Frank (above, third from the left) will be 80 next month.
I’m hoping he doesn’t mind too much that I’ve let his cat out of the bag, but I thought you should know. Becoming eighty years old doesn’t happen every month, especially when you still work two days a week for a large and successful organisation, which Frank does. Which matters to him.
It matters to me because Frank, inadvertently, gave me my first big break into middle management. He was a head of department in a large urban college, and had just turned sixty-five. In those days no one had heard of age discrimination, nor dreamt that retirement ages could soon push towards seventy. In fact, most people seemed to leave at fifty-five and take ten years’ worth of pension enhancement with them. Happy days. So Frank retired, just a few months past the then national retirement age for men, and his department was placed into my tender loving care.
I was touched. I felt so well disposed towards him that I even contributed to his retirement present. We all met in Elizabeth’s, the training restaurant in a college building long since demolished. I remember a slight sense of confusion when he ripped off the wrapping paper to reveal a smart brown leather brief-case beneath it. “What is a retired man going to do with that?” I wondered. Fifteen years worth of gainful activity later, I’ve more than had my answer.
What special characteristics do you need to thrive for so long beyond the normal end of a career, as Frank has done? Probably the same characteristics that Frank consistently displayed for the fifteen or so pre-retirement years that I knew him. He was a master of the Three ‘U’s. He could operate successfully Under the Radar of whatever force might have brought him to a premature end; he was Unflappable in the most flap-worthy situations; and he lived up to Unimaginably High Levels of Customer Service.
Like many people in FE, Frank had built an entire career or two outside of it before I ever met him. He brought with him hard-earned lessons from whatever cut-and-thrust world he had previously inhabited. He also brought a Ford Capri and a box of cigars that kept him out of reach and out of trouble when trouble was brewing. His itinerary for trouble-avoidance was well-known to include frequent but usually unspecific trips “to the bank”.
For a while Frank and I both shared a rather unique and, in other people’s eyes, slightly unhinged line manager. When there was trouble afoot the words “Frank the Bank” would rumble darkly around his lips and I wondered whether Frank’s absences were really due to a sixth sense of self-preservation, or to a genuinely complex set of financial affairs. In the eye of one particular managerial storm, one of Frank’s peers returned to the office to find that his entire work station – desk, chair and filing pedestal – had been removed and placed on the roof of the one-storey building.
No such fate ever resulted from one of Frank’s absences. The Capri would return in wisps of cigar smoke with tales of derring-do and business moved forward. The details of any actual visit to a bank were always left unspoken. In his very later years, when staffing levels and budgets were under constant review, Frank’s name would usually be absent from those review conversations, and when his name was broached, again he would reappear heralding contracts won or about to be.
Frank was also unflappable. Whatever he had lived through in his previous lives, nothing in our world was going to be sufficiently uncomfortable to distract him from his goals. Two episodes entered into corporate folklore and were no less true for the mythical status they soon achieved.
In the first, there was a negotiation with one of Britain’s largest corporate entities about costings for a ground-breaking national training programme that was being developed. The negotiators on the far side of the table were used to debating transatlantic multi-million pound contracts in their sleep. Our team worked at a college. No progress was being made and now Frank was talking. In despair, Frank’s then manager allowed her pen to roll under the negotiating table. She then followed the pen onto the floor herself. She stayed under the table. She didn’t come out again. With his manager lost to view, Frank kept talking. Unflappable. No one remembers what he said, or how long he said it for, but the contract was won, and well won.
The second incident involved an accreditation visit for approval to deliver the qualifications of a prestigious professional membership organisation, the ‘PQR’. The visit was going well, but PQR wanted to meet some of the tutors. There weren’t any tutors. Frank rang a part-time member of staff on another programme and summoned him into work. The tutor arrived, slightly dishevelled and wiping sleep from his eyes.
He talked about the role of the tutor, and his experience with several different client groups. Things went well until the tutor stopped everyone in their tracks and said, “Excuse me gentlemen. You have the better of me. What does PQR stand for?” Silence. Frank started talking. Those beside him again assumed the foetal position, held their head in their hands and started rocking gently back and forwards, back and forwards. Frank kept talking. Unflappable. Approval was granted.
As a business manager, Frank won a number of major corporate contracts for the college. His technique was simple, and genius. He basically moved in with the client. Shortly before he retired, he was chasing a contract to train around a thousand middle managers in one of Britain’s largest retailers. He disappeared for days on end, not to the bank, but to the potential client’s UK headquarters. He camped out in the Corporate Learning and Development office, to such a degree that I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that they had given him his own desk and clocking-in card.
Frank was there to make life easy for them, to solve their problems. No problem was too small, and no solution was too much effort for him. When it came to finding a way of designing and delivering their management training programme across the UK, who else would they turn to but Frank? Frank won the contract based on his Unimaginably High Levels of Customer Service. And being in the charge of the delivery team, he could also ensure that those unimaginably high standards were delivered – at least until he retired!
Since retirement Frank has undertaken a number of roles that have helped keep the wheels of the college’s business moving round and in the right direction. He has continued to pursue, and co-habit, with some major corporate business leads. He has worked alongside the Sales and Course Enquiries teams to support and inform their advising of individual enquirers. Hell, he’s even done some teaching himself.
In all this he has used his experience, expertise and general éminence griseness to contribute to clients’ levels of confidence and comfort in the offers being made to them, and to shape the levels of customer service that will be offered by future generations of staff. He has also been quick to point out his contribution to reducing the college’s non-pay expenses line. It’s so much cheaper for a pensioner to get around by public transport!
In May this year, Frank was rushed to hospital for a life-saving operation. For a short time it was touch-and-go. The surgeon did his bit and Frank’s indomitable spirit did the rest. Post-op conversations with his consultant went along the predictable lines of “You’re still working at nearly 80! What exactly do you do?” As a result, Frank believes he will be signed off from care with fully functioning internal organs, and most probably, a newly won training contract for the college to deliver.
Frank will be 80 next month. Round numbers have strange effects on people and it may be that he and the college come to a view that all good things do indeed come to an end, again. But for now, his contract has been extended once more. Age isn’t just a number and we should respect the different balances that each age superimposes on us all in terms of our strengths and weakness.
So here’s the thing. I have a great deal of sympathy for teachers who dread the extension of their retirement age and feel that they could not possibly stay in a front line teaching role until they are 68, or older. Absolutely get that and empathise with it.
At the same time, there’s something in Frank’s story that tells me that there can sometimes be a different role for those older members of staff that, whatever their rank or job title, is something akin to ‘elder of the tribe’ status. It is a role and a status that is about continuity and institutional memory, re-telling the stories and re-living the ways of doing things that reinforce the essential purpose and character of our colleges.
Don’t get me wrong. All our organisations need a churn of new blood and new ideas as each generation rises up to shape it own stewardship of the college. But at our peril do we lose too soon the generational memory of people like Frank, reminding us of who we are, and why we do what we do.
(Don’t get excited Frank. This is not really your cake. Sorry.)