Wednesday, 25 March 2015

A new chapter

It's time for a big change.

Last year, while working on social media research for Ipsos MORI, my department came under some financial pressure and I found myself let go. My colleagues said some very nice things to me, but despite going straight back there to do some bits and pieces on a short-term basis, something just wasn't right and I had a bit of a meltdown. 2014 was a pretty black year in many ways and I desperately needed to find the "reboot" button.

Early one morning, in an awful state, the obvious answer hit me. For the last seven years I've been volunteering to help keep the streets of Camden safe, and the solution was staring me in the face. The rain cleared and suddenly, with fantastic support from my wife, I grabbed the bull by the horns and applied to join the police full time. Like so many thousands before me, I will start at Hendon next week, and all being well, will be back there in four months' time for my passing out parade and a permanent new career.

It was like a weight lifted from my shoulders. My career has never quite gone the way it should have and for years I've indulged in other people's praise and concocted excuses which were partially true. I've been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I've worked with some people who didn't know their arse from their elbow. I've not had the opportunities I perhaps should have. I've made some dodgy decisions which could have been fantastic ones.

All true to an extent. But what I knew deep down was that, ultimately, I just wasn't very good at it.

It was a relief to be able to admit that openly. It feels refreshing to be able to write that here - no more "looking after my personal brand", no more blagging and bluffing and pretending to be something I'm not. I just wasn't cut out for research, didn't have the right working style, and while I just about managed to talk the talk, when it came to walking the walk, despite appearances, I fell hopelessly short. Policing is something I've been doing in my spare time for years and I actually think I'm alright at it and can make a decent fist of it full time.

That all sounds like I'm changing career for very negative reasons. But it's not all glass-half-empty: something else gnawed away at me as well. There's a guy calledJohn Sutherland - he's a cop in the Met and was my boss for a while in Camden. I had little day-to-day interaction with him - he's too far up the food chain - but every time I heard him speak I was inspired in some way and I always regretted not being to work with him more directly in some way. Years ago he spoke to a group of us part-time volunteers and we were chatting about the difference between doing it that way and joining up full time. He would talk about policing being a "calling" - that it was something some people were destined to do and that you'd know when you were ready. At the time I was a bit skeptical - or that at least it didn't apply to me. Looking back, he was right. All the rational reasons for joining are there, but there's something hidden, something that can't be described, pulling me into the Job full time. Having resisted for years, the idea of joining now feels like the most natural thing in the world. It really is a calling.

There are more tangible reasons for joining up, too. It's fun. It's something which has challenged me more than anything in my life, but a challenge I feel I've met pretty well. It's tragic and hilarious and frustrating and life-affirming and soul-destroying and awe-inspiring all at once. Perhaps most of all, it'll be something which I can be proud of. My life's pretty good but in 40 years' time perhaps I'll have children and even grandchildren and if they were to say, "Grandpa, tell us something interesting about your life" then would I have stories to tell? With any luck, not only will I have stories to tell, but they'll be stories about how I improved people's lives just a little.

I will miss being part of a lively organisation which gives game-changing advice to the biggest organisations in the world. I'll miss being part of such a hotbed of bright people, leading the way in their field. I'll miss tackling some fascinating problems, developing new solutions and being at the cutting edge in my field; when you can say hand-on-heart that you were the leader of an innovative field of research for the largest research company in the UK, you can be proud. For example, I'll look on a little wistfully that I'll never be involved in the exciting project with Demos and the University of Sussex, although I'm proud of having helped win the government funding for it; I'm sad that I never got to finish developing text analytics solutions elsewhere, too. I'll miss working with my clients, who ranged from internal clients, to global brands, to central government departments. I'll miss travelling to everywhere from Brighton to Edinburgh to Zurich to Copenhagen to Paris to New York. Most of all I'll miss some great times with some incredible people across the world.

I won't miss everything. I won't shed a tear if I never have to use words like "benchmarking", "stakeholders", "engagement", "consumers", "actionable insights", and "brand health" ever again (although I suspect some of them will crop up!) I won't miss endlessly browsing stock image websites. While I found a lot of market research interesting, most of it was the back-end mechanics of how to do good research, rather than the final output; there are only so many ways of exploring what role washing powder plays in people's lives, or the brand personalities of current accounts. The reality is that 90% of research projects are pretty dull - although the 10% of jaw-dropping insights that I would hear about from time to time would more than make up for the drudgery.

Saying "policing isn't a job but a way of life" is a soggy old cliché, but there are surely few other careers out there which consume people so much and define them as a person. Think of somebody you know well and describe them in five words. Was "accountant" one of them? Thought not. (My best mate is an accountant, and if you told him "accountant" was one of the best words to describe him he'd shove your face in the dirt). But policing is something that shapes people, it really is a lifestyle thing, but also a community. People talk about the "police family". It exists. Often police officers can be cold and aloof - especially to one another - but they will look out for each other with neither fear nor favour. When you find yourself in a sticky situation - one where you feel like you might imminently get badly hurt - the feeling that your fellow officers value your life and safety above anything else is one of the most heartwarming feelings in the world. Police really are like family.

Policing is, quite literally, a thankless task - cops are almost never thanked (either by the public or by colleagues, something senior and middle management alike would do well to remember). I suppose it's partly down to the fact that most people we deal with would rather they didn't have to deal with us - either because they're victims of crime, or because they're being arrested! The first 30 seconds of this video bring tears to me eyes every time I watch it - truly extraordinary:

I suppose it was inevitable that the goodwill shown towards O.B. in the aftermath of the nonsense of August 2011 would wear off after a while - it's a crying shame that the Met didn't manage to harness it more. What it did demonstrate,that when people feel vulnerable, when they feel violated, when they feel helpless, deep down they'll always have immense gratitude for people who'll do their best to keep them safe and secure.

Which is something I hope I can do to the best of my ability in years to come. And if people are a tiny bit safer and a tiny bit more secure as a result of my efforts over the coming years, I'll die a very, very proud man.

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