As a teenager I got caught up in drugs, and at the age of 17, I was jailed for shoplifting. A police officer came into my cell and just said one thing, ‘Gen, you are worth so much more than this.’
Then he left. To this day I don’t know his name. But his remark turned my life around.
I fell into a job at a logistics company in Sheffield, where I was at university. It was a warehouse, so it was pretty much all guys. It was run on fear and the dictatorial management style of the people at the top. But anybody who had a spark, passion and enthusiasm got promoted very quickly.
Within a year, at the age of 21, I was running a team of 17 people, all older than me, not having a clue about leadership, but finding my way having jumped into the deep end. My team was responsible for all of the stock that belonged to our customer, the biggest satellite television network in the UK.
About a year into this I started to discover that where it was saying on the system we should have lots of boxes of satellite dishes, there were just big gaping empty holes. So I started asking questions. I was told by the warehouse, ‘Oh it’s just a system problem, don’t look at it.’ But it was my job to look at it. So, I started asking questions higher up. They said, ‘Oh, no, just don’t look at it, it’s an audit fault.’
But the more I looked into it, the more I found these boxes were showing up in places where they shouldn’t be. Over a couple of months, I found that the company had lost, stolen, misappropriated about £1 million worth of our customer’s stock. I was scared. I knew what the right thing to do was. But I agonized over it for about three days.
The stories I created in my head, from the basis of fear, overruled that quiet voice of my intuition. I made up every story in the book: you’ll lose your job, no one will give you a reference, you’ll have no credibility, you’ll have to go back to digging in the field and make no money (I used to be an archaeologist)… On the morning of the fourth day I walked back into the office, took my phone and locked myself in the computer server cabinet. I called my friend at our customer, and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ And I did. There was silence at the end of the phone. Then he said,
‘Wow, Gen, thank you so much. I’ll try and protect you.’ And I was thinking, ‘Thanks… but you’re not going to be able to protect me.’
I’d been asking questions for months. Everybody knew it had to be me. My life at work became a living hell. Every meeting was painful. I thought, ‘Okay, so now I’m faced with another decision.’ I called up my friend at our customer and I said, ‘Look, mate, I’m going. I can’t stand this any more.’ He said, ‘Don’t move, someone will call you back in half an hour.’
In half an hour the newly appointed Head of Supply Chain at the customer rang me. He said, ‘Gen, I’m so impressed with what you did, I want to create a job for you with us.’
That opened the door to my career in the media. For the next seven years I had several different jobs there. The positive ripples of that into my career spread wider and wider – and I ended up marrying the person who had given me that first job. I cannot believe the magic that has happened in my life as a result of that one decision to stay in integrity.
This article is abridged from Michael Smith’s new book Great Company, published by Initiatives of Change, 2015. ISBN 978-1-85239-047-1. Copies can be ordered at £10.00, including p&p, from Initiatives of Change, on 020 7798 6000.
Photo credit: CAUX-IofC Foundation