From James Milner to Elton John – 5 things I have learned from my year in the private sector
After a dozen years in the public sector, one year ago today I walked into the Salt Lake office of Laduma to a welcome banner and a warm round of applause.
I quickly discovered that all new employees get the same treatment such is the warm and enriching corporate culture of our company, but it was still a great start to my life in the real world.
On my first day in the private sector I also met Liverpool and former England legend James Milner, who happened to be in our office that day on football business. Which was rather a nice surprise.
Twelve months later, and on a day where I will be enjoying an Elton John concert with colleagues on a team night out in Utah, I have some reflections on my time since leaving the world or diplomacy and trade promotion.
I have certainly enjoyed the freedom that not being bound by a single, neutral employer (like a Government) gives you – I have managed to launch two podcasts, sit on a couple of boards and work as a non-exec alongside my Laduma role.
It has certainly also been the year of challenge and excitement – alongside some self-doubt and worry – that I had hoped for.
LinkedIn likes lists, so here are five observations on my time in the ‘real world’ or ‘private sector’. (for those who know me, or have heard my speeches, know I normally wouldn’t go above three on any list but my first anniversary warrants something a little longer).
1.) Things move quickly
For a growing company, a year is an incredibly long time. When I was in Government, there was a pattern to a four-year overseas posting and although we were able to achieve a lot, the pace of a change for a large organization is always going to be slow – even when you’re doing all the right things.
At Laduma, in just a short year we’re on track to more than double our revenues, have picked up global giant Microsoft as a repeat client, grown our UK team by 20% and brought in new marketing, social media, HR, sales and revenue strategies alongside reworking all our governance. You pull a lever and it has an immediate impact – for better or for worse.
It’s an exciting and pressurized way of working but its immensely rewarding – if not a little scary sometimes.
Good hires can make an immediate impact. Good decisions can make an immediate impact. And the reverse is also true.
2.) But it is hard
In my first two careers I worked hard and I was lucky enough to do well. As a journalist I would break big stories, win the odd award and provide coverage of amazing events or people. And I was congratulated and/or promoted for it.
In Government I was again lucky enough to have great teams so that I was given high scores on our internal appraisal system and, again, promoted and/or congratulated. A well-organised Prime Ministerial visit got me a letter from 10 Downing Street, well written policy submissions helped ministers make decisions.
But none of these things generate income, certainly not directly, and I was never ever a profit centre only a cost centre.
It will be obvious to those who have been doing this longer than me, but worrying about revenue is an odd thing. You worry about your colleague’s jobs, you worry about every expense, you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about where the next deal is going to come from. And not because we are not doing well, this is the best year in the company’s history, but because there is so much at stake. There is a pressure and an excitement to knowing that you can be creating employment and building an amazing business but it is hard – many people have written books saying that and I now definitely believe them.
3.) And people ignore you more
As a journalist and a diplomat you are privileged to have a certain level of access. You deal almost exclusively with the top of the shop, CEOs, cabinet ministers, public personalities. In Government, there wasn’t a company CEO who we couldn’t get hold of to set up a Ministerial meeting and I have been privileged to sit in rooms with leaders of some of the world’s largest companies.
In the real world, it is surprising how rude people are. Even people who I knew relatively well in my last life won’t even respond to an email nowadays – they assume I will be trying to sell them something (which may, of course, not be untrue). Laduma isn’t a household name (although we are working on it) and it’s remarkable how hard it is to get in front of people. I now see it is a challenge rather than a frustration but I was definitely spoiled in my previous life.
It is also a reflection of modern life, dare I say particularly LA life, how quickly you drop off people’s lists. Once I was out of Government the invitations dried up very quickly, even though I took on the British American Business Council presidency which is the sort of honorary role you would expect to be of interest to people.
I try (and apologies if I don’t meet this standard) to be as courteous to others as they were to me (before they weren’t).
4.) Corporate culture is so important
We used to try and do lots of things in Government to improve life for our workforce. And we did many great things. But we were often constrained by a combination of money and optics – quite rightly we had to be careful not to be seen to be wasting taxpayers’ money. And, rather unfairly, staff bonding or any form of enjoying one’s self seemed to be frowned upon by the Daily Mail (the standard by which we tested our ideas).
In the real world, however, there are no such constraints. I am lucky to work for a company where this stuff is taken so seriously. Some of it costs money, some of it doesn’t, but it is something we spend a lot of senior management time on and take seriously. Whether it is table tennis tournaments, poetry competitions, watching Liverpool FC games together (which we do a lot), paying for our employees’ qualifications or going to see Elton John, we do a lot and it makes Laduma a great place to work.
5.) Government is still amazing
This is not the place to talk about politics – although I am glad I no longer have to explain to people what is happening with Brexit and proroguing etc. But my love for Britain is undimmed.
And knowing what a great job my former colleagues with the Department for International Trade can do to help British headquartered companies such as ours remains part of our strategy. Like the companies I used to help, we are very happy to work where we can with the Government. We have been part of an official mission to Social Media Week in New York and are lined up to join in missions across the US and trade fairs and other events (in the interests of fairness, remember any company can do this so there is no special treatment here). The only special treatment actually happens the other way – I like to take my former colleagues out for drinks after such missions and make sure they are thanked in front of their bosses – because they do a great job and deserve more thanks from the
companies they help.
I am looking forward to what the second year will bring. And, as you would expect me to say, please get in touch if you want to talk about our award-winning immersive tech, want to be a guest on our technology podcast or want to have a whisky with me (either for podcast or for fun).
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