"I said to Shell, 'I do apologise for my classics degree.' They said, 'You have a trained but empty mind and we will fill it'." Today Charles Handy, the author of The Empty Raincoat and other guides through business landscapes, has a full mental tank. In 1956 he started his ten-year career in the oil industry; later he became a business school professor, a regular broadcaster on Thought for the Day on Radio 4 and Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts.
"I knew nobody in business but I wanted to travel and have a decent salary," he remembers. "When I accepted a job at Shell, my parents thought I would be standing on a petrol forecourt." He was a long way from that - or from anywhere. The 14 trainees on the three-month training course were handed 14 envelopes. "Mine said 'Kuala Lumpur'. I had no idea where Kuala Lumpur was." He did not return to England for three years.
For three months he shadowed his manager and then was given projects in pricing and distribution. "In my second year, I went to Singapore, just sitting around doing odd jobs. Then my boss said, 'London have asked us to appoint an economist for South-east Asia: you're it.' I bought Teach Yourself Economics. You can learn anything if you have to." That took up most of Charles's second year.
"Then the general manager asked, 'Do you know where Sarawak is? We want you to take over.' I discovered Sarawak was a country the size of England with 30 miles of Tarmac roads; the rest was rivers and lots of little airfields - literally fields. I found myself in Sarawak, not really knowing what to do. There was no telephone line to Singapore, just Telex. Nobody really bothered about the place."
He is not complaining about being left alone to get on with it. "That's a wonderful way to develop people; if you give them enough elbow room to make their own mistakes, they will learn."
After this three-year posting in South-east Asia, nothing was as good during his decade in the industry. "I decided that the oil executive life was not for me. It wasn't so much the oil but the organisational life, the corporate life. I like to do things my way."
He might have marked time for longer but was nudged into a career change by Elizabeth, whom he married during this period. She is a photographer and their joint book, The New Philanthropists, will be out in the autumn. These days, managements are less authoritarian, arguably because of the influence of wise business teachers like Handy. He became a professor. "Then I fell asleep in my own lectures: time to move on."
'Myself and Other More Important Matters' (£18.99, Heinemann) is out next weekReuse content