How I outwitted a bully

How I outwitted a bully

I sometimes cannot believe I am only one person. How can I feel and behave like a lion one day and a mouse the next? I was sitting in our City office in 1987 when the phone rang for me. It was to be a very important conversation. Peter Jay, lately our Ambassador in Washington was on the line. He had recently, and some thought inexplicably, accepted to play the role of Personal Assistant to Robert Maxwell, the now infamous owner of the Mirror Newspaper Group, ex MP, suspected scoundrel and the butt of Private Eye jokes under the pseudonym of Captain Bob. He had the reputation of being a tremendous bully, rude, domineering and ran a flotilla of five secretarial staff to organise every part of his life and ensure every need was met. I had interviewed members of his outgoing staff. His office was a revolving door of understudies to his senior assistant who had served him since his days in the House and shared an understanding and trust that surpassed that of the others.

My colleagues listened to me as I went through my dialogue with Peter Jay. It was Wednesday and no, unfortunately I was unable to make an appointment that afternoon. Equally sadly I was unable to free myself for any time to visit to take a job specification on Thursday in the morning or afternoon. Peter was surprised. He wondered if I had understood that I was being invited to meet the great Robert Maxwell? Oh yes I had but I had my other clients to consider and could not cancel existing engagement to accommodate a new client. I must respect my arrangements.  This conversation took place in the full hearing of my colleagues who were puzzled. We shared a diary and it was clear to them that my diary was remarkably clear of appointments. What was I thinking of? Well the truth was I was absolutely terrified. I did not want to meet Maxwell as much as I did not want to be in a tank of jellyfish or water snakes. I just did not want to go and if my Mum had been alive I might have asked her to write a sick note. Peter Jay persisted. Would I look in my diary for the first available time I might be free. Taking a deep breath, I chose the time most likely to be inconvenient or impossible – 11.45 Friday I squeaked out. ‘Done’, Peter said, ‘I shall rearrange his diary to fit’. Hot damnation and jumping frogs I had been trapped into a meeting and could not now with any grace escape.

The event hung over my life for the next two days like an eclipse of the sun. Friday dawned. Clothes and what to wear to fit the occasion always featured high on my list as an executive Teddy Bear to give me courage and supposed advantage of confidence. What should I wear for my ordeal? A prison outfit or one of my power suits?  In the event I chose a simple tailored grey tweed suit with skirt to the knees, dark tights and shoes, a plain white cotton shirt and a pale blue tie from my husband’s cupboard. Loose, blonde hair to the waist completed my ensemble.

I heard Maxwell’s helicopter overhead as I made my way to his Fleet Street office. There was the lift for everyone and there was the lift that swept you direct to the 7th Floor – his floor. The door opened onto a reception area filled with Arabs in white flowing robes, sandals and a lot of gold jewellery – and I mean a lot. From their body language I guessed they had been there longer than they expected or wished.

I was the only woman present with the exception of a receptionist who requested I go through immediately for my meeting. Peter Jay gave me a briefing, the understory being a request to be quick and try not to annoy his Boss. Nothing so far had reassured my sense of foreboding.

The Inner Sanctum was empty so I took a seat and waited. A white-gloved Butler silently entered the room carrying a silver tray with water for me. He reminded me of Lurch in The Munsters and I checked him out for a bolt in his neck – always a dead give away of a man made monster. Five minutes later, Robert Maxwell walked slowly into the room walking lightly for a man of his stature and carrying his twenty stone elegantly in his Savile Row suit. I stood; my hand was enveloped in his bear like but gentle grasp. And then he said in his rather beautiful rich voice, ‘My Goodness! You look just like a schoolgirl’. He had met me on my own ground. I can deal with personal remarks and was used to them coming from clients, who invariably expected me to be in my fifties with brunette hair in a bun and probably horn-rimmed glasses. This was my territory. ‘Thank you very much’ I said and immediately felt stronger.

We spent an hour going over the role he had to replace, venturing into the areas he felt important. What was liable to enrage him? ‘Ignorance’ came back the answer. Please give me an example? He told the story of how one of his political secretaries at his request called the White House and asked to speak to Reagan – and got the Chief of Staff Regan on the ‘phone when he had wanted to talk to President Reagan. How annoying and ignorant was that? Considering the current speed of arrival and departure of the members of government in the US right now, it made the heart stop at how easy it would be to draw his anger, were he still to be on this earth.

The details hammered out, the great man rose to his feet. But I just had one or two more questions I would like to cover off before leaving. He sat down again. I explained that there had been some considerable churn in his office in the past few years and I saw no reason for this to cease to be the pattern. That being so I was unable to supply candidates who were currently employed as I had a duty to safeguard their record of employment. The candidates provided would be able to carry out the role but would not be from our permanent pool. Was he happy with this arrangement? He nodded his agreement and looked about to rise again. I stopped him with the words; there is just another matter I would like your agreement on. Yes he said a little wearily. Our Terms of Business require our temporary invoices be paid within 14 days. I would have the period reduced to seven days – with your approval. He paused at this, looked me in the eye and agreed. He went to stand up again, but reading my body language, sank back down. He foresaw my third request about to land. I explained that I liked to thank any person kind enough to recommend my services to another and that I did not know in this instance who that kind person was. ‘I never disclose my sources’ he breathed and stood up. I remained seated. ‘That is a great pity. I take a pride in showing gratitude and respect for those who help me on my way and I would like to thank the person, in this case, for his kindnesses.’ He remained standing. I remained seated. The handshake had not happened, the interview was not yet closed. It was a stand off. The silence and pressure was prescient. I was in a standoff with Robert Maxwell! He did not roll his eyes but the eyeballs of his mind were definitely rolling. But I knew I had him. It simply was not important enough a matter for him to take a stand. ‘David Kimbell’, he smiled.  This was the name of the Worldwide Chairman of Spencer Stuart. ‘That was very kind of him and I shall be sure to thank him’. We shook hands and the interview terminated.

Peter Jay took me to his office to see how things had gone. Absolutely fine, I said and explained the special terms we had agreed and that I would be sending the written papers for him to sign. I returned past the still waiting Arab businessmen to my office where the girls waited with excitement to hear the outcome of my adventure. That was champagne Friday for us, celebrating my survival of the faceoff, winning the business, but most importantly – if I was prepared to put my puny self through that psychological wringer and come out victorious then so could they!

The contract was honoured and we did brisk if exciting business over the next few years till the dreadful scandal of the rifled company pension fund broke and Maxwell’s body was mysteriously found floating near the luxury yacht ‘Lady Ghislaine’, named after his daughter. But every one of our bills was paid, every candidate placed grew in knowledge and prowess of how to survive at the top and some of them said it was the best experience they ever had, they were given so much responsibility. Certainly, being able to say they had temped for him even for a few months, added kudos to their CV. As I discovered long ago – it’s horses for courses in this world and there’s a special place for everyone to prosper.

But most importantly, I learned not to be a wimp and even if I felt like a wimp, not to behave like one.