I used to be a spy.
Not a heroic, brave armed-to-the-teeth spy, as you see in a variety of silly films.
I was head of the corporate intelligence section of a recruitment business I worked for. In fact, I was the corporate intelligence section. I got to be James Bond, M and Miss Moneypenny all at once. Sadly, there was no tricked-up Aston Martin or exploding pens.
Funnily enough, my predecessor WAS an actual spy. He had worked for a country’s Intelligence Services, and under his watch, the Research function because quite extraordinary. There was a rumour that he had dressed a window cleaner and strolled through the offices of a major competitor, polishing windows and having good look and listen.
Anyway, head office of our company – in the Netherlands – gave our office one day’s notice that they were transferring him around the world for a bit, and it happened on the same day I was telling my boss I was bored and considering quitting; and a few hours later I had a 20% pay rise, an office of my own, and a filing cabinet full of stuff.
“You’ll work it out”, I was told in the 5 minute briefing I got before my predecessor boarded a plane. “The job is to know everything that’s happening, preferably before it does so, and to find stuff out. That’s it.”
First day of new job, first five minutes and I was asked a question by the Executive Branch Manager. “There’s this guy called x*, he used to work for Company ABC* about 12 years ago. I want to talk to him about a role. Can you see if you can find him?”
In less than five minutes I was back. “He now works in Darwin, here’s his complete resumé, here’s his phone number, I’ve spoken to him and he’s in a bank queue at the moment but he’ll ring you in ten minutes”.
You see, it was around the turn of the Millennium, and I’d used this new thing called ‘Google’. Pretty simple, really, but I was instantly a legend. Right time, right place, right technology.
From then on, I got invited to every meeting; my opinion was sought on everything. My time was never checked on or micromanaged. I could disappear “out intelligence gathering” when I liked. I read three newspapers over several cups of tea every morning.
Imagine that. I got to work, turned on my radio to the ABC (news, talkback and oh, yes, cricket!), made a pot and proceeded to read three newspapers. In fact, I persuaded the company to subscribe me to all the newspapers at home so I could start on the bus on the way in.
I’d extract the racing pages and read them cover to cover.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. There was an incident where one of our competitors picked up a contract with one of the Executive Branch Manager’s major clients. He rang his contact in a fury, only to find the guy was dead. Turns out as the guy was also on the board of the Turf Racing association, his obituary had been in the racing pages. From then on, I read the racing pages as well. I started marking them each day with “NFDT” in red texta (“No-one F*cking Died Today”).
But the best part was hanging about tea shops.
You see, as many recruiters will tell you, an awful lot of recruitment happens across a table with two cups on it.
I remember once going out to lunch about noon by myself in a tea shop with a notepad to do some planning. As I was finishing up close to one o’clock, about eight people from a major competitor came in and started bitching about their clients at an off-site meeting. I sat there for two hours making notes. I had to keep ordering tea to cover myself. I was close to exploding when they finally left.
So life was reading the paper, drinking tea, making large pots of Darjeeling or Ceylon tea at 11am and 3pm and sharing them across the divisions (we had 120 people, and I justified this as “keeping my ear to the ground”), hanging about in tea shops, meeting with various informants (usually in tea shops) and winning awards for being so damn valuable. I acquired much expertise, often appeared as an expert in court, wrote lengthy and expensive reports. The perfect role for a know-it-all such as myself.
I also somehow acquired the job of managing the administration staff, which meant I could direct them as to which tea to buy. We had kilos of good tea coming in.
After nearly six years it was time for a change. I knew I had a job offer commencing about six months hence, and leaned on my network to get a six-month contract with a major competitor. I had to pretend I didn’t know who my new colleagues were when I met them. No-one notices the guy in the tea shop, nursing a Java Taloon and reading or scribbling in a notepad.
When I took up the bright new job eight months later, it only lasted 14 months, I was burned out, I think. I had much more responsibilities, and was more often to be found hunched over my keyboard; my tea drinking was hurried, the papers remained scantily read.
I found myself thinking back to happier times.
And so, I quit and we bought the tea shop. Not the best decision we ever made, and most of the problem there was a blindness on my part.
About a week in, a recruiter I used to work with was interviewing one of the assistant managers from a local baked goods manufacturer in our tea shop. It was clearly an interview, I could see both the resumé and the body language, and I’d interviewed the guy myself a few months previously. After half an hour, another recruiter I used to work with who had changed firms came in and took a table, only to be joined by the other assistant manager of the same baked goods manufacturer. Both groups steadfastly refused to look at each other directly, whilst casting guilty glances across the rows.
Made me feel quite nostalgic.
*names changed for privacy, and also because I can’t remember.