-Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier and Universal Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. instructed us to repurpose Voxstar’s leading edge technology to support other internal projects including the recently acquired MP3.com. The majority of the newly-hired team was let go, along with their valuable new-media skills and their fresh outlook. Vizzavi suffered a similar fate, disappearing one year later. MP3.com limped on for two years but was dismantled and sold in 2003. By then, the recorded music industry had given up any strategic hope or intent of retaining its mastery of technology and control of consumption formats in the 21st century in the same way as it had done throughout the 20th century.
I mention Voxstar because I want to dilute, though not to dismiss entirely, the myth that record companies contributed to their own demise by burying their heads in the sand, refusing to see or to contemplate the impact of the internet on their business models. The myth continues that when they did finally begin to understand the opportunity, they were incapable of acting in anything other than a protective/defensive way, seeing only threats, not opportunities. This is a slightly misleading depiction in two ways. Firstly, it ignores the fact that some important open-minded and collaborative early attempts were made by record companies to innovate, albeit with potential collaborators who came with their own prejudices and obstacles. It should also be noted that all parties were operating within complex contractual, statutory and regulatory constraints. Secondly, the accusation of wilful myopia directed at record companies usually centres on their behaviour after 1999. By contrast, my diagnosis suggests that this hereditary affliction began much earlier. But I'm drifting into the subject of my book, so I'll stop there.
I interpreted the demise of Voxstar as a sign that it was time for me to move on from Universal after an amazing ten-year stint at the Group. Luckily I had been approached about the role of Finance Director of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, so that's where I headed next.
A Really Useful interlude in theatre and film (2001-2003)
The Really Useful Group (RUG) was occasionally, though always affectionately, known as 'Chateau Lord Bonkers' due to the mercurial energy you might imagine circulates in such a place. The rather homely 'head office' was located just off Seven Dials in the heart of the West End and was the most creative, and least corporate space in which I have worked. I could frequently hear the process of musical composition and auditioning wafting up from the elegant conservatory, and I regularly had encounters with celebrities coming and going.
Composer and impresario Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber set up The Really Useful Group (RUG) in 1977 to manage his interests in theatrical productions, music, film, publishing and merchandising. At the time I worked there, the Group also owned and managed London theatres through a joint-venture with private equity. The 13 theatres represented around one-third of all the seats in London's West End, and included jewels such as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Palace Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre and the London Palladium. The Group also owned SeeTickets, the second largest ticket agency in the UK.
In the 1990s PolyGram had taken a 30% stake in RUG to allow Andrew to take his company back into private ownership. He bought back PolyGram's shares in 1999, but there were still strong commercial links with PolyGram/Universal and this was the channel through which I was recommended as a candidate for the Finance Director role. I was a member of a small Board of Directors and felt very much involved in all the major decisions, though Andrew was naturally the ultimate decision-maker.
To be honest, before working for Andrew I was not a huge fan of his particular brand of musical theatre. Over time I have acquired an enormous respect for his creative and commercial genius and an affection for many of his hugely successful compositions which include: Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats and Phantom of the Opera, amongst many others. It was astonishing to me just how lucrative these assets are, with many productions still running around the world. Phantom is often cited as one of the most successful pieces of entertainment of all time. It has stage production box office revenues of over $6 billion, higher than any movie ever. Only the stage production of The Lion King has a higher box office at $8 billion.
I've said elsewhere in my story that I would avoid being a name-dropper, but RUG certainly gave me many opportunities. Because of the number of theatres we owned it felt like there was an invitation to a premiere and opening party at least once a month. Many of these were magnets for celebrities. But perhaps the most intimate celebrity occasion was the Sydmonton Festival. This was an event at Andrew's lovely country estate in Hampshire, which includes part of Watership Down and has Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) as a neighbour. Andrew invited his friends, most of them celebrities, for a weekend of activities including showcasing new talent and creative ideas in his theatrically-converted 16th century chapel. At one point in the proceedings, Fiona and I found ourselves sitting on a hay bale watching an exhibition polo match organised by Andrew's wife, the accomplished equestrian and horse-breeder Lady Madeleine. Either side of us were perched the unlikely thespian combination of Glenn Close and Rowan Atkinson. It was another pinch-me moment for a Yorkshire lad.
There were many highlights during my two years at RUG. One of my favourite projects was the production of Bombay Dreams in 2002, a collaboration with legendary Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. Andrew's extraordinary influence was very apparent in being able to mobilise the creative community, attract the best Indian talent, and to produce the show in what seemed to me like a very short space of time. Interestingly, the wealthy Indian community in the UK proved to be reluctant investors. I was so confident in the project that I risked some of my own savings and became an 'angel investor' for the first time. The show should have run for longer but timing is everything and we couldn't get the theatre we wanted. We ended up having to use the Apollo Victoria which was really too big for the show. Nevertheless, Bombay Dreams recouped its investment with a modest return and ran for a couple of years, helping the early careers of its stars Preeya Kalidas, Raza Jaffrey, Ayesha Dharker and Ramon Tikaram.
The Phantom of the Opera movie - a very scary production process
A project that spent way longer in development was the movie The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew originally sold the film rights to Warner Bros. in 1989 but he retained creative control. The film was scheduled to go into production the following year with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford naturally taking the lead roles they had so successfully established in the West End stage production. Joel Schumacher was hired as Director but a series of events, including Andrew's divorce from Sarah Brightman and Joel's career taking off, conspired to put the film into development limbo for many years.
In 2003 Andrew reconnected with Joel Schumacher who was by then an 'A-list' Hollywood director (see image at the top of this page). RUG bought the movie rights back from Warner Bros. with the intention of producing it independently. This was very ambitious. The average budget for an independent film is still only around $2 million, so when we clocked up over $70 million in 2003 it felt reckless. I believe that Phantom still remains the biggest-ever budget for an independent movie.
Andrew himself committed around $3 million at the outset to fund development until the financing was lined up. Producing an independent movie is rather like the precarious challenge of spinning dozens of plates. There are multiple and quite complex sources of finance to secure, each investor requiring constant reassurance. Many stakeholders would not fully commit until other things are guaranteed, such as the cast and the international distribution advances. Locking down the cast, creative team and Pinewood Studios was also a massive scheduling headache. Just like the financial stakeholders, the top talent would not commit until they knew who else had committed.
Andrew agreed to continue underwriting development but by the time we reached $18 million without having locked everything down things became tense. Returning from lunch at The Ivy, which was very conveniently next door to the RUG offices, Andrew spent more than one afternoon in a mood disposed to fire me and Austin Shaw, the long-suffering Head of Really Useful Films, suggesting that both of us of were 'utterly hopeless'. Happily, good relations were always restored the following mornings.
A huge amount of the movie budget was spent on creating an authentic and detailed representation of the magnificent Paris Opera at Pinewood Studios. This was achieved through physical set construction, modelling and CGI. At one point Andrew asked me to accompany him to Pinewood in order to give Joel Schumacher a 'serious talking-to' about his extravagances. We assembled in one of the grand office suites provided for directors, all oak-panels and antique leather, and adorned with portraits of Hollywood legends. I handed out my analysis of budget variances, identifying various areas where we might cut back. Joel studied the schedule, frowned and started reading it out loud in his slightly effeminate American drawl. "Hmm.. Michael: pork pies; Agnieszka: pierogies; Kirsten: potato salad..." Leaping from my seat I snatched the schedule back, realising too late that amongst the papers I'd handed out was a contributor list for a picnic with friends I was organising that weekend. Andrew didn't need to fire me that day - he might have seen on my face that I'd have readily resigned if he'd asked.
The biggest creative challenge was securing the talent for the lead roles. Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman were now too old to be credible, though this did not stop us receiving hate mail from hardcore Phantom fans when it was disclosed that they wouldn't be recreating their role-defining stage interpretations. At various times over the intervening years several Hollywood A-listers had been linked to the project, including John Travolta and Antonio Banderas. This time around we came close to getting Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, though both had to pull-out due to conflicting commitments. In the end, the emerging stars Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum took the lead roles along with a strong supporting cast including Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds.
In the end it all turned out fine. Austin must take most of the credit for eventually getting the project over the line. The film looked and sounded fabulous and it was nominated for three Oscars. It was quite a long and intense viewing experience for all but the most passionate fans of musical theatre, so its audience-appeal was limited. Commercially the film was a bit disappointing, generating a modest $160 million at the box office. Along with all the other channels of exploitation this means that it was a profitable venture, but a higher return was hoped for given the size of the upfront investment risk.
None of this really mattered, the main thing was that Andrew was happy with it: "I think it's an extraordinarily fine document of the stage show" he commented, with "an even deeper emotional centre [..] and that's all I could have ever hoped for". From my point of view it was a massive relief. I admit that I had a frisson of pride seeing my name on the rolling on-screen end credits, even though by the time my name eventually appeared I was being ushered out of an empty cinema.
The demise of EMI and a new beginning (2003-2007)
Whilst I was at The Really Useful Group, two of my former PolyGram 'guardian angels', Alain Levy and Stuart Ells, had reconnected and were now at EMI Music as worldwide CEO and CFO. Stuart asked me to join him at EMI as his number two. Part of me would have liked to stay longer at RUG, but it was quite a quirky place and after an intensive period of creative activity things had quietened down. I departed on good terms with Andrew and my fellow RUG directors and joined EMI in late 2003 at the beautifully re-developed former Penguin Books building in Wrights Lane, Kensington.
Second time around, the record industry was not as lucrative nor quite as much fun as it had been in the booming 1990s. The consumer electronics companies, i.e. Philips and Sony, had given up on their quest to find a technology that would enable them to continue to control the value-chain of recorded music. Unauthorised peer-to-peer filesharing of music was now rampant, despite the industry's attempts to stamp it out. Apple had launched the iPod a couple of years earlier as an intended legal model of digital music consumption, but most music on iPods had not been purchased as legal digital downloads. It was only when Apple launched a Microsoft Windows-compatible version of iTunes in late 2003 that there was a glimmer of hope that declining music sales might recover.
During this time there was enormous pressure on EMI to cut costs. We underwent a painful reorganisation with extensive staff redundancies to maintain profitability. Digital and new media 'experts' were hired to develop new revenue streams, but they encountered the same obstacles I had experienced at Universal's Voxstar three years earlier. EMI also instigated an ambitious multi-stream change programme to modernise many of its business processes. Some of this was successful, but as much as we made the organisation more efficient, we could not get away from an unpalatable reality about digital music consumption. This new reality was that consumers were attaching more value to the new experiential aspects of interacting with music and artists than to the recorded music itself. These new aspects included discovery, choice, immediacy, ubiquity, community and personalization. They were driven by new technology, by channels and devices in which EMI Music had no stake. In a nutshell, we represented fewer links in the value-chain of music consumption than we did in the 20th century.
In July 2005 I attended a professional development seminar which was a serendipitous turning point in my career. The content of the seminar is of no consequence, but it was the expert contributors who caught my attention. They were two Unilever directors whose titles listed them as 'Doctors'. Questioning them at the coffee break I discovered that Unilever had supported them to do part-time, industry-related research in their fields resulting in them being awarded DBAs, the doctoral equivalent of an MBA. I knew instantly that this was a path I needed to pursue. I quickly put together a research proposal based on investigating the obstacles faced by the music industry in adapting to the digital age. Stuart thought it was a great idea and told me I should talk to Alain about it. Alain was a frighteningly intelligent person and not always the most approachable character, so it was with some trepidation that I entered his CEO office suite to make my pitch. I emerged 30 minutes later, flushed and sweating, but grateful and triumphant. I enrolled on the DBA programme at Henley Business School that autumn.
Henley was very keen to support my research in its faculty of Strategy & Change, but the warm and generous Director of Studies, David Price, acknowledged that they didn't have the expertise to supervise my qualitative research methodology, Critical Discourse Analysis. Traditional business school academics prefer quantitative methodologies. Some viewed qualitative methodologies as the devil's work, associating them with the extremes of postmodernism and with left-wing anti-capitalist sociologists. David Price was an exception and felt Henley should be broadening its epistemological horizons. I therefore sought a suitable external supervisor and landed on Professor Martin Parker, well-known for his work on alternative theories of organisation.
I couldn't have been happier with my interactions with Martin, and over the next couple of years I felt as though I had two parallel lives. In one of them I was falling in love with rigorous academic study and research. It seemed so much more rewarding in my forties than it had been when I was an undergraduate. I had purpose, commitment and an inkling that I might be able to unpick the knotty problems which were slowly strangling the recorded music industry. My other life was more stressful, managing the finances of a large multinational public company that was making a habit of issuing profit-warnings to the market, and which was the constant subject of rumours about a merger or a sale.
My role evolved and I became SVP Corporate Development which covered investor relations and the management of a team of economists and strategy analysts. The initial focus was on a merger with Warner Music, but when that fell through in 2006, the focus shifted to a corporate sale. There were two private equity companies circling us like sharks. They both offered valuations well in excess of what we could justify internally, even with the most optimistic projections for the recorded music market. We were therefore obliged to recommend to shareholders that the company should be sold, even though we knew that would mean redundancy for the senior management, myself included.
In August 2007, on the eve of the global financial crisis, EMI was sold to Terra Firma. The outcome was certainly the best deal for EMI shareholders, but it turned out to be disastrous for Terra Firma and its founder Guy Hands. This was not only because of the unfortunate timing of the acquisition, but also because of the new owner's lack of strategic solutions. Terra Firma eventually defaulted on its debt covenants. In 2011, after considerable litigation with their main lender Citigroup, Terra Firma lost control of EMI, reportedly having lost $2.5 billion on the transaction. EMI was then sold to Universal, though its Parlophone label (including the Beatles catalogue) was sold to Warner Music to satisfy the EU competition commissioner's concerns about Universal's excessive market influence.
I mention the fate of EMI with some regret. EMI was iconic, a 20th century pioneer and for many people the greatest of all the record companies through much of its history. It owned Abbey Road Studios and had artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Cliff Richard, Pink Floyd, Queen, David Bowie, Kate Bush amongst hundreds of others. Though the sale to private equity was the right thing to do in the circumstances, I found it disappointing that other credible strategic solutions were not found. I had my theories about the nature of the obstacles and I resolved to explore this strategic failure as a main focus of my research. My redundancy from EMI at least gave me a welcome opportunity to pursue the remainder of my DBA at Henley on a full time basis, and I went on to complete it in early 2008.
Macmillan Publishers (2008-2012)
Having spent a year happily working on my research full-time, I started to wonder whether it was time to leave my finance career behind. I was in my early forties and it was feasible to make a change. This might have happened had I not been approached by a headhunter about the role of CFO/COO for Macmillan Publishers. As the clear Deputy to the CEO, it looked too good to ignore.
Macmillan was a highly respected publishing company and it's worth saying a bit about its history. It was one of the global 'Big Six' book publishers along with Penguin, Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Founded in 1843, it was the publisher of many Victorian classics including the work of Charles Kingsley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. In 1869 Macmillan launched the science journal Nature which has endured to this day as the world leader in the publication of scientific research with now over 100 journals under the Nature umbrella.
During the 20th century the publishing range expanded. By the time I joined its divisions and imprints included: Pan, Picador, Palgrave, St Martin's, Farrar Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, Macmillan Education and the popular magazine Scientific American. Macmillan's renown in the USA was bolstered by their long-term occupancy of the iconic 1902 skyscraper, the Flatiron Building in New York (see image at the top of this page).
After leaving office as British Prime Minister in 1963, Harold Macmillan became chairman of the company for many years. I used to regularly straighten Harold's enormous portrait in the lobby of the Kings Cross HQ as it seemed to have a cheeky habit of tilting to the left. The company remained in family ownership until the 1990s. Resisting opportunities to simply maximise sale proceeds, the family sought a buyer who would maintain the traditional values of a 'publishing house'. So Macmillan was bought by another family-owned business, Holtzbrinck, a major player in the German book and newspaper market. The acquisition was completed in 1999. It was a huge corporate leap for the Stuttgart-based Holtzbrinck family, and for the first few years of ownership they did not interfere in the management of Macmillan.
This hands-off approach started to change when Stefan von Holtzbrinck took over the helm from his older brother in 2006. To understand the science publishing business, Stefan had spent some time working at Nature which was the biggest profit-generator amongst all the divisions of Macmillan. Stefan became a close colleague of Annette Thomas who had started her career as a cell biology editor at Nature, quickly rising to the role of Managing Director. Recognising her talent for unsentimental development of the commercial potential of publishing, Stefan promoted Annette to the position of CEO of the whole Macmillan group in 2006. Annette is American with a German mother. Her fluency in German was undoubtedly an advantage for Stefan in his desire to signal a shift in the culture of the Macmillan Board and bring the London and Stuttgart management teams of Macmillan and Holtzbrinck closer together.
For me, all of this was very attractive. At PolyGram I had loved the European diversity of the executives, and any preconceptions I might have had about old-fashioned British stuffiness at Macmillan was blown away by Annette's energy, directness and her spirit of innovation. At my interviews in Stuttgart in the spring of 2008 I was also charmed by the eloquence of Stefan and the other Holtzbrinck executives, and by their love of publishing and their respect for Macmillan's businesses. Before I'd even joined the company I was invited to a very classy annual Holtzbrinck get-together weekend in Budapest. I dined at a table with the guest speaker, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Listening to Stefan's introduction, and to Elie's speech, and observing the interaction between the two of them, it was quite clear to me that the online suggestions about Holtzbrinck's past connection with the Nazi party were no cause for concern.
I felt very flattered to be offered the role which I attributed primarily to two things. Firstly, that as talented as she was, Annette had relatively little exposure to running an international media company. My 15 years of international experience in the entertainment world provided a complementary skills-set for Annette and were strategically relevant for Macmillan. After all, authors and books are not a world away from musicians and records. Macmillan had businesses in over 50 countries around the world and was facing many of the same challenges from the revolution in digital media. The second aspect of my appeal was, I think, that my new colleagues were rather impressed by my research. In the anglo-american world of the entertainment business, my leaning towards academia was viewed with some mistrust. By contrast, in the publishing world, and especially in Germany, a doctoral qualification (including the 'Dr.' prefix) is a much more respected professional attribute.
My role had a broad scope. In addition to finance I was responsible for production, distribution, IT, and the legal team. The business structure was quite complex across its international operations with four quite different business models of publishing: trade/consumer books; science; education; and academic. Each of these had its own culture with separate HQs in London, Oxford and Basingstoke. Each was also at a different stage of transition to a digital world. One of the achievements in my time at Macmillan was to bring all the divisions together through the creation of a campus in Kings Cross, a location which was becoming a very fashionable location for media companies. The campus promoted interdivisional collaboration and knowledge-sharing about new media and technology, and meant that we began to feel more like one organisation.
I threw myself into the job with gusto and I spent quite a bit of time on overseas trips which included New York, Berlin, Munich, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Maputo, Sydney, Melbourne, Mumbai, New Delhi and Jaipur. It was fascinating to see how the group's brand recognition varied by country, especially considering that Macmillan felt like a slightly faded presence in the UK.
In Africa, Latin America and India, Macmillan Education was a highly respected and leading brand through its healthy market share in school books. In India in particular the brand was right up there with the likes of Coca-Cola which meant that we always felt very welcome. At a conference in Jaipur we were given the 5-star treatment at the Polo Club. It did feel a bit like the old days of the British Raj, but I overcame my cultural discomfort, and with some help I even managed to score a hat-trick. On an elephant!
In China we were also very well received. A senior education ministry official invited us to a dining experience in Beijing's Forbidden City which comprised 140 different dishes. Though I felt honoured, it was an ordeal which I couldn't help thinking was some kind of test of character. We also visited a large and prestigious new scientific research complex in Shanghai where there was a palpable buzz of excitement once word got round that executives from Nature were in the building. I soon came to realise just how desirable and career-enhancing it was for a scientist to be published in Nature.
Travelling with my colleagues could be a lot of fun. Annette in particular had an infectious sense of humour and there were many moments of uncontrolled hilarity. The pornstar at the swimming pool in Mumbai was one such moment, or the slapstick encounter with Brazilian music legend Sergio Mendes in the revolving door of the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio. These are tales which are best shared over a beer. For now I must turn to a more sobering experience of my time at Macmillan.
Out of Africa
Not long into my role at Macmillan, one of the legal team disturbed a Board meeting to share some urgent news: our Oxford offices had been raided by the City of London Police at the request of the World Bank. It emerged that the basis of the raid was a payment to a government official in South Sudan by a local agent allegedly acting on behalf of Macmillan.
It was both difficult and slow to get details on what had really happened. Aside from the fact that I was not aware that we had any business activity in South Sudan, at a much deeper level there was profound concern that Macmillan might be accused of illegal business practices. The publishing of science, humanities, literature and educational books was regarded as a noble business pursuit. In many ways Macmillan felt like the most ethical company I had worked for. Harold Macmillan's famous Wind of Change speech in 1960 about decolonisation and supporting independence for African countries meant that the Macmillan name had been respected across the continent for decades.
The prevailing legal and political environment made our concerns even greater. Enforcement of legislation relating to bribery of foreign officials had changed significantly in the previous few years. Up until 1999 such activity was not criminalised in many countries. There had been considerable efforts during the 2000s, notably through the OECD, to tighten up the law and to enforce it. These later took effect in the Bribery Act 2010. In the meantime, in 2006 a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into an arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi Arabian government had collapsed and there was a growing public demand for such business practices to be properly investigated.
The blame for the collapse of the BAE case was attributed to UK law and enforcement practice still being insufficiently clear. Investigating the BAE case, the Woolf Committee issued an influential report in 2008 which laid out a series of recommendations for business conduct and internal controls which became the gold standard for large multinational organisations. We seized on the Woolf recommendations to demonstrate our values and our intent, but of course we could not ignore the pending investigation.
As CFO, with responsibility for the legal team, it fell to me to manage the response. The first legal firm we appointed was inept. Its astonishing ability to rack-up fees was inversely proportional to the wisdom and professional competence of its staff. The firm was quickly replaced. Fortunately I was introduced to a QC whose firm of barristers were experts in the field. Their reputation gave us the confidence to self-report to the SFO and agree a solution which involved the barristers being trusted to lead an investigation. A civil settlement was reached in 2011. Though it was a very difficult period for all those it touched, I took a grain of comfort from hearing that the authorities considered Macmillan to have integrity and to be a model of how organisations should respond to an allegation of bribery. Compared with the arms trade and the extractive industries, we were apparently 'refreshingly honest and straightforward' to deal with.
Naturally we made improvements to the compliance and internal control framework of the organisation, but in some countries we decided that it was simply too risky to continue doing business. So with some sadness, Macmillan withdrew its educational publishing operations from parts of Africa.
Self-discovery in Bordeaux
I've attended many management awaydays and retreats in my time, but none matched the delights of an extended stay at Chateau Rigaud. In a beautiful and relaxed setting the executive team sampled the very finest food and wine from southwest France. My reason for mentioning it is the presence of an outsider, the charismatic frenchman Fred Pelard: strategy trainer, facilitator and coach. I'm normally skeptical about people with those labels but Fred was in a league of his own. He managed to get the measure of the whole team remarkably quickly and to help us focus our minds on the obstacles we faced, individually and collectively.
For the second time in my career I underwent a Myers-Briggs (MBTI) evaluation. The first time was at EMI and it certainly made an impression on me, helping me realise how different we all are, especially in our different sources of energy, insight and comfort. It had also reassured me that my decision to combine business management with academic research was consistent with my personality profile.
This time around Fred helped me take it a bit further, noting that I did not conform to the profile of many of the CFOs he had worked with. My MBTI profile is INFP, with very heavy emphasis on the N rather than S (see here for the distinction). Citing famous people with the INFP profile is a bit silly (Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi apparently), but Fred gave me the nickname 'spiritual leader'. This caused much amusement amongst the team, especially when we discovered that the HR Director unfairly shared a profile with Adolf Hitler. Joking aside, when I studied the nuanced components of MBTI more carefully, it was very useful in finding ways to make the most of my profile character traits, and to minimise the impact of typical INFP vulnerabilities and behaviour when under stress.
All of this confirmed to me that I should think carefully about what I wanted to do in the longer term. Before I accepted the role at Macmillan I'd already disclosed to Annette that it would be my last business management role, and that my expectation was to spend no more than four or five years in the job. In the first three years extraordinary challenges had been overcome and targets achieved as part of a great team. Organisational controls were strengthened, operations were adapted to the changing digital landscape and profits grew healthily.
Despite all this positive momentum it felt increasingly as though the organisation was beginning to fragment. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Practically speaking there were fewer synergies between the various business models than one might imagine. School book publishing was a business with a very particular content-creation process. Its markets were mostly in the developing world and the World Bank/SFO experience had reduced our strategic risk appetite in the education division. There were some operational similarities between the publishing of science (Nature) and social science/humanities (Palgrave), but culturally-speaking they were poles apart. As for trade book publishing (i.e. fiction and general interest non-fiction), Annette had no passion for it so strategy was decided between New York and Germany, and not in London.
Meanwhile, the Holtzbrinck executive team in Stuttgart were highly focused on digital/new media acquisitions and corporate finance solutions to maximise the value of the Group. There was a growing rumour about a merger with a major competitor, Germany-based Springer Science & Business Media.
All of this had the effect that by late 2011 it was not clear from where the company was really being led. I found myself pulled in different directions whilst working very long hours. I had a good relationship with the Holtzbrinck CFO Jens Schwanewedel and we planned the future structure of the finance function together, including me employing members of Jens' team in London. This naturally led to conversations with Annette and Jens about my own plans and I decided to move on in the summer of 2012. Annette herself left after the 2015 merger with Springer. Holtzbrinck retains a majority share of Springer Nature which is widely regarded as the world's leading science and academic publisher.
All in all, I look back on my time at Macmillan very fondly as the peak of my career in the cultural industries.
The mid-career change: a return to words
It's a bit optimistic to describe 48 as 'mid-career' but I remain hopeful that I can carry on doing something useful for as long as I am able.
I was born in the last year of the second-wave of the 'baby-boom'. Many boomers, especially those of us who chose not to have children, have been able to break away from the traditional expectation of career and retirement, i.e. that we should stick to one career, stumbling over the finish-line relieved and burnt-out in our mid-sixties, with unrealistic expectations about the joys of leisurely retirement.
My jobs in the entertainment and publishing industries had been wonderful in so many ways. They were also exhausting, especially the drama and shenanigans which often accompany mergers and acquisitions. I knew that I could not sustain in any healthy way the pressure of big corporate jobs through my fifties and beyond. I really wanted to discover other nutrients.
So I felt euphoric in that glorious summer of the London 2012 Olympics and the Queen's 60th jubilee. Supported by an ongoing part-time consultancy arrangement with Macmillan, I felt free to explore various things, including writing and publishing a book which built on my research. I also became a Visiting Fellow at Henley Business School.
I had previously observed that many people in the business school community are not great teachers. Teacher-training was a thought that had long lurked at the back of my mind, so in 2013 I enrolled on a PGCE programme at UCL's Institute of Education (IOE). I had imagined that I would teach something related to my career experience, such as business studies, economics or finance. The IOE convinced me that these subjects do not attract such high regard in the teaching world. My in-school placement would involve 4 days per week of teaching during the PGCE training year, so I was advised to choose a more mainstream curriculum subject. Noting my degree in English, the IOE asked me whether I still had a passion for language and literature. And so it was that I made a return to the world of words, and set out on the slightly daunting path towards becoming an English teacher.
Lucy Kellaway and Now Teach
At the time, my decision to train as a teacher looked a bit strange to most people I knew. Four years later, in 2017, the charity Now Teach was launched to support people who were experiencing feelings similar to mine (see image at the top of this page). The charity has since supported over 600 people to move into teaching after successful careers elsewhere. I'm impressed by Now Teach and I hope it continues to thrive.
The success of Now Teach thus far has been in no small part attributable to the publicity generated by one of its well-known founders, the long-term Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway. As she puts it, 'I walked away from the nicest job in the world to become a maths teacher in an inner London school.' Kellaway continues to write extensively about her experiences which, as one might imagine, are quite close to mine. Her book Re-Educated (2021) is well worth a read.
Teaching A-Level English (2013-2015)
My journey into education had three goals: (1) to acquire some teaching skills; (2) to get out of my personal and professional comfort zone and to extend the range of my interactions with people; and (3) to gain some insights in the education system and how it worked, organisationally and politically.
I hoped that I might find something useful to contribute somewhere in the sector. The romantic part of me wondered rather dreamily whether I might discover in teaching the vocational passion which had eluded me in finance. A more worldly-wise part of me suspected that being a full-time teacher through my fifties was very unlikely to be a sustainable option.
My teaching placement was at Esher College, a state sixth form college a few miles south-west of London. Some of my IOE cohort were placed in more behaviourally-challenged inner-city schools. Judging by their anecdotes, I was more fortunate in that most of my students showed at least some interest in learning, and most had supportive parents. Also, as a middle-aged man, I no doubt had fewer challenges to my authority. I was probably better at hiding my lack of experience, and more able to project confidence than many new teachers. Of course this involved a good deal of 'smoke and mirrors.' I was quaking on the inside.
I joined an English department which had eight other English teachers. This surprised me until I discovered that there were 700 students taking English as an A-level. There was quite a marked difference between the literature and language pupils. Broadly-speaking, my literature classes comprised mostly diligent students, around three-quarters of whom were female. Language classes had a more even split between males and females, and students were less academically inclined. I attribute this distinction to the popular but flawed perception of English language as a soft third A-level option for less studious youngsters: i.e. 'I already speak it, how difficult can it be?' In practice, achieving the top grade in English language is, in my view, the harder challenge. Amongst other things, it requires a level of maturity and an interest in sociology which seem quite rare at that age.
I was delighted to discover that all of my departmental colleagues were committed professionals who were also warm and helpful. That said, they did not know quite what to make of me or my motives. I clearly didn't conform to the normal profile of the PGCE placement. Even so, I went in with humility, expecting to be treated just the same as if I had recently graduated from university. I think some of them felt pleased that someone of my age and experience would choose to be a teacher, perhaps providing some comfort that their choice of profession had been a good one.
I ended up staying for two years at Esher. This was partly because I was flattered that they asked me back, and partly because I was keen to see my first-year students through to completing their A-levels. It was a relief to find that on average my students achieved grades which were slightly better than predicted, and that I had contributed to the relatively high departmental grade-averages. I cannot attribute this to my pedagogical skills. These take years to develop, just like any other profession. I think it was more to do with the time and effort I put into lesson-planning to compensate for my lack of experience. In general my students were quite sensitive and responsive to my insecurities as a rookie teacher, and appreciated my efforts to ensure that I didn't let them down. I found this quite touching.
The pros and cons of teaching
People are generally more curious about why I went into teaching than about why I didn't do it for longer. I've already addressed the former question, so let me try to explain the latter which is actually a far more important question for society. At the time of writing this, teachers are planning the most extensive strikes in my memory.
Let me start with all the things I liked about teaching.
I loved planning lessons. This might be because it gave me the chance to indulge my curiosity and to fill some gaps in my own knowledge of language, literature and history. Whatever the reason, I felt genuine excitement at the prospect of delivering some of my lessons.
Often, but by no means always, I loved my time in the classroom. There is nothing quite like the buzz you get when learning takes place: when kids verging on adulthood can no longer maintain their too-cool-for-school facade and start to really engage with a topic you've spent hours planning; and when they smile and thank you on the way out. This doesn't always happen, but when it does it is deeply satisfying. It is as rich and rewarding an experience as anything I felt in my business career.
Amongst the many attractions of teaching English in the internet age is the wealth of audio-visual resources now available to bring the content to life. For example, to be able to watch different film productions of the same Shakespeare play, and then ask students to think about why directors took different approaches, is a very effective way to engage with such rich and sometimes inaccessible texts.
A more practical example of the benefit of audio-visual resources was my innovation to get the kids to turn up promptly and energised for my lessons rather than drifting in 5 minutes late. All the classrooms had projectors, internet connectivity and decent speakers, so I would choose a stimulating music video which had some kind of connection to the lesson objective. I would start the video precisely one minute before the scheduled class time and turn the volume up so it could be heard down the corridor. I would let it run for up to three minutes, giving credit to the first student to identify the connection of the video with what we were going to learn. It was a simple but very effective way of focusing the energy of the class from the outset.
Beyonce and Madonna were consistently effective stimuli for female-empowerment conversations on Chaucer's proto-feminist, The Wife of Bath, and for lively discussions about language, gender and identity in general. So much so that I've written about it under a separate heading (link here). But perhaps my best choice was a clip from the 1979 film Quadrophenia. Watching Jimmy ride his Vespa at perilous speed along the cliff-edge at Beachy Head to the sound of the Who's Love Rein O'er Me led to an excellent discussion about moral ambiguity and Gloucester's suicide attempt and 'miraculous' survival in Act IV of King Lear.
Done properly, teaching is a complex and demanding multi-dimensional performance which involves:
a command of one's material
clear lesson objectives, well-planned and structured within the curriculum 'scheme of work'
knowledge and continuous assessment of the learning profiles and the development needs of every individual in the class
the ability to differentiate questions and tasks to meet the individual needs of pupils
adaptability and resourcefulness to think on your feet, and to change tack when things don't go as planned, which is much of the time
multi-tasking under pressure, in particular to observe, speak, listen and think; to be firm, patient and empathic, to hand-out and collect, re-arrange seating, operate a computer, solve technology glitches, write on the board...the list goes on.
strong behaviour management and motivational skills
performance skills, including posture, eye-contact and the monitoring of vocal pitch and register.
Wrongly assuming that teaching is mostly about imparting knowledge, trainee teachers (myself included) devote the majority of time to the first two competencies in the list above. These two skills evolve relatively quickly as they are the easiest to acquire. But they will only take you so far. This insight becomes very apparent the first time you deliver a really good lesson to one class, and then repeat it with another class only to find that the experience is notably worse. You scratch your head trying to figure out why, and then it dawns on you.
Teaching is really about creating the conditions for learning. Conditions where everyone can learn and find their own way, i.e. learning to learn. Each class and each day has its own unique variables, and it is the remaining six items on the list above which have the most impact on student engagement. These skills take much longer to master: some say at least five years, others ten. I had around 150 students to get to know quickly. Each class had around 25 students. Just remembering their faces and names seemed like a mountain to climb, before even thinking about managing disruptive behaviour or differentiating tasks and questions to meet their individual needs and learning profiles.
These things might sound like negatives, but I've listed them on the positive side of the experience because they are worthy goals and nobody was expecting miracles. There was lots of encouragement, both from colleagues and students. I often saw the impact of the hard work I put in and some competencies grew quite quickly. I was generally quite aware of my weaknesses as a teacher, some of which were consistent with my MBTI profile. They say that new teachers have a tendency to veer towards teaching either to the top or to the bottom of the class. In my case it was towards the top, pitching the lesson content quite high in the hope that the discourse with the brighter students would encourage and lift the ones who were struggling. This aspirational approach exploits some form of FOMO, the fear of missing out. It sometimes worked, but sometimes students switched-off and really did miss out. I made adjustments to my techniques and slowly started to discover the joys of seeing more inclusive engagement across my classes.
The downsides of teaching
After her first year of teaching, Lucy Kellaway (see pevious section) switched from full-time to three days per week. She has publicly stated that teaching full-time is 'unendurably hard-work'. I agree with her. I fear that being a full-time teacher is an unsustainable or unrewarding long-term career choice for most people.
Stating this so baldly risks drawing criticism for being naive in my unreasonably high expectations about the profession. I still think it needs saying. This is because not saying it means accepting the unacceptable status quo of the plight of teachers in this country.
My Esher colleagues were all good teachers and some may disagree with my view. But in the two years I was at the college there was a very high staff turnover rate in the English department, even though it was regarded as a relatively desirable place to teach.
In my summary of Dr Mary Bousted's book Support not Surveillance: How to Solve the Teacher Retention Crisis (2022) I outline my thoughts on this complex topic (link here). In the context of my personal journey, I'll just focus on my own subjective experiences. Listed below are the three main reasons why I chose not to continue teaching beyond my second year:
Class size. There were occasions when, due to absences, my classes would be fewer than 20 students, sometimes as low as 15. These classes were much more satisfying, both for me and for the students. John Hattie's 2008 book, Visible Learning, is sometimes cited disingenuously to challenge the popular misconception about the positive impact of smaller class-sizes on learning outcomes. I don't disagree with Hattie's many conclusions. They are drawn from analysis of over 800 other studies to examine and rank all the factors which have a measurable impact on student learning. In the aggregate, class-size is low on the list. However, like many things in life, context is critical if one is to understand the complexity of social phenomena.
Optimal class size depends on many variables including the lesson content, the learning objectives, the profile and expectations of the learners and the skills and disposition of the teacher. As far as I was concerned, A-level classes of 25 students were very difficult. Whilst I understand the economic constraints of state-funded education, this model of teaching was, at least for me, too inefficient and exhausting to be sustainable and rewarding over the long term.
Marking. This might seem like a surprising one to highlight. Illegible handwriting, poor grammar and endless repetition is bad enough. The real killer is the fact that only the brightest students take any notice of the comments you write on their essays. Most only look at the grade and ignore the significant efforts you've made to help them learn and to improve their writing style. Ideally, one-to-one sessions with students should be part of the process, but practically there just isn't time.
Marking essays is necessary, but really is a terrible return on time spent. It is one of the most demoralising activities I've ever encountered and is usually done in the evenings and at weekends. In time, technology will help, especially when handwritten scripts become obsolete. But the sector is change-averse and technology solutions are still some years away, at least for A-level essays.
College management and leadership. Personally, I felt very well looked after by my Department Head and by my two mentors. By contrast, my observations of how they and other colleagues were treated led me to the conclusion that the college leadership team thought of its teachers as commodities rather than as individuals. This was clearly reflected in the high staff-turnover rate.
I have been very fortunate to have always worked in environments which have valued individuals and their professional development. Sadly the college did not seem to recognise the importance of nurturing talent. I'm not sure if this is a widespread phenomenon which might relate to the lack of management training for teachers who end up in leadership positions. The problem might also relate to the education sector's resistance (certainly within unions) to the kinds of professional development solutions* that operate in other sectors. Before I left Esher College, and on behalf of my colleagues, I did speak to the Principal about my concerns regarding the treatment of staff. Sadly his response indicated that my message was falling on deaf ears.
It is tempting to think that choosing to teach as a mid/late career change is somehow a charitable and selfless act of 'giving back' to society. Whilst I would very much encourage people to consider teaching, I would caution against placing too much emphasis on the 'giving-back' construct. It can be rather delusional and can also be perceived as patronising towards the teaching profession. In my case, there was no shortage of applicants wanting to teach English at Esher College, so I was certainly not filling an urgent societal need.
Reflecting holistically on my teaching experience led me to believe that my skills could probably be better employed by combining my interest in the systems and processes of education with my organisational experience. To that end I met up with Julian Drinkall, a former colleague from Macmillan. He had recently been appointed as CEO of a large schools' group and was keen for me to come and help him out. He hoped that my newly-acquired understanding of the world of teaching might be useful in managing the organisational improvements he needed to make there. So I joined him in 2015.
*My views on teacher retention can be seen from page 4 onwards in my commentary on Mary Bousted's book.
Towards education governance and reform
The majority of my time since 2015 has been spent working in educational governance, much of it employed simultaneously by two large groups of schools, one in the independent sector and the other in state-funded education. Between them they have around 80 schools and over 40,000 pupils.
My job titles have varied, but broadly-speaking the work has covered governance, strategy, risk, technology and compliance. Across these areas, I have experienced a growing interest in innovation and reform, and in finding ways to overcome the cultural obstacles which impede progress in the education sector.
Alpha Plus Group (2015 to 2021)
Alpha Plus Group (APG) is a private education group which owns and manages 20 schools, nurseries and sixth-form colleges operating under different brand names. It is probably best known for its Notting Hill schools, and in particular Wetherby School which is the pre-preparatory school attended by Princes William and Harry in the 1980s.
Each APG school has its own character and the heads and principals are relatively autonomous in education-related decisions and policies. The schools have good reputations and typically receive the highest inspection outcomes. Though its schools were well-run, the central organisation of APG back in 2015 was quite idiosyncratic. CEO Julian Drinkall was keen to professionalise some of the central management functions in order to take advantage of the economies of scale which should arise from managing so many schools.
Some of the organisational efficiencies achieved in my years at APG are a bit too dull to record here. I'll just mention a couple of areas which continue to interest me. They are both areas that have important roles to play in helping to solve some of the difficulties facing the education sector. They are also areas which can only evolve at a pace of change that is culturally tolerable for teachers and parents.
- Educational technology
Following the departure of the previous Chief Technology Officer, I stepped into the role for six months whilst we figured out precisely what kind of new CTO we needed. The first thing I discovered was that an enormous amount had been spent installing high-end classroom technology. This had been an autocratic central decision taken without consultation with the schools, and without sufficient planning and training of staff. Consequently it was not being used effectively, and in the worst cases, was deeply resented.
I soon discovered some other important things:
views of what educational technology really means vary widely. People often talk at cross-purposes and this is a major obstacle to developing solutions,
teachers were generally quite conservative and change-averse, resulting in techno-skepticism and techno-phobia,
there were notable differences between APG schools in their technology needs and attitudes,
there were a few teachers who were quite passionate about the potential of technology, but they didn't have much of a voice within the organisation.
To address these observations we developed a network of digital champions and a framework which encouraged each school to assess its own needs, strengths and weaknesses and to plan solutions accordingly.
Conceptually, the most important thing was to be quite rigorous in defining and differentiating four different elements of technology:
the curriculum aspects of technology i.e. what are the skills and digital literacy expectations for children at different ages.
the technology which can make teaching, learning and assessment more efficient.
the technology training required for staff. This included training in both administrative and educational applications.
the organisational technology infrastructure required to deliver all of the above reliably.
We presented all of this in a rather good publication Digital Literacy - The Gold Standard. Schools were expected to follow this framework to develop their own strategies based on their particular needs. Aside from many other benefits, all this effort resulted in schools being in a considerably better state of readiness one year later when the COVID pandemic struck. Schools were required to adapt quickly to the provision of remote teaching and learning and APG responded well.
Amongst the many providers of educational technology, I feel that there is one which deserves a special mention.
Century CEO Priya Lakhani made a presentation to APG in 2018. Her style can be overwhelming for some people. Her claims about the artificial intelligence (AI) credentials of Century are bold, and she can put some teachers off by being quite patronising about the lamentable state of the English education system. Her stimulating 2020 book Inadequate certainly put some backs up. Despite, or perhaps because of her approach, I have become an advocate of Century and a supporter of Priya's efforts to improve the education system.
The product offering covers English, Maths and Science for key stages 2 to 4 (pupils aged 7 to 16). I'm no expert in AI, but I am convinced that Century's adaptive learning pathways are valuable. As an initial test I personally completed most of the English spelling and grammar content. I would have loved to have had this product when I was teaching. Even though A-level content is not covered by Century, many of my A-level students had gaping holes in their basic knowledge of English. Century would have been a big help, not just because of the quality of the content and pupil learning experience, but also because of the analytics that help teachers to differentiate more easily and to intervene in a more targeted way. The technology in no way replaces teachers. It just deals with some of the heavy-lifting very efficiently. This means that teachers can spend their time more productively, focusing on the stuff that human teachers are best at. This seems to me like a marvellous symbiosis.
We did not force Century on any of the APG schools. We set up pilots at two of the schools that expressed an interest. We then observed classes, evaluated the impact and shared the findings with the other APG schools. This resulted in some schools who had initially been skeptical eventually embracing the product. In the case of Portland Place School, Century underpins its pioneering offering as a hybrid school, with pupils spending four days per week at home and only one day physically attending the school.
2. Rethinking assessment
I want to mention one other notable interaction at APG which stimulated my continuing interest in the education sector.
APG has very good annual conferences with excellent guest speakers. In September 2019 the well-known educationalist and ASCL General Secretary, Geoff Barton addressed the conference. Geoff's talk resonated strongly with my experiences: not only of teaching English, but also of the shortcomings and inequity of the education system in developing skills for life and work. Chatting with Geoff afterwards piqued my interest. 'Watch this space' he pronounced, referring to imminent recommendations regarding the replacement of GCSE English, which many agree is simply not fit-for-purpose.
This conversation occurred in the same month that ASCL published its excellent report The Forgotten Third. The report highlighted the wasteful and damaging concept of systematically disadvantaging one-third of children through the GCSE qualification. It included some very compelling recommendations about improving the teaching and assessment of English, some of which could also be applied to Maths.
Following this conversation I became optimistic, over-optimistic as it turns out, about the reform of assessment. It is an interest which I have continued to pursue through my role at Academies Enterprise Trust (see next section).
Academies Enterprise Trust (2017 to the present)
Strategy, innovation and reform
Meanwhile, I will contine to produce the education-related book commentaries that colleagues find valuable, and I've recently joined the Board of a new multi-academy trust sponsored by the charity The Skinners' Company, one of the ancient London livery companies. It will be formally constituted in September 2023 and I imagine it will provide another valuable perspective.
At the outset I had many reasons for writing down my story. One was to try to get a clearer picture of the things that have given me the most energy and satisfaction in my career. In so doing, I hoped it would help me decide where to direct my energies next. As I get older, I'm sure I'm not alone in spending a good deal of time thinking about how to make myself useful in the years to come.
Broadly speaking, I feel that my contribution has had three aspects:
critiquing prevailing narratives and shaping new ones.
In the long run, we can only be really good at the things that give us energy and satisfaction. My 'star-crossed' tale of words and numbers is a whimsical notion, but it has a happy ending. Words and numbers no longer compete for my affections. I respect them equally for their interrelationship and for their contribution to my understanding of the world.
Beyond respect, it becomes ever clearer to me that words are closer to my heart. So this is where I aim to spend more time: listening out for the voices of those whose experiences provide new insights, reading those who have already expressed their wisdom, and finding my own small role in helping new narratives to emerge and to thrive. Narratives that will eventually resolve, reconcile or transcend the knotty questions of our age.
If you've read this far and feel that we might usefully share ideas or collaborate in some way, please don't be shy about reaching out. Send me an email or connect via LinkedIn.