Magazine article Management Today

How to Break out of the Box

Magazine article Management Today

How to Break out of the Box

Article excerpt

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? …

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