HOW TO BREAK OUT OF THE BOX - Carol Fisher moved from the brewing industry to the Civil Service in under three years - via a spell in the media. She tells Jim White how she broke through traditional employment boundaries.
Carol Fisher's office is at the top of an unprepossessing '60s concrete block in Lambeth. A bit of a box, really, hardly appropriate for a woman who has made an art out of breaking out of the boxes that too often confine our ambitions.
Visitors to Fisher's office are asked to wait in a foyer where they can watch some of the output for which she is responsible. As head of the COI, the Government's information ministry, she produces more commercials every month than some advertising agencies do in a year. A reel of the current crop spins out continuously on a television in the corner.
Amid this aural wallpaper about signing on and signing off, claiming and counter-claiming, chip-pan fires and the consequences of drink driving, one commercial stands out. It shows parents at a football match whose competitive instincts are pricked when their son's coach sends on a Down's Syndrome lad as a substitute. 'It's all very well but this is a crucial match,' complains one father, who then becomes apoplectic when, after the team is awarded a penalty, the manager instructs the sub to take the kick. The boy duly scores and the father celebrates momentarily before having the good grace to look sheepish.
The message is clear: never make assumptions about other people's capabilities.
In a different, less prejudicial, context, it is a message that most of British business would do well to heed. In a time of supposed flexibility and portable skills, we seem less willing than ever to throw off the old methods of assessing potential employees by the narrowest of definitions.
Typecasting, stereotyping, glass ceilings: when it comes to the way we are viewed in our jobs, most of us are still living in a box.
'I'm convinced now I could do this job whether it was producing dresses or aeroplanes,' Fisher tells me when I leave the television to be ushered into her handsome, pastel-coloured office. 'Management issues are management issues, whatever the final product. Yet most recruitment decisions are still made by putting people in a box. Unless you have made widgets before, it is assumed you can't make them now, and if all you have made is widgets, then no one thinks you can do anything else but make widgets.'
Fittingly for the head of an information department, Fisher's career is a remarkable commercial for the benefits of thinking beyond the conventional. For 13 years she was in brewing, rising to international marketing director of Courage. When she was made redundant following a takeover, she moved into sales for CLT, a media company, where, among other achievements, she boosted Talk Radio's turnover by 80% in 18 months.
After another spell of redundancy, she landed the top job at the COI, in control of a budget close to the gross national product of Chad. This despite having to clear several hurdles which are generally regarded as insurmountable at that level: she had no experience of the Civil Service, no experience of negotiating with government departments, she was unlikely to see 40 again. Oh, and she's a woman.
'I think it was a brave decision to employ me,' she says. 'But I think both sides have benefited from the arrangement. I've been able to bring fresh thinking and a fresh perspective, and the challenge of doing something completely new has invigorated me.'
The benefits for both employer and employee in widening the recruitment net are, according to Fisher, self-evident. If nothing else, by restricting themselves to one narrow field of vision, both sides are missing out on huge reserves of talent and experience. So how did she manage to persuade an employer to look beyond the conventional? How did she move from brewing to government in less than three years? And what advice would she give to those both recruiting and job seeking who wish to break out of the box?
'The longer that one is in a single industry, the harder it is to move,' she says. 'In a sense this is the problem of my generation: the certainties of a job for life have disappeared before our eyes, but we are not equipped to deal with that fact. The next generation are much happier with the idea of moving from job to job, role to role. As it happens, I don't think I would have been able to move into this job straight from brewing. What my spell in media did was to demonstrate a certain flexibility of mind, which is really the most vital asset. So I suppose the first piece of advice I'd give is, don't think of your next job as your last job. It may just be the stepping stone to the next one.'
She also believes that, although it didn't seem so at the time, her spell of redundancy was invaluable. 'Redundancy forces you to think,' she says of her two periods of joblessness, which together totalled nearly a year.
'It allows you the time to re-assess your previous job. You may well have been inside a box, but you were doing all sorts of things within it that could prove attractive to potential employers in other areas - other areas to which you might well be fundamentally more suited.'
Which sounds a bit like the character Derek Smalls in the film Spinal Tap, who, reflecting on his rock band's demise and the consequent opportunity to pursue other projects, says: 'Some people would envy us. I envy us.' Some people, however, do not find redundancy a remotely liberating time, experiencing a debilitating decline in self-esteem, morale and bank account. Far from taking the opportunity to change gear and break out of the box, surely, for most people, redundancy just creates anxiety about getting another job, any job, as quickly as possible.
'That can be true,' says Fisher. 'And I admit I was lucky to be financially cushioned by a good settlement. But I would advise people made redundant not to jump at the first job offer that comes along.
Keep yourself active, keep yourself noticed, network like crazy. Contacts lead you to contacts lead you to contacts. I took three months simply assessing what I wanted to do and focused on what I really had to offer a potential employer. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that redundancy does not have the stigma it did 10 years ago. You must not fall into the trap of thinking it is all your fault.'
Note there is no mention of the words head or hunter in Fisher's game plan. Despite the fact head-hunters are usually the first recourse most executives turn to the moment they are made redundant, Fisher is no fan of the breed, believing they are all too keen on categories and pigeonholes.
'I heard Marjorie Scardino give a talk recently and she said head-hunters are unbelievably blinkered. Even when asked for creative suggestions, they don't think outside the box,' she says. 'I'd have to agree with that, although in their defence I imagine they'd say it's because employers don't really mean it. At the top level of recruitment, most employers are risk averse. And the easiest way of avoiding taking a risk is to offer a conservative choice.'
Not surprisingly, Fran Minogue, a senior partner at Norman Broadbent, the head-hunters, disagrees. 'Well, I used to be in industry and now I'm a head-hunter, so that immediately shows a certain ability to think outside the box,' she says. 'There's such a shortage of good senior management that more and more clients are prepared to look outside their discipline, particularly in new technologies where there isn't the pool of experience. Plus, what is the point of coming to me if all I do is present you with a list of the usual suspects? You could have done that yourself. I don't think I would be doing my job properly if I didn't bring lateral thinking to the party. That said, I believe wherever a manager has come from, they have to have empathy for a product category, some sympathy and feeling.'
But Fisher believes that however assiduous a head-hunter, however prepared they are to think imaginatively when offering candidates for jobs, they will never be the most important factor in helping a client find a new direction. Fundamentally, unless someone makes a conscious effort to break out, they will never will. The biggest urge to categorise and typecast comes from the employees themselves.
'For so many people, their job defines who they are,' says Fisher. 'You meet people at parties and the first thing they tell you is that they are the financial director of a major investment house. They are immediately putting themselves in a box, suggesting to the world that the only way they can be identified is as a finance director of a major investment house.'
So, how do you break out? Fisher's tips include spending time (up to three months) refining a CV to ensure it gives a picture of who you are while avoiding the tedious minutiae of experience.
'It's your sales document, the thing that presents your USP,' she says.
'You'd be amazed at how many people send me 10-and 20-page CVs. If you haven't grabbed someone's attention after one side of paper, forget it.
'Another thing I'll say: when you're writing a letter, never put your age. It's the biggest box of all. And while you can understand why Kiss FM, say, may legitimately not be interested in a sales executive over 40, it is often the least relevant box.
'Finally, if you are lucky enough to land an interview, for goodness sake do your homework. There's no point trying to break out of your box if you make no attempt to find out about those interviewing you. The most attractive thing for an employer in candidates is that they are interested in their business. I can't tell you how many people used to come to me for jobs when I was in radio who hadn't listened to my station. Never mind the box - their applications went straight in the bin.'
So, now that she is on the other side of the fence, in charge of a serious government department and 350 staff, the big question is: when it comes to recruiting, can Carol Fisher see beyond the box?
'Can I say that it depends?' she laughs. 'Obviously, if there are specific skills required, you have to look for relevant experience. No point employing someone to be a translator of Mandarin when they can't speak Mandarin - however energetic they seem. There must be a framework. But beyond that, I think the most important thing is the cultural fit.
'The question I always ask is: Will I enjoy working with this person and, more importantly, will they enjoy working with me?'
As they say, if the cultural fit fits, then wear it.