Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swimming outside the cage

When my father retired after some 30-plus years of service to the BBC, he, like many of his generation, provided continuity to the convention of remaining with the same employer "as man and boy". 

I doubt anyone would, could or should claim such servitude today. Sure, companies big and small throughout the world can and do boast admirably of lifelong employees, but it's clearly no longer the rule.

US statistics show that the average employee will work for between eight and ten employers throughout their working life. Redundancy, restructuring, ambition, migration and social mobility all play a part in the ever-lengthening resumes many or most have by the time they reach the mid-point of their careers. Quite which category I will now fall into is open to debate, but - at risk of shocking some people - I am this week bringing to a close a near-16-year association with my employer.

It sounds hackneyed to say you don't know where the years have gone, but it really doesn't seem all that long ago I left behind life as a freelance scribe to accept the corporate shilling, and hawk TV sets to unsuspecting audio-video magazines. My motives then were quite straight forward: I wanted to buy a house, and no bank would lend to an unsalaried oaf, no matter how lucrative his work was at the time.

There was no careerism about it. "Why not?", I believe was my somewhat sleepy reply to the job offer I received over the phone after a particularly gruelling nightshift. With that agreement I placed a foot on the first rung of a new career ladder, starting my own digestion through a corporate system that has placed me in various professional positions in a number of locations in an ever-ebbing landscape of internal political, commercial and structural transformation.

At the end of this week I'll be leaving the company (Philips) and, by the end of the month, the adopted country (the Netherlands), moving to Paris for a new role in a totally different line of business. The political, commercial and structural landscape will be the same, however. The job - largely - will be similar. I will have to quickly navigate my way through a labrynth of new org charts to identify who-is-who, while calibrating the political radar to track who might not be a big fan of who. It will be a little like learning to walk all over again: actually it will be like a juggler learning to juggle again after a medical procedure that went wrong and wiped clean his mind. It will all be just a little strange.

First of all, there will be the learning curve of new cultural behaviours. My first birthday in a Dutch office led to something of a social faux pas when I failed to bring in a birthday cake for my colleagues - "You mean you don't buy me cake?". In France, I suspect, the worst of these will be, apparently, having to double-kiss everyone in the office each morning before you've even taken off your coat. Not being the most gregarious individual in the world before either my first coffee or 11am, depending on which comes first, I suspect this may be the first test of the office cordialement. Then there will be the adjustment to no longer being a part of the furniture, but part-idiot savant, part-Victorian curiosity - poked, prodded and stared at by suspicious and unsure eyes.

Someone asked me the other day how I felt after completing my final press event for my employer of the last decade and a half: "Oddly relaxed", is how I replied. So far I haven't blubbed, and firmly expect that to remain the case. Actually, it feels more like a state of grace. Mission accomplished, whatever that mission might be.

I've packed a lot into the last 15 years and 50 weeks, professionally and personally. But in truth, the fact that it has flown by is a good thing. I don't have time to reflect and, as cold as it might seem, I don't want to wallow. It's time to open the shark cage and go swimming.


  1. Some of my favorite memories working with Philips were our press events. All the best in Paris (and I'm excited to have someone to visit in France). They are lucky to have you. Godspeed!

  2. Hi Simon,
    We're really going to miss you at Philips ... but I'm sure we'll keep in touch!

  3. what a great opportunity for you and your family. I know you will be great, but I will come visit and inform them you loving like to be referred to as PO!

    And since I have heard that the French don't show for work until 11 you should be ok.

    XOXOXO Linds