As a newly hired writer on a financial magazine back in the 1990s, I was summoned in my second week for lunch with the senior partner of one of the UK’s leading accountancy firms. As my soup grew cold, he took me to task for my title’s ‘attitude’ to his firm, berating me for the numerous apparent editorial transgressions of colleagues.One particular article he’d read, long before my arrival, had particularly got his goat – a piece implying the firm was ‘ruthless’ in its employment practices.
He became especially enraged while I tried to start my main course, stabbing the peas on his plate as he outlined his ire, detailing how his firm had invested vast sums in new staff sporting facilities on the premises as an example of ‘how we care for our staff’.
Looking around the partners’ dining room for inspiration, the senior accountant addressed the waiter serving us and demanded: “What do you think of our amazing new facilities, aren’t they top notch?”
The waiter hesitated and then came the show-stopper.
“Yes, they are great,” he admitted. “But they’re only for fee earners so I don’t get to use them.”
There was then the most awkward of conversational lapses while we all absorbed the impact of the waiter’s retort and I finally felt able to tuck into my food. I could feel the embarrassment of the ever-present PR man while he kicked himself for his senior executive’s lapse.
For me the episode was clearly going to be one of two things: the best-ever diary story or an opportunity to build solid bridges with a top executive. I chose the second option and the accountant became a great source of stories over the subsequent years as he progressed to become a global figure in the finance industry.
But it was a salutary tale. You lose touch with the shop floor at your peril.