My best and worst decisions: Graham White, HR director, Westminster City Council

Best

The best career decision I ever made was to take a job as the personnel and training manager for Coats Viyella back in the early 1990s, in their carpet manufacturing site in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland.

Four weeks after joining, I was told the plant had lost £10m pounds in the previous year. But two things made this the best job I ever had. First, the site director, Clem Parkes, was totally committed to saving the plant, and second, all he had to help him was personnel and training.

We did it without new equipment or increased staff. We engaged the workforce, we trained them, we made everyone accountable, we took away quality inspectors and junior management and we worked together with a common goal that was designed to make the business profitable and to retain earnings for a large part of the local population.

Two years later, we broke even for the first time in years, and against all the odds the plant went on working for another decade, proving that the old platitude of people being your greatest asset really is true.

Worst

My worst decision was to take a role as HR manager in a very famous and successful printing organisation. My ego got the better of me, as I was headhunted with a great salary and package, including an excellent company car.

From day one I knew I had got it wrong. Within two hours of joining, each of the directors had met me and told me “we don’t need you”. By the end of the first day, all of the departmental managers had been told not to accept meeting invitations from me and by the end of the first week I was pretty well despondent.

But I believe in never giving up, so I got started and began looking for each of the director’s Achilles heels, whether it was poor union relations, failed recruitment or bad retention. One by one I picked them off and went bearing gifts that I knew they would not refuse. But it was hard work. When I finally moved on, they had still not accepted me, although were bragging about low turnover, great employee engagement and recognition and accreditation as a centre of excellence for skills training.

Looking back now, all of my experiences were important in helping shape my approach to my professional career, even the ones I didn’t really enjoy.