There used to be a small extension to a building society opposite Harold Wood Station. It was not perhaps a Stirling Prize winner, but it was the source of some pride for me, as I had a hand in creating it.
One summer when I was 19 I worked as a labourer. I learned how to dig holes, mix concrete, lean on a shovel and make tea. I learned that I wouldn’t survive on site if I came into work with The Guardian under my arm. And I learned a little about organizational culture.
We labourers sat on the lowest rung of a sophisticated hierarchical ladder. We looked up to the brickies, plasterers and plumbers; and in particular to the site aristocrats, the sparks. Everyone was aware of his position in the social order and everyone looked down on us.
And then there was the Management. We didn’t really know who they were or what they did; and they in turn didn’t endeavor to explain what we were doing, or to inspire us with wise words or visionary speeches. But every week or so, when we’d dug a significant trench or laid a bit of concrete (‘a nice drop of stuff’), a chap with a navy sports jacket and loosely knotted tie turned up. He didn’t say too much, just poked around with a stick, had a scratch and eventually said everything was fine to proceed. The blokes on site called him ‘The Man from Delmonte.’
You’d think that sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical organization with a distant management and a very limited understanding of our collective purpose, would lead to a disenchanted workforce. Far from it. We were happy in our work. We took pride in a hole well dug, a concrete well mixed, a job well done. And collectively we were boundlessly positive.
This was in no small part down to Mont, the chief labourer. Mont was tall and tan and young and muscly. He had Herculean strength and adamantine resolve. He spoke with a bright smile on his face and a rustic Essex burr that you’ll rarely hear today. One lunchtime, as we sat in our wooden hut, sipping sweet tea from tin mugs and eating Sunblest sandwiches from concrete-encrusted hands, he proudly revealed to me his secret: 'Do you know, Jim, there’s one thing I insist on in life. I wear fresh pants every day.’
You see, Mont was an eternal optimist. He had a phenomenal ability to put away yesterday’s troubles and to live life in the present. And his enthusiasm was infectious. Despite the medieval hierarchy, the lack of communication and vision, ours was a happy site, a functioning unit. It was a lesson I took with me into my advertising career.
The galvanizing force in any team, the animating energy, is enthusiasm; irresistible, intoxicating, inspiring enthusiasm. You can’t discover answers unless you’re eager to ask questions; you can’t create difference if you’re satisfied with the same; and you can’t anticipate the future unless you’re looking up towards the horizon. In my time at BBH we subscribed to the view that positive people have bigger, better ideas. I’m sure that’s true.
It strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of our industry, alongside creativity, is enthusiasm. And it’s an increasingly precious commodity in a world beset by Brexit blues, abiding austerity, global terror and environmental decay. Perhaps we should make more of it.
Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. In my experience Agencies are actually both fuelled by confidence and oiled by fear. Every business needs a little paranoia to inoculate it against complacency. Every business needs a few people that are angry, awkward and discontent. But no business can sustain too many of them. And it’s a critical role of leadership to manage that mix.
Sadly I’m not sure if my Harold Wood construction is still a building society today. It’s probably a coffee shop or bookies, blow dry or nail bar, Pound Shop or Pound Land. But maybe I’m getting a little cynical. I need to put on some fresh pants.
This piece first appeared in Campaign on 17 August 2016.