Lessons from the phone company

A mentor can be helpful – Mine was John.  John let mum and me have a room in a dilapidated terrace just off Berwick St in Soho (I had a colourful start, but that’s another story).  John was clueless as far as children go, but despite him treating me like a retarded adult, we developed a deep affection for each other.  John had a roomful of strange looking electrical kit and although he explained to me how stuff worked, he never divulged what he used it for, although there was a suspicion that he worked for the government.  Anyway, this curious young lad decided very early on that he wanted to be an electrical engineer.

Don’t always believe what an adult in authority tells you – Forward a few years and I’m standing before our Technical Drawing teacher; a Royal Navy war veteran who also had the job of careers master.
“What do you want to do O’Neill?”
“I’d like to get an apprenticeship with the GPO sir”.
“Does your father work for the GPO lad?”.
“No sir”.
“No sir”
“Well then O’Neill, you can forget that.  I’ll arrange for you to join the Navy”.
I can’t recall how I escaped the careers master, but I was accepted as an apprentice with the GPO.

Nobody loves a smartarse – On a bitterly cold February morning, standing atop one of the poles that I had recently assisted in ‘planting’, the gang foreman was showing me how to bind-in aerial cable.  I watched patiently while he did it wrong and then said… “that’s not how they showed us on the course”.  To which he replied “ok, show me how they did it on the course”.  I undid his shoddy workmanship and replaced it with my own ‘state-of-the-art’ effort.  He looked, he pondered, he said “yeah, that’ll xxxxxxx work, I’m off to the pub, here’s the binding wire you can xxxxxxx well do the whole xxxxxxx route on your own”.  When they came to collect me at knocking-off time my hands had frozen to the cable and needed to be prised off.

Be careful what you wish for – At the age of 18 I was assigned to a planning office and was bored to the extent that I was applying for any job that looked even halfway interesting, including Telex Controller for Dubai and Senior Telecoms Manager for the Gilbert and Ellis Islands.  Needless to say, I was always weeded out at the paper sift until one day I spotted an advert for a local management job in what I thought would turn out to be exchange design.  Back then engineers viewed managers as suit wearing (insert expletive of choice) who’d had half their brains removed and their mouths made bigger, so my mates were disgusted with me.  But from where I was standing it looked like more money for even less work.  Anyway, I got the job and they sent me on a 12-week course.  The technical part of the training was a doddle, but the course also included customer services training; dealing with complaints, writing letters, managing people; all kinds of stuff that I was hopeless at.  Inevitably they gave me the job of running customer services for West Kent so the ‘suit wearing xxxxxxx’ had the last laugh!

What don’t kill you makes you stronger – The first few months of my new career nearly finished me.  One persistent complainant, I’ll call him George, he called me a moron, was phoning and writing daily berating me not only for our awful service (justified) but also for my lack of letter writing skills (also justified).  I recall sitting in the bath one morning plucking up the courage to go to work when it occurred to me that the only way I was going to escape George was if he died.  On arrival at the office, a member of my team who was reading the local paper (yes, my supervisory skills needed development as well) exclaimed that George had indeed died…whoops!  Anyway, for me, and George I guess, this was a turning point; I knuckled down, learnt to negotiate, write a letter and manage a team.  Nevertheless, 18 months later when they offered me a different challenge it took me all of 10 seconds to respond “YES… PLEASE… ANYTHING!”.

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