THE BLOG

Talent, How Not to Train or Keep It...

15/05/2014 16:19 BST | Updated 14/07/2014 10:59 BST

Rifling through the pages of The Times after a fine and fruitful meeting with my publisher at The Fox in Felpham, I found a supplement entitled Employee Engagement & Benefits and some fascinating phrases about problems facing businesses from Andrew Benett, author of The Talent Mandate:

"Amid all the alarms being raised, we hear only rarely about what may be the most fundamental crisis facing most businesses today - talent. How to get the best. What to do with it. And how to keep it."

More specifically, Mr Benett went on to say:

"The talent crisis hasn't erupted because of a shortage of workers. There are plenty of people out there looking for jobs. The problem is that we don't simply need people with specific sets of skills, workers we can slot into place as others retire. Our new, vastly more complicated organisations require high achievers with vision and drive; people who can create positions within the company that we didn't even realise we needed."

Well, much though you may went 'em, Andrew, if my experience is anything to go by, you ain't gonna get 'em.

For though I was now at the apogee of a life which read like fiction, a published author discussing the possible translation of the tales of Dear Miss Landau from book's pages to the tread of boards on stage. An Asperger who'd made history and crossed America for the film star he'd met on Sunset Boulevard, defined by a former fundraising officer of the National Autistic Society Scotland as "a unique human resource" and (more obscurely) a walking piece of Scottish library history, I had not reached that place (and lunch at The Fox) courtesy of the care and development of complicated organisations.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Twenty-four years ago, an organisation supposedly in search of talent found me and put me on their first-ever training course.

Fans of The Simpsons will know of Mr Burns and his slimy assistant, Smithers, but might be forgiven for believing (hoping?) that such creatures don't exist in real life.

Would that I could tell them they were right. I met Burns and Smithers, all right, and underneath a precipitously thin surface veneer of charm, "Burns" quickly proved himself to be (in the words of another employee) a "schizophrenic megalomaniac" and (I have absolutely no doubt) one of the one in twenty-five business leaders who is in fact a psychopath.

"Smithers" happily confessed that "I always do what I'm told" and he and "Burns" set out paternally to teach us the business, basically by pressuring all hell out of us in the mistaken belief this would make us "thrive under pressure."

They screamed if anything went wrong, turned the classroom into a pressure cooker, mouthed bland buzz words and despite having dimly realized they needed to find good people ("Smithers" commented early on that they were expecting lots of ideas from me), reverted to type almost as soon as they got us through the door. It really did feel like the Stanford Prison experiment reincarnated.

At the time, I was an undiagnosed Asperger and these were unqualified teachers, acting more like like sadistic old dominies from Victorian Scotland. They most certainly did not have one clue how to run a course. It was a month of living hell which I endured in the belief that this was my chance, throughout which they said they knew what we were capable of, finally admitting they didn't.

From being on the supposed fast track to the top, I was fired. You do not want to know what it felt like to go from top to bottom so fast. I think another person might have killed himself or refused to accept the experience and blanked it from his memory. With the terrible clarity of the focused Asperger (and no knowledge there was any reason for my inability to learn) I faced my failure and set out to redeem myself - specifically by being published on merit. One of the hardest things in the world to do.

It took twenty-two years for me to reconstruct myself and crawl back out of the pit, during which I presented a cheery face to the world and hid the darker truth within. I once said to a friend that anyone going for a Sunday stroll through the depths of my subconscious would come back white-haired and shaking. He thought I was joking.

My course mates? They were placed in slots and did what they were told.

In the end I was indeed published on merit, but the road to that lunch with my publisher at The Fox was harder than anyone will ever know.

In fairness, I had my limitations, could never have worked full-time in the business I was supposedly "trained" for and had not then reached my maturity (I only really "peaked" at forty-four, when I wrote Drusilla's Roses) but the ability was there and very difficult to discourage, but both that first organisation and others seemed determined to do their very best to destroy me, while at the same time proclaiming their desperate need for talent...

I deeply doubt much has changed. They cannot change their controlling ways and the very people they need the most are those least likely to tolerate them!

Just the other year, I had an interview for a part-time local job. The HR man interviewing me was inflexibly set on putting me in a specific slot while I tried to suggest ideas to him he didn't know he needed.

I might as well have been speaking Martian.

In the end, feeling much like Morgan Freeman did during his last interview with the parole board in The Shawshank Redemption, I told him to go to hell and walked out.

(Extracts quoted from The Times, 4th March 2014)

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.