I was in way over my head....
My inner voice was saying: “What the hell are you doing? You don’t belong here!”
I was part of the initial project team for a Retail start-up in Russia for the European retail giant Kingfisher. I had worked as a junior buyer for their UK company B&Q, and since I spoke Russian, I fortuitously got onto the project team. It was a golden opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way – not even the fact that I was still a recent graduate with no management experience….
The board approved the project, and the first three months in the country were amazing fun. I was scoping out all the commercial aspects of the venture and was pretty much my own boss. The Kingfisher International Director believed in me. It felt great.
Then, things changed. My “proper” boss (the future Russia Commercial Director) was hired, and he immediately saw that on paper I wasn’t up to it. He was the most ruthless person that I had ever met and took any opportunity to belittle me, testing my resolve at every turn. He was an ex-Tesco Country Manager, and it was his way or the highway. Without even understanding the work I had done, or what sort of a person I was, he sat me down on the first day and said:
“You’re not up to this, are you? I’d rather find my own team. Maybe we’ll find you some project role that you could help with?”
I turned round, told him where to go and asked him to stop intimidating me.
The International HR Manager at Kingfisher had warned me that this guy would be testing my commitment in the early days, so I decided that defiance and stubbornness would be my primary weapons.
The first few weeks were a test of wills. Any opportunity to point to my inexperience was taken, and I felt zero support from him. I later understood that this was his style and that it wasn’t just “about me”, but I wasn’t to know that then.
I was sitting opposite him in a tiny makeshift office, and I have never felt so alone in my life. Luckily, we had an incredibly tight critical path for the opening, so soon we were so busy that he didn’t have time for too much open hostility.
I had passed the initial test. I had stood up to him. He relented slightly.
Soon after came test number two. It was time to recruit the commercial team. We had agreed that I would be in charge of half the buying team (with nine reports). The challenge was to find my partner in crime (in charge of the other half). There were two outstanding candidates. One was cold and calculating (not my sort of person), the other was warm and outgoing (I got on with him immediately). The Commercial Director preferred the first one, but he deferred to my preference, and I had my first little victory. The relationship thawed ever so slightly....
Then it came to the choice of who I wanted for my team. I wanted personalities – people who would sweat blood for the cause. I also wanted to find the most experienced people possible. The Commercial Director feared that this could cause problems – given my lack of management experience. I recruited nine of the best people in the market. We had an AWESOME team. My three direct reports were indeed all more experienced than I was, but I managed to bring them together. I guided them and coaxed them and their own teams to where they needed to be. Essentially, it worked out fine.
After a couple of years on the project and just before the first store opening, I had done my bit, and little by little our relationship had improved. My wife and I were having issues with having a baby, so we made the momentous decision to go back to the UK, which worked out amazingly, as she got pregnant soon after.
I was giving up everything that I had worked so hard for. However, amongst other things, I had achieved the respect of my boss.
On my last day, he came up to me and said:
“You did a lot better than I thought you would. You will be missed. Thank you.”
That experience has taught me that no matter what someone thinks of you, no matter what you think of yourself, anything is possible if you are determined enough. Sometimes you have to be stubborn. Sometimes you have to shut the whole world out and just get on with it.
Sometimes you have to say:
“I CAN do it. I know that you don’t believe in me, but I don’t care.”
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