Learning not to settle for second best

Opening Up: Meryl Bushell
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The Independent Online

Meryl Bushell dropped out of mainstream university at the age of 18 after two terms and started work as a clerical officer with the Post Office. At the age of 44 she is now general manager for BT's customer service in the south, in charge of 7,000 field engineers. Having been branded as 'careless' in her school reports, she started studying for her OU degree at the age of 21.

What was your family background?

I'm one of three daughters and I had a very happy, ordinary, middle-class upbringing. I was born in Upminster, Essex and went to Brentwood County High School, which was a girls' grammar school.

How were your school years?

I enjoyed the social aspect of school and I was fully involved in all the committees and in organising things. I did OK but I never really fulfilled my potential. I got nine O-levels and three A-levels but, at the school I went to, that was the norm. I particularly struggled with spelling. My school reports often said, 'Meryl contributes well in class, has ability but is careless over her homework.' I think if you're told that you're lazy and careless you live up to that potential.

What was your earliest ambition?

I wanted to be a doctor but I never even tried to apply for medical school because I didn't expect to get good enough grades at A-level. I went to UMIST and spent a miserable six months studying ophthalmology. It was a big mistake and it was a good lesson in not settling for second best. I should have worked harder for what I really wanted to do.

What was your first job?I didn't know what I wanted to do so I took the first job I was offered - as a clerical officer with the Post Office working in telephone accounts. I loved it. I liked all the interaction with the public, it was very lively -

I got paid to talk to people! I decided to take an A-level in economics one night a week at evening classes. I got a grade A in one year, which made me feel quite good.

What made you start studying with the OU?

I have a stubborn streak and I needed to prove that I could do a degree. Half of my degree was in economics and statistics and the other half was in biology because I still have this incredible interest in things medical. The wonderful thing about the OU is that you can pick a combination of subjects you could never do anywhere else.

Why did you choose the OU?

Having done six months at the telephone accounts office I really loved it and decided to carry on. I applied for the Post Office graduate trainee programme as if I was an outside entrant and was accepted. To go back to university would have meant giving up my flat and income - and I already had the sort of job I could expect as a graduate.

What difference has the OU made - especially considering you had a graduate trainee post without needing a degree?

It made it obvious that I was prepared to put effort in to expanding my knowledge and I learned an awful lot in the economics and business studies courses that I was able to apply in the workplace. And because you mix with people from all sorts of lives I learned that just because you didn't leave school with a list of qualifications didn't mean you were not a capable person, which is very important as a manager.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Dealing with people - both customers and engineers. I like the jobs that involve interfacing with customers and feeling that you can make a difference.

...and least?

Generally, I feel that I'm able to set the agenda and that I have quite a few challenges. But I hate it when I find that we've let a customer down, especially if I think that somebody observed it happen and didn't step forward to stop it.

What are your goals for the future?

I'm now at the level that I set myself as my goal, general manager. There is still a bit of me that wouldn't mind going a bit further. But equally there are a lot of goals I have outside work. It is such a huge world and I've seen only a tiny bit of it. There is so much in other cultures, art and music that I would like to understand.

And I wouldn't mind giving something back at some stage, possibly in the voluntary sector for example.

To what do you attribute your success?

I am very determined and I work hard - not necessarily very long hours, but I am absolutely passionate about what I do and I believe that is an essential ingredient if you are trying to motivate large numbers of people.