My Biggest Mistake: Jeff Stanton - Quick solutions prove costly

Jeff Stanton, 50, trained as a chartered accountant, joining Hotpoint and moving to Currys, where he became finance director in 1982. He subsequently became director of rental firm Granada and was headhunted as chief executive of business services firm Cert plc
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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was to act too quickly without consulting my staff. I would put that mistake down to the impetuousness of youth: it occurred when I was 26 and had just taken a role as a financial manager. When I got there, I was amazed. It had a Dickensian approach: I had inherited a financial department of about 40 people, split into 15 individual sections in about 10 offices. There were lots of partitions.

I had been there for about a month and thought it was ridiculous. The first thing was to make a smaller number of larger sections, so I talked to the office manager and we decided to actually break down the barriers physically. We didn't tell anyone, but we came in on a weekend and did it. When everyone came in on Monday, the partitions were down and the desks - which had been facing the front, like a schoolroom - were rearranged.

My thinking was: this is good and everybody will be very pleased. It was funny on the Sunday, but not on the Monday. I had a deposition from the staff, who were very upset. They said they needed their offices for privacy. They also said that if they faced each other, germs would spread more quickly, and this would cause serious problems. I had to decide whether to say, "This is a load of rubbish", or whether to back-pedal a bit and say, "I should have consulted you". It was a company that had been doing things a particular way for a long time.

In the end, everybody accepted it had been a stupid situation, but nobody had had the wherewithal to do anything about it because they felt too many people would be upset. My job, after the change, was to use some charm and say, "I've done it now: let's see how it goes." The problems could have been avoided by taking things more slowly: it was about managing change. I can't remember people skills being part of my accountancy course.

It was a lesson for the future, and as I have changed roles and become more senior and been involved in acquisitions, I've learnt that things are never what you expect. At one company, I took over a similar company and we spent ages producing a detailed plan, only to find it wasn't exactly what we anticipated. I have learnt to say, count to 10, and don't try to change anything until you have been working in that environment for a length of time.

At Cert, we acquired a new sales business last August and we committed to the people we bought it from that we would not change until 1999. Until you are involved in the business, you cannot understand it. It's easy to come up with a quick answer that proves to be an expensive mistake.