I hesitate to tell my story because it seems so boring, I’ve never seen it as a tale of social mobility but perhaps we too often define our lives in our own terms and my story may have meaning for others so, for what it’s worth, this is it.
I was born in Sunderland which was known only at the time for its shipbuilding and coal mines. I came from generations of coal miners, my Dad was the first not to follow that route. He didn’t follow his Grandad, Dad and two older brothers down the pit, instead he landed a job on the production line of the new television factory. I have scattered memories of that time. I remember my Grandad going fishing for our supper. I remember being sent into my Nana’s back yard to get coal for the fire (free coal for mining families!) I remember my NHS glasses, my pet tortoise and the joy of getting Monopoly for Christmas.
My Dad was the first in our family to get a higher education after he did an MSc in evening classes while he worked a full time job so it is he who broke that particular barrier. We moved around the country as he found better jobs. The local comprehensive school in Staffordshire was a step up from Primary school in Sunderland but in hindsight was probably the most distinctly average comprehensive school one could find.
My first summer job was in a cattle food factory on the production line. Working with men who’d spent their lives on that factory floor gave me a new perspective. One of the workers, who suffered from depression, walked out onto the railway behind the site and never returned. I resolved to make sure I didn’t spend my life there.
I worked hard at school – GCSEs and A levels. I realised there was some sort of leadership talent there when I was voted head boy so I applied to University and got a place in Birmingham on a course that eventually gave me Masters degree in Engineering. I was the first in my family to study for a degree full time. The friends I made and the confidence I gained there set me up well for what was to come. I discovered a communication talent – I had the ability to help people see simple paths through complex things and I decided I would use this. I travelled. I studied management in the US. I helped establish a business school in Kazakhstan. I trained aircraft pilots in the UK. I went into consulting. I rose to levels of global responsibility. I joined a Law Firm. When you add it all together it’s a long way from playing on the old gasworks in Sunderland to a senior role in the world’s best law firm. If this is a tale about social mobility, then social mobility is about taking risks. It was a risk for my Dad to break the norms and shun the pit. It was a risk for me to go to University, to travel and to take jobs I wasn’t sure I could do.
I’ve coached CEOs, Generals and Managing Partners on leadership and each time I have a moment of self doubt where I think. Do I really have anything to contribute to these amazing people? Do I actually have any wisdom to impart? Are they suddenly going to have a moment of clarity and say to me “what the hell do you know about it anyway?”. So far, none of them ever have but it still feels like a risk every day.
Something in your life might seem outreach for you. It isn’t. Most of our barriers are internal. All types of mobility imply risk because movement is change and change can be scary. Sometimes you have to start taking a step before you know exactly where your feet are going to land. Try it. Don’t worry about failure and just try it.
Steve Crags, Director, Leadership & Learning at Baker McKenzie.