My first day at work, January 4, 1984. I remember being excited and nervous. People who know me well today would not believe it, but I used to be painfully shy. Until university I’d hardly been away from my home in South Wales, and although I excelled at maths, sport and music making me a bit of an oddball, I generally lacked confidence. My wife jokes that I was so shy I would avoid picking up the telephone.
Going to university was a tough challenge as University College London was one of the top Mathematics universities in Britain and attracted some of the brightest talent. It’s where I suddenly realized I wasn’t at the top of my class anymore. I wasn’t even near the top. For me this was devastating!
My first corporate job was at Xerox, a large US technology group, which at the time was renowned for its graduate trainee programme. I joined on the wise advice of my father who told me ‘Go and work for a great company that will help you build a solid foundation. You will have plenty of time and opportunities to figure out what you want to do in your career’. Now it’s key to understand back in 1984, moving into IT from a maths background was unusual. Most mathematicians aspired to work in aerospace or defence. IT was regarded as an entirely separate discipline with no real linkage. Needless to say, my professors were extremely disappointed with this unorthodox career choice.
I remember the 30 Xerox new starters I joined with were an impressively diverse group, with others having studied law, physics, geography, history, you name it. In my first few weeks we were given the task of coding a programme with a bottle of champagne for the winner. I’d always been incredibly competitive, and I was determined to win. Unfortunately, I had no prior training in coding; I had done poorly in the one class at UCL in Fortran, a now defunct programming language and found it extremely boring. Perhaps my only edge… I was a mathematician and I knew how to think logically and work with numbers. For two days, solving the challenge was all I could think about. I did not sleep and eventually won, but I still remember the party we had together afterwards.
Three lessons have stuck with me since my early days at Xerox:
- A great company will help you find your spark
- Always be yourself – be authentic
- Provide opportunities to let people thrive
First, the training I received at Xerox was outstanding. And the first day’s introduction to coding, where I realized it’s just about spotting patterns, was enough to get me excited and light a spark. Suddenly I realised, this is something I might be good at.
I’ve shared this insight repeatedly with my daughters and anyone who joins my team. A good company with good leaders will provide opportunities to help you find what gets you really excited. As a leader, I always look to identify what fires people up. That’s why I believe in our ‘CEO for One Month’ programme. It’s there to light a fire in young people by offering them a unique experience; to pull the best out of them, and ultimately ourselves at the Adecco Group.
My second lesson – around the importance of authenticity, I learned early on as Xerox believed strongly in targeting recruitment for diverse personality types to build high performing teams (hence the breadth of its graduate intake). On our induction day, they ran a team building exercise, and my team’s initial attempt was a disaster. Turns out, it was by design. They deliberately stacked teams with the same personality types, and then in the second part of the exercise shuffled the groups. The more diverse combination of personalities clicked instantly.
This is important to understand early on – being aware of your personality and brand helps you to work better with others. While we all should constantly strive to improve ourselves, it is important to be yourself and stay authentic. I believe everyone brings something different and valuable to a team, exactly for what he or she is.
The third lesson came at Xerox six months after induction. I’d been working hard and had become known as a good problem solver. One morning, I received a 6am call from my manager urgently requesting that I come into work immediately. All of Europe’s systems were down and no one could understand why. I was just 23, surrounded by far more senior and experienced people who were not too happy nor interested to have someone far less experienced in the middle of the crisis. It took me six hours to spot what was wrong in the code, and we had everything up and running again within the hour.
To this day, I am so grateful to my manager at that time for giving me that chance to shine. It elevated my confidence and probably changed my career. Opportunity, trust and good role models are what all newcomers desperately need, not just to succeed, but thrive.
Getting people excited and providing orientation for young people transitioning from school to work is exactly what our #ExperienceWorkDay on April 24 was about. Thousands of my Adecco Group colleagues opened our offices and branches for a day of shadowing and training. All, whether shy or confident, were more than welcome, and could learn more about the career paths they were interested, gained insights into what employers look for and how to successfully navigate a fast-moving labour market.