Always pick your own time for the gold carriage clock

When you’ve spent years pointing out others’ mistakes, it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.

One of the classic marks of political demise is a failure to know when to quit. Margaret Thatcher could have gone on her tenth anniversary in 1989 at, nearly, the top of her game – many of her closest advisers, including her husband, urged her to do so – but she clung on and suffered the humiliations of the following year. Her protégé, Tony Blair, has done much the same – he should have gone last year, but now faces being harried and hounded from office, having cost the party he built dozens of seats in last week’s General Election.

The same syndrome dogs business leaders. Sir Rick Greenbury hung on unconscionably as chairman and chief executive of Marks & Spencer in the late Eighties, and the damage is still being felt today. Lord Weinstock did much the same at the old GEC. Lord Hanson knew when it was over (pretty much when his partner-in-arms, Lord White, died), but Lord King failed to see the writing on the wall at British Airways when a new breed of airline magnate, in the shape of “grinning-pullover” Richard Branson, took him on. The Saatchi brothers have never known when it was time to stop. Marjorie Scardino may live to regret hanging on so long at Pearson.

Those who criticise and satirise the powerful, whether it is in the political or the commercial sphere, should also know when to go. Press commentators enjoy nothing like the influence and stature that some suppose, but nonetheless we should know when the time has come to move on, before we are dragged from the keyboard ranting about “going on and on” or serving a full third term.

So I’m quitting this space – though I hope that on occasion I might be called upon, like one of Smiley’s People, to come out of my retirement and remember where some of the bodies are buried.

It’s been 18 years and I’m reminded, with As You Like It opening in the West End shortly, that this column has moved from “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” in the late Eighties, through its period as a whining schoolboy, into a proper soldier, “full of strange oaths… jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel”. It occurs to me that I’d better stop before the “lean and slippered pantaloon” appears or, worse, a second childishness, “sans everything”.

More prosaically, there were babies being born when I started this column who could now be applying to me for a job. Or to companies that I’m criticising. And that touches on a couple of thoughts I’d like to leave you with: I started this column as a journalist and I finish it as a businessman. I do feel that business commentators can benefit from running a business – it’s not as easy as it looks to the critical hack.

The second thought is even more practical than the first – the fact is that my business has grown sufficiently now to offer too many conflicts of interest in what I write about. I like to think that I’ve been scrupulously fair in my subject matter: in the event, the conflict has usually been at the other end, with colleagues calling me in a sweat because I’ve slagged off a client’s interests. But there comes a time when there is too much of that going on.

There are other good reasons for stopping, too. I turn 50 this month and next month I am due to be ordained into the diaconate of the Church of England as a non-stipendiary minister. Is this a mid-life crisis or what? If so, look out for one of those lifestyle columns in the weekend papers, complaining about modern standards of service and university top-up fees. That would be deeply conservative – the urge to resist change can often become irresistible.

The change I have witnessed most intimately since 1988, of course, is in myself. The early “wood-cut” pictures that accompanied my byline showed a young, sallow industrial correspondent; then came greyer (and less) hair, and now there’s the jowly figure you see above, who looks like he’s lingered too long in the Garrick Club.

But I’ve also been fortunate to write this column during a period of revolutionary technological change – when I started, I went in every Monday to Marketing Week‘s office and wrote my piece on carbon papers in a mechanical typewriter. I’ve never even seen the offices that the magazine has occupied subsequently, squirting my prose down the line from wherever I happen to be. It’s been a couple of decades that have changed the business world beyond recognition.

So what will the next 18 years be like? That must be for others to record here. Thank you for the letters you’ve written. And, finally, if you’ve ever taken this magazine, or perhaps just borrowed it, to read me: thank you for listening.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon


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