|Arsene Wenger feeling the stress at Arsenal|
When I saw him, it became clear that the stresses of managing Arsenal had been weighing him down and this burden has been lifted. I'm sure he'd say he loved it and it was all great, but having to endure the banners demanding his sacking, the chants and derision from the people he delivered Arsenals best years to must surely have taken a heavy toll and it looked pretty clear to me that he's all the better shot of it. I do wonder how long his successors honeymoon will last?
But this blog isn't really about Mr Wenger or Arsenal or even football. It is about having a toxic job. No one ever takes a job thinking "I've taken this job because it will ruin my life. I am lucky, my current job is perhaps a dream job. But it has taken a huge amount of work to build my studio up to the point where it is now. For most of my working life, it has run side by side with working as a Freelance IT consultant. I've worked for some of the countries top Blue Chip organisations, BT, Lloyds Bank, TSB, Nat West, JP Morgan and RBS. I've also done all manner of assignments for smaller companies. Generally I've been brought in by people I've worked with, on a word of mouth recommendation. I've had specific roles and the projects have been great, but a couple of the assignments have turned very toxic. When I was 23 I was lucky enough to secure a position as the Technical Support manager for BT on the Link ATM network implementation. I had previously worked for two years for the company that supplied the main switching software. Following a takeover, I was told I did not fit the role profile at the Software house as the new owners only employed graduates. I was advised to look for another job by my new boss. When the post at BT came up, normally I would not have been allowed to move to a client, but as Systems Designers did not want my services and I was one of the few people who knew Connex software in the UK, it was agreed that it would be mutually beneficial, as SD had a big vested interest in making things work.
The first problem I had at BT was most of the people who worked for me were ten years older and had been with BT for a decade. There was a bit of resentment that I had swanned in and not done my time. I managed to get over this hurdle very quickly when they realised I knew my stuff and that I was good at organising teams. The second hurdle was I had a big personality clash with my boss. She liked to be very in control and didn't like the fact that I would argue with her and had the trust of the client. One of the first things I did was request a Personal Computer to put together the support information for the team and the management information for the client. She refused and said that it all had to be written out by hand an sent to "the typing pool". To me this was ridiculous. The area of BT I worked for was not the area that had the contract with Link, so I immediately spoke to the account manager and said if I couldn't have a PC, I couldn't do the job. One turned up within days and she was livid. Other members of the team had also been asking for one for ages to do MI for the other systems we managed. I immediately announced that the PC was a group resource and they could use it when I didn't need it. This riled her even more. What was rather tragic was that the staff were really competent and they immediately started producing all manner of spreadsheets and graphs, that her management loved. Within a few months everyone had a PC, but she felt that this had "undermined her".
The project I was on went exceptionally well. Our team was lauded and she took many plaudits, but she was biding her time to get her revenge. This happened when my father died unexpectedly. I was devastated. I was 24 years old and I was simply not prepared. I rang up to tell her and she immediately said "You are allowed one days compassionate leave". As my mum was in pieces (three days before her sister had also died. My parents were holidaying in Florida at the time and flew home, that night my father had an embolism and died). I replied "I'll be back when I am ready". I was shocked by her crass attitude, but was in no position to argue. I returned a week later, to be greeted by a colleague who said "So you've finally decided to turn up for work". I was completely gobsmacked. I got on well with this chap and said "Do you know why I've been off?". He replied "Yes, because you couldn't be bothered to come in". I then told him what happened. He turned as white as a sheet. My boss had told no one of the bereavement, simply telling people, rather dismissively, I hadn't felt like coming in as I wasn't in "the right frame of mind". He immediately took me over the road to the cafe, bought me a coffee and said "wait here, I have to talk to a few people". He was mortified at his initial comment, adding "If we'd have known we'd have sent your mum a bunch of flowers". He then proceeded to tell everyone what had happened, so that no one else made the same mistake. He then accompanied me in to see the boss. He said "let me do the talking". He then said "why didn't you say that Rogers father had passed away?" She replied "I told him that he was entitled to one days compassionate leave and he replied that he would come in when he felt up to it". He said "He's entitled to up to ten days". She replied "Only if he is responsible for organising the funeral and he's got older siblings, so he clearly wasn't". He replied "Did you bother to ask him and tell him the rules". She replied "No". He then asked me "Did you organise the funeral?" I replied "Yes". As we have a large family, we all chipped in to do the work. As my mum was in pieces, we all had a lot of support to offer. She then said "When my father died, I only took the afternoon off for the funeral". He replied "That is totally irrelevant". He then said "Go home now, look after your mum and come back next Monday". I did that and he helped me fill out the relevant paperwork.
About a week after my return, she called me into the office and said "You may think you are clever, but I will ensure that you get no payrises or promotions for a minimum of two years". I was still grieving and in a state of shock. To her surprise I simply said "That is your perogative". I realised that I could no longer work with her. Although I loved the work and the rest of the team, she was simply impossible and I was starting to feel very depressed. Then she bowled another curve ball. She told me I had to sort out a staff issue between two members of staff. One was gay and one was ex military. The ex squaddie had stated that he would not work with the gay guy. As this was in 1986, attitudes were very different. I got on very well with the gay guy as he was into music and a good laugh. The ex squaddie was very rigid in his approach to work and very inflexible. I realised she'd asked me to manage the situation, as she assumed I'd force the gay guy out and this would upset me as we were friends. I took the view that people's sexuality was none of anyone else's business. I interviewed both and it was clear that the ex-squaddie was acting like a playground bully, in my opinion somewhat egged on by people who should know better. To her and the ex squaddies amazement, I concluded that he was being completely unreasonable and if he didn't improve his attitude, he should be dismissed. I had taken the precaution of discussing the matter with someone in personnel and they had concurred with my take.
She called me in to "have it out". She said that I had not done what she expected and she was very disappointed. She said that the squaddie was a hero and that the other guy was a "troublemaker". To this I replied that having spoken to both and to colleagues and personnel, this was not the case. She was furious "you have spoken to personnel without my approval?". I said "You told me to sort it out". She then said "It is so unfair to expect him to work with someone who is gay". I was amazed. I said "He's twice the size of the other guy and trained to kill. If he is worried, then it appears to me that there is something he's not telling you". After much discussion, it she decided to move him to another shift "to minimise the trouble". But she also told him that I'd said I thought he fancied the gay chap. A week later, he confronted me in the car park and said "I hear you've been telling people you think I' gay". As he was a big, very intimidating chap, I was rather worried for my personal safety. I calmly said "No, that is not what I said. What I said is that as you are twice his size and trained to kill, then you clearly have no need to be physically concerned unless there is something that you haven't been telling us. I did not say anything about you being gay. I just can't understand your concerns". When he replied, I had to try and restrain myself from laughing. He said "I don't want to catch AIDS off him". As you need intimate contact to catch it, he clearly hadn't thought it through. But as he wasn't the worlds sharpest stick, I said "Ok, I understand, I can help you now". With this he shuffled off, thinking that he'd won some sort of war.
Two days later, having visited a local clap clinic for info, I gave him a couple of leaflets about how you catch AIDS and how you can prevent it. I'd highlighted the sections that said you can't catch it from casual contact. I simply said "This should now allay your fears and we can all get on". I then went to see my boss and gave her a couple of copies. This did not go down too well. All of this on top of the bereavement was starting to really get to me. Then she announced that I was being moved off the Link project on to "other duties". That evening, I had a beer with a mate who worked at TSB and he said "We're looking for someone, it's not at the same level, but if you want to get out of there the money is the same". I realised that the environment was completely toxic at BT. Within a month I'd left. On my final day, my soon to be ex boss simply said "if you leave a blue chip company like BT it will be a blot on your CV". Years later I found out quite a few other disturbing things. All of which make me extremely pleased to have left. In the mid 1990's I got invited to a celebration in a swanky London venue for ten years of the Link service. My old boss also came. She asked me how things were and I replied that my career was doing really well. I also said that I still saw some of my old BT team, all of whom had left and were also doing rather well, a few were at the do, so we had a good chinwag. She trudged off looking rather fed up.
I think that emotionally, it took me about a year to get over the bereavement and the toxic environment I'd been working in, however as our studio grew, I became very pleased that I had had the experience. First, it gave me a real insight into why management should be compassionate, fair and reasonable. Secondly I was proud of myself for having the strength to walk away to a lesser job for my own wellbeing. Third and perhaps most importantly, it taught me that proper management is about earning the respect of your colleagues. My old boss was not a good manager. She didn't listen and she lost the respect of her colleagues by playing silly games. If you are working for someone like that it is very bad for you. Ultimately we all need to be appreciated for the good things we do and supported through the hard times. From a work perspective, the job we did setting up the first Link system was my finest achievement in IT and I was very young when I did it. From an emotional perspective, the period was horrific. The one good thing was that during this period, I met my wife. Lord help anyone without a strong family group to support them.
The great thing about a walk around Darlands is you have time to think about these things. I was really pleased to see Mr Wenger looking happy, fit and healthy walking around with his family. Gone was the pained, irritated look that seemed a constant feature of his final couple of seasons. Not that I suspect he will ever read this blog or value my opinion, but I'd advise him to take more walks and not rush back into such a high pressured role. You have to enjoy life and if work is a nightmare, you are doing yourself no favours. If a job is Toxic, move on. I am waiting for the first Arsenal fan to tell me "We should never have got rid of Wenger", I suspect it will not be too long should the season start badly.