The people that shape us

Whether it’s a positive influence or a negative one that gives us that drive and determination to succeed, think about your own influencer; how have they helped you to become the person you are today?

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to write a blog today. So what has prompted me to write this morning? Well, you have Daryl Searle and his wonderful Business Coffee Club to thank for that. We met this morning on Zoom, for another insightful discussion and the topic was ‘influential figures and events that have shaped your business journey’.

Going around the screen, people shared their stories which were often deeply emotive, inspirational, motivational and informative. We all have someone who we look up to, whether it be a family member, a Hollywood film star, sports personality, care worker, careers advisor or the local postman. Most of these people probably have absolutely no idea what a positive impact they have made on our lives and how we live today; from a throw-away comment, a reflection on their own life, living with disability to coming through the other side against all odds, we have all gained something from it.

As with most networking Zoom meetings, I never prepare anything. I never even give it much thought until I’m in the room; I like the ‘off the cuff, let’s go rogue!’ approach, but I’d seen the conversation topic on email, it intrigued me and started mulling things over in my head. There are many things in my life that have given me that kick up the backside to make a positive change and I could spend a very long time and many thousands of words telling you about them, but I wanted to share this one in particular.

My Dad.

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My Dad absolutely hated his last job.

My Dad absolutely hated his last job because it wasn’t what he’d set out to do in life. It wasn’t what he had spent years learning a skill for; a valuable trade working for big brands in their commercial businesses. By trade, he was a foreman pipe fitter/welder – not earth-shatteringly impressive in the big scheme but he was damn good at it. I remember as a kid he worked away at the Mars factory during the week and only came home at weekends – laden with more chocolate and bags of honeycomb than you could ever imagine!

Back in the 70s, Health & Safety wasn’t really much of a ‘thing’ and as the years rolled on my Dad started to develop some problems with his eyes and eventually had to quit his job at Mars and get a new job that wouldn’t cause any more optical damage. Soon after, he got a job working for London Underground as a tube driver, which he did quite enjoy for a time (and so did I, especially when he used to sneak me in to work with him and we’d go for a crafty ride around the Circle line!). Eventually, his poorly eyes caught up with him once more and a few years later he had to give up tube driving and became a guard instead. By this point, he would have been in his late 50s and this was the part of the job he hated.

Over the years that followed he was stationed at Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Warren Street, Euston Station, Edgware Road, Oxford Circus and Kings Cross. Assisting the general public with ticket purchasing and travel routes day in day out wasn’t as issue – Dad was of a generation where courtesy, good manners, helpfulness and principles reigned, it’s just a shame that some of the detritus of society crossed his path. As a man in his 60s now, he was regularly spat on, sworn at and disrespected by the youth of the 1980s.

The worst day was when Dad was working at Great Portland Street and young guy in his 20s decided that he was going to jump the barrier and avoid paying his fare – Dad challenged him of course and this young lad pulled a knife and stabbed him in the stomach. With a bit of a belly for protection and the fact that my Dad was still pretty fit given that he was a PT instructor in the army and had had a physical job all his life before joining London Underground, he chased his assailant, caught him and beat 7 shades of s*** out of him before being checked out at the UCH. Go Dad!

Just when we, as a family, thought that nothing could top that, we fast forward to 18 November 1987 when Dad was stationed at Kings Cross on a late shift. Kings Cross is one of the busiest train and multiple tube line stations in London and runs far deeper underground than most single line stations. At this time, tube escalators were wooden and smoking was permitted in stations and on the tubes themselves; at 19.45 that evening a fire started underneath one of escalators between the platform and the ticket hall caused by a single lit match.

The fire quickly increased in its speed, intensity and violence as the flames ignited the oil underneath the mechanics of the escalator, creating extreme heat, producing suffocating and billowing clouds of deadly black smoke blocking the escape route up to street level for many. Commuters and even some London Underground staff fled for safety, but my Dad and his work colleagues stayed and risked their own lives to save the people who were trapped, disorientated and overcome by smoke inhalation. They worked tirelessly until the Fire Brigade were on the scene and without their quick thinking and bravery, the death toll would have been far higher than the 31 who lost their lives that night and there would have been far more casualties than the 100 who were injured.

I was 16 at the time (no Smartphone or Wi-Fi) and we knew nothing of the fire until Dad came home in the early hours of 19th November; his uniform ruined from smoke damage and his face charred and smeared with blackened ash and sweat, his head and his heart pounding and his unquenchable thirst for water. But at least he came home.

In the inquiry that followed, London Underground was strongly criticised for its complacency in attitude toward fires, lack of or no training at all for staff members to deal with fires or even any evacuation measures put in place. Many resignations of senior management in London Underground were accepted and new fire safety regulations were introduced; smoking was banned on public transport and wooden escalators were gradually replaced with the metal escalators we have today.

Dad and his colleagues returned to work once the station reopened and life continued as normal once more. There was no counselling offered, no training for future fires, and simply no care. The only thing Dad received from London Underground months later was a brief letter of thanks which I happened to find in the loft, mid-clear out, last October. That was it.

So, why does this make my Dad the biggest influence in business for me? Because he always told me as a kid that we have to spend a lot of years working, so find something that you love doing. Don’t waste your valuable years on something you hate, find something you love and something you don’t have to risk your life for… twice.

Maybe somewhere out there, someone is telling their story of how they wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that unknown man from the London Underground who stayed to save them. Maybe he has been a hugely positive influence in someone else’s life, not just mine, and never even knew it – the London Underground guard who hated his job – my Dad.