Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Not getting the Contract

As I headed down the motorway, I noticed the over head signs: 'Congestion J7-J12 - Long Delays'. Not good, since I was heading for an important meeting with some new contacts, and although I had allowed an hour's buffer, when the motorway gets indigestion it can take two, three or four hours to clear up.

Turning off the motorway a couple of junctions ahead of the trouble, I immediately run into slow moving traffic - of course, everyone is trying to work around the blockage - which eventually resolves after passing a set of traffic lights timed to serve traffic on and off the motorway rather than running parallel to it. After about ten swift miles, the pattern repeats, and again, and again. I pull off the road and ring ahead, to say I cannot make it on time. They say their schedule today has been disrupted by the motorway blockage too, and ask me to just turn up when I can. Eventually I turn into the car park, half an hour behind schedule, and hurry inside. Losing my hour's buffer has also prevented me from reading The Book ahead of the meeting. The Book is crucial, because it is the manifesto of The Man who owns the organisation, and reading The Book is what led me to this meeting. After a few minutes to lower my stress levels, I am shown into the presence of The Man's staff - acolytes, maybe.

I might have guessed from The Man's background (academic, maverick, big success in business through unconventional methods), but I am walking into a room pervaded with self-satisfaction. Dress code is jeans and lumberjack shirts. Furnishing is soft sofas with heavy fabric. Style is 18th century townhouse, knocked into farmhouse-size rooms, with carefully preserved uneven floors, and homely bookcases and tables instead of filing cabinets and chairs. My linen silk jacket, which normally serves me well as 'not a suit but not casual' and the silk tie against my made to measure shirt mark me out. Even the layout is contrived and spooky, I am placed with two women 45% on my left, and a man 60% on my right. Maintaining eye contact I would have to do tennis-style head swivelling.

A voice (middle woman) cuts through: 'To be fair to you this is just so we can get to know you a little, and you us. We get a lot of interest, and every now and again we bring several people in for one these meetings, at the moment we are not in a position to take anything further forward, in fact the last session was very productive so we don't have any needs in the short term.'

OK, fine, if you are wasting my time, you are also wasting your own which I think is unlikely, but anyway I'm here, so let's get to it.

'Tell us about yourself'

This is a question I hate. Of course I can talk about myself all day, but the question is, what to include, what is going to be of interest, what will help me pass the test this meeting obviously is, and get closer to the point where money changes hands ? I talk about myself, my drives and motivations, and the things I know and have done that are relevant to The Man's work, and how The Book speaks to me.

'What is it you think we do ?' From right-hand man, who I had not been making eye-contact with.

Another challenging question. The Book has 250 pages setting out what The Man's organisation does - or at least as much of it as The Man cares to make public as a teaser and sales aid. I wish I had had my spare hour to park up and re-skim The Book. I wish I had re-read the book in the previous couple of days. I wish I had realised that 'a chat to get to know a little about one another' meant 'the Oxford interview from hell'. I talk about a few key issues in the Book, and how they relate to things I have learned from elsewhere and have worked out and put into practice for myself.

'What is the important thing we do ?' Right-hand man again.

Is this an idiotic question ? - every organisation believes everything it does is important, or it wouldn't do it. Or is it a clever one ? - some things are more difficult to do than others, and that is where you have to focus more of your attention, but now you're asking me to guess at how your internal capability - which you have said nothing about - matches against the work in front of you. Or maybe it's just a shibboleth ? - we have many good offers brought to us, and in being selective there's no need to use rational methods, irrational ones will cut them down to the number we need just as effectively. I talk about what I think is important.

' We like to work with people who can very quickly understand how we operate. Actually X is the key to what we do, and Y and Z that you mentioned are subordinate matters which follow on from X. Our work is focused on X. Is there anything else you'd like to say ?'

Ouch. I have just failed. Time to stand up, shake hands, and head off back along the now freely-flowing motorway, telling myself that the self-satisfied complacency I have just observed - and to be frank, have reinforced - would not be comfortable to deal with on an ongoing basis. All true but an inner voice insists that it would be very nice to be wrapped in that thick comfortable blanket of Smug.

© Steve Roberts 2008

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