My mentor dates back to my earliest days with Informa, when I became HR director at what was then part of the Corporation of Lloyds of London.
He was Iain Lindsay-Smith, then deputy chief executive, and a very experienced journalist who had at one time been editor of the Yorkshire Post. He was a real character, a bagpipe-playing Scot.
It was my first senior HR role but, having arrived there from Xerox, I was initially very uncertain about the culture, which was very civil service-orientated. There were six unions to represent 300 staff, and to begin with, I really couldn’t hack it. It was Iain who convinced me to stay. He said: “Keith, this is not commercial – but you and I are going to change it.” He told me that I needed to be commercial and passionate about what I wanted to achieve with the business. He said: “Just apply that passion, and we’ll take the staff with us.”
And we did. We engineered a management buy-out, away from Lloyds, creating Lloyds of London Press (LLP) with Iain as chief executive. Throughout the buy-out, I worked hand in glove with Iain. It was a tremendous apprenticeship for me.
I was able to get involved in the commercial running of the organisation, too. Iain really gave me a helping hand – and he gave me that commercial outlook which, frankly, I don’t think I would have got in any other organisation. That has stood me in good stead – my experience is much broader than it would have been otherwise. I don’t think you can be an effective HR practitioner at senior level unless you’ve been a proper line manager, and can look down the other end of the telescope.
Iain was a very skilled politician. If I ever had a problem, as I did with the unions, he would say: “How about handling it this way?” As sure as eggs is eggs, it would work out for the good. But I wasn’t shy of challenging Iain, and he respected that too.
His mentoring was on a regular basis. Every Friday afternoon, we’d sit down over a coffee, to talk about the week. We knew that it was crucial to have good people after the buy-out, and I think we made some really good decisions together.
Iain was an influential figure. If the chief executive is pro-HR, as he was, staff relations will be at the centre of the company. He understood that people make a company tick.