Me and My Partner: The founders of a business psychology consultancy

Betsy Kendall met Robert Henry at Oxford University. Now they both run OPP, a business psychology consultancy with a turnover of £12m
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The Independent Online

Betsy Kendall

I first met Robert when I was a student at Oxford University and he was one of my tutors.

After I'd left university I worked for a student newspaper for a time while I considered my options. I'd pretty much decided that I wanted to be a business psychologist, it was just how I'd go about it.

One day I bumped into Robert in the street and we stopped for a chat. He asked what I was doing. In the course of the conversation he asked if I wanted to come and work with him, helping him manage the small consultancy business he'd set up, which later became OPP.

I saw it as an ideal opportunity to learn my craft, and helping to start up a small business was a lot more attractive to me than working in a large multinational company.

From the beginning he was more practically minded than you might expect of an Oxford don. He was always interested in applying leading-edge psychological knowledge to organisations, but he was equally aware of the challenges in actually making some of those theories work in practice.

We knew there were gaps in our knowledge and we were not afraid to seek professional advice. In addition, we've always taken an attitude of continual learning, particularly learning from our own staff.

In some of the more technical work there was an element of student-tutor deferral at the start. That was natural because there were some things he just knew more about. But pretty quickly we realised that we were quite complementary.

It is one of his gifts. He doesn't emphasise the subordinate relationship. It is much more of an intellectual engagement, about other people taking responsibility.

I'm more practical and organised than Robert. In many ways, I was the more responsible business partner because I'd make sure that we billed for things on time, that we had enough stationery, that we were planning and looking ahead. While he was off being brilliant I was gradually learning and hoping to become equally brilliant in future.

He's continually enthusiastic about what he does and optimistic that the plans we make are sensible and therefore will work. He likes to be looking at the horizon and thinking about how the organisation might need to develop.

The fact that we are both business psychologists has benefited our relationship. I know what his personality profile is and he knows mine. We know where we're similar and where we have the same blind spots. It's made us both more challenging and forgiving of each other and it helps us practise what we preach within the company.

Robert Henry

Like many university lecturers, I'd been doing consultancy work on the side for several years and I wanted to develop it further. I was approaching 40 with a good job at Oxford and a reliable income, which I was keen to hold on to. But at the same time I wanted to start a little company, an extension of the consultancy work I was doing.

Initially, I needed someone to do word processing because I had lots of reports to write. I bumped into Betsy, who had been one of my students. When we got talking I realised she had just the skills I was looking for. In addition, I knew she was terribly reliable, thorough and conscientious.

After three years of running the consultancy, I was unhappy that the psychometric products we used were badly distributed, so I wrote to the publisher and complained. The publisher asked us if we wanted to distribute them ourselves, so we did. We formed a new company, OPP, and rolled the consultancy into it.

Betsy is very versatile. She can take on a number of tasks and deliver them all well. That was invaluable in the early days when she was both administrator and consultant. She became the anchor.

I have a lot of ideas, sometimes bigger than I can manage. Betsy is more down to earth. I am poor at judging how much time it will take me to do something and Betsy is very good at that. I can also be quite pushy whereas Betsy is more tactful. It's almost like good cop, bad cop.

In the beginning there may have been an element of a tutor-student relationship, but in fact within a few years it had turned into something more akin to parent-child, but in the reverse. I was the child and she was the parent.

She would remind me about taking on too many responsibilities or fulfilling one obligation before I went on to the next one.

Our roles in the business initially developed organically, Betsy allowed me to do what I was good at and she picked up the rest. But as it grew, it got to the stage where we needed more structure. We often disagreed. We disagreed about how quickly we should expand and we disagreed over the way in which the business should be run administratively.

I was often wrong on those things and Betsy was right. But for the first few years I got into a very bad habit of countermanding decisions. I've since learned to delegate more and to make people responsible for their own decisions.

One of the benefits of working with Betsy is that we don't feel a threat to each other in the same way that men at work sometimes do. You can get more politics between men being competitive, but working with Betsy is great in that regard. I don't think she and I have ever had a row.