My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
Norman Adsetts OBE, 61, is chairman of Sheffield Insulations Group. After National Service and reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, he began his career with Pilkington in 1955, working in marketing and product development. In 1966, he joined Sheffield Insulating, which was founded by his father. He became managing director in 1970 and chairman in 1985. It went public in 1989 and today has a pounds 130m turnover. Mr Adsetts is also deputy chairman of the Sheffield Development Corporation and is soon to be chairman of Hallam University's board of governors.

MY BIGGEST mistake was losing an aeroplane. I had joined the RAF in 1950 for two years of national service, during which I was commissioned as an equipment officer. It was my responsibility to keep records of everything in stock at a large flying school.

There was a separate system for aeroplanes, which were normally in the charge of squadron commanders. In the event of a crash, however, the damaged plane was transferred back into the charge of the junior equipment officer, and the Air Ministry was advised. It was standard procedure - so simple that nothing could go wrong.

One day we were preparing, with great trepidation, for a visit by the Air Ministry auditors. I still remember the moment when they walked into my office and asked: 'Flying Officer Adsetts, what about this aeroplane?'

'What aeroplane?' I responded. So they took me to the single ledger sheet on which damaged or crashed aircraft were recorded, and pointed out that in my charge was a two-seater Gloucester Meteor jet trainer.

Then they asked me a straightforward and fairly obvious question: 'Where is it?'

I was dumbfounded. I wasn't just frightened, I was in a panic - mainly because of the aura of menace the auditors cast before them. You knew they were going to come and go through the accounts, and you suspected they would tax you with every single error they found.

You trembled at the knees the moment they walked into your office at the best of times. And now I had committed the ultimate crime: I had lost an aeroplane - which you weren't supposed to do at any time, certainly not in the Royal Air Force when there was a war on.

I could see from the record that it had crashed on take-off and had come into my charge. Eventually, I must have sent it off for repairs. But was there any trace of it? There was not.

I knew I couldn't really have lost it, but I didn't know where it was - and that was just as bad. At best it was careless; at worst, grossly incompetent.

The resulting inquiries seemed to last a long time, but eventually - to my relief - the aeroplane was found flying quite happily out of an airbase in West Germany. If it hadn't been found, I might still be paying for it. The reason for holding a junior equipment officer personally responsible for a damaged plane was to emphasise that it was something that deserved particular attention.

I was too young to realise that at the time. I had so many other responsibilities, and had made the mistake of assuming that this process was running as smoothly as everything else.

The experience left a lasting impression. It taught me a valuable lesson about paying attention to detail, particularly when dealing with something outside your normal routine, because that is when mistakes are most likely.

Don't be misled by your appointment as a manager - at whatever level - into thinking that it means you are supposed to sit at some isolated desk having deep thoughts about strategy. You will have the opportunity to think about policy in the future, but only if you are getting it right in the present - and that means taking care of the details.

(Photograph omitted)