Moving people

Ghosted column 1

I wrote this for a friend a while ago and sadly the magazine it was published in has since folded – but it was great fun to do:

As a glass half-full kind of person – perhaps that should be ‘glass empty but it’s ok, I’ve ordered another bottle’ kind of person – I tend to look not for confirmation of how deeply the recession is biting but more for evidence that business and life goes on. And, of course, for those delicious green shoots of recovery – scrummy. On the face of things the global mobility and household goods markets seem to be weathering the storm surprisingly well and recruitment rates are up. And on top of this, two features of the relocation business give me great comfort despite the otherwise gloomy economic outlook.

The first is that pressure on relocation budgets looks unlikely to have any impact on the ability of assignees to overcome their ‘learned helplessness’. Indeed, for our sector at least, it’s reassuring to know that highly paid executives all over the world will continue, when relocated, to forget how heating and hot water systems and appliances work, what keys are for or to accept that no amount of money or influence will buy their daughter a place at Eton. The need for experienced and sensitive relocation agents remains as strong as ever.

Despite 10 years’ experience on the frontline of relocation I’m still struck by the way thrusting executives, and more especially their partners, surrender their competence at ‘being alive’ to external agents – and the way they regard this as perfectly normal. Don’t get me wrong, relocating is challenging on many levels. I myself lived in Russia for most of the 80s and am all too aware of the body shock that some assignees have to deal with; language, culture, working practices, accommodation, transport, education and health, not to mention the availability of creature comforts.

But, unless I’ve missed something, doors are still opened using keys rather than ego, houses and apartments are lit by light bulbs as opposed to magic, and the film Notting Hill was a made up story rather than a travelogue. Of course, agents are there to resolve the complex issues that accompany living and working in an unfamiliar land but every one of us has a long list of war stories that reveal assignees’ willingness to regress to the condition of well-paid babies. As the MD of a biggish relocation company in London I was called one Saturday night by the wife of one of our assignees demanding that I come over immediately – me personally that is – to sort out the bulb that had blown in her bathroom. Other assignees take on the persona of rock stars with those famous contract riders – substitute home-delivered sushi at 8.00am on a Sunday for blue M&Ms and you get the picture.

But alongside the demanding assignees – who, lest we forget, are the reason we have jobs – my other cause for hope in our industry during these recessionary times is the optimism and positivity of the people who want to work in it. Such qualities are essential if you are to deal with the high-powered, sometimes high-maintenance assignees for whom Ocado is not a grocery-delivery solution but a life-support system. You have to be confident and positive – it goes with the BlackBerry. And boy, are the candidates I see confident.

But is it wrong to think that in this economic climate, they might be more amenable? Apparently it is. Bright, shiny-looking candidates coming into my office for interview will happily set aside a newspaper whose pages are crammed with stories of rising unemployment and insolvencies, and interrupt me to announce that the role I’m trying to fill is underpaid or that they only want to work part-time, or not late, or not in the location I’m describing. They’ll imply that [Chiswick] is as remote a location for a relocation agent as [Mongolia or Tajikistan] is for an assignee – especially if they are ‘only doing this for a while ‘til I’ve decided what I really want to do’.

You have to admire their pluck really. After all, why should dire business conditions force them to compromise their principles? If they’ve shown flexibility in agreeing to use public transport to get to work, why should they be railroaded into further concessions, such as accepting a route that would require them ‘to cross a main road’? No way – surely the situation isn’t that bad? And who’s to say that an additional 15 minutes commuting doesn’t warrant a 75% uplift on current salary? Someone has to pay for the inconvenience.

Of course, it’s these exceptions that prove the rule that most mobility professionals are intelligent, educated, sensitive and professional (is that bottle coming any time soon?). But we do, inevitably, encounter the odd, and I mean odd, candidate who seems to have missed the memo about increased competition in the job market and squeezed salaries.

It’s often said that young people today struggle with self-esteem and I agree; some do. They have too much of it. But perhaps such unwavering self-belief should be a cause for optimism for all of us – it may be the very engine that will lift the country out of recession. Now, how does this door work again? If only there was someone I could call…