My Biggest Mistake: I assumed too much in dealing with a friend
Wednesday 10 November 1999
MY BIGGEST mistake happened when I misjudged a situation. In 1985, I was group managing director of the general publishing division of International Thomson. There was a change of chief executive when Sir Gordon Brunton retired. His successor decided he didn't want the general publishing division to be part of Thomson any more. I was instructed to work to sell the group, and we got to a point where Penguin seemed to us to be the most logical purchaser.
I was asked to have dinner with Penguin's CEO, Peter Mayer, who was a friend. The meeting was to see if we were of the same mind, and if bringing our six companies into the Penguin group would work. I described how we worked and what my ambitions for the group were, and I came away feeling absolutely certain Peter not only understood, but shared my views. On my recommendation, we went ahead and the group was sold to Penguin. I was completely wrong. I had misread the signals utterly. I had gone into that meeting making a fundamental assumption that somebody I knew and liked and trusted would think the same as me, so I read Peter's replies in a certain way. Penguin bought the group, and the publishing companies became imprints and their identities were lost. At Thomson we had been at pains to keep them separate.
The extraordinary thing was that I deceived myself, and when I saw what had happened, I was devastated. It made me incredibly wary and changed my view of the world.
It affects me every day and it taught me a giant lesson - that you mustn't make assumptions but you've got to be much more doubting and questioning about people.
When I set up my business, I questioned everything and we've held to that. It's much harder, but you've got to be certain somebody is right, and we go to great pains before we start to work with anybody. The benefit is that the relationships we have are much stronger.
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