He prided himself on leading an orderly life.  Stephen was a successful businessman who ran his own publishing company.  The publications were all of the self-help, ‘you can do it if you really want to’ pop psychology genre.  There were paperbacks about healthy eating, healthy exercising, healthy breathing, healthy relaxation, healthy sex and healthy brains.  The books sold well and Stephen’s company flourished. 

Remarkably, Stephen, in his mid-fifties, even practised what he preached.  He rose early, grinned at himself in the mirror whilst mouthing ‘new day, new opportunities’.  After warming up with a series of slow lunges and squats, he went for a brisk 30-minute walk, followed by 20 minutes of meditation.  Each day he took 1000 milligrams of fish-oil concentrate, ate porridge for breakfast and was careful to have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables and drink three litres of water.  Stephen came as close to being a paragon of virtue as mere mortals ever can.

One day Stephen went to a ‘Business in the Community’ conference.  One of the speakers, using the results of a recent survey to show how careers in business were regarded as second best to those in the professions, spoke persuasively about the need to forge stronger links between education and business.  He concluded by suggesting that every business should ‘adopt’ a local school and explore ways to help teachers and students to understand and better appreciate the world of work.

Stephen came away from the conference fired up and determined to play his part.  He contacted the head teacher of the local comprehensive school and offered his services.  He rejected an invitation to come into the school a few times a week to hear some of the junior children reading aloud, explaining that he was a busy man, with a business to run.  Could he perhaps offer work experience to sixth formers?

So it came to pass that Oliver, a seventeen year old lad, arrived one Monday morning, looking decidedly bolshie, with a rucksack slung over one shoulder. 

In the week immediately prior to Oliver’s arrival, Stephen had encountered some unwelcome resistance from his management team.  They had made it clear, not for the first time, that they were understaffed and couldn’t possibly waste time explaining things to a naive student.  Oliver, they insisted, was Stephen’s idea and he’d have to take full responsibility. 

So, disappointed but undaunted, Stephen had spent time conscientiously planning how to give Oliver a sufficiently meaningful experience.  He had read and reread the briefing sheet that the school’s careers teacher had provided and drew up a plan for the week that contained ample variety.  It included: a tour of the office, an initial question-and-answer session about the company and its products, a couple of mini-projects scrutinising the business plan and some of the company’s marketing literature. 

But the bulk of the week was to be spent shadowing Stephen as he went about his business, including visiting a large trade exhibition in Birmingham and accompanying him on some customer visits.  Stephen had even persuaded his management team to agree, somewhat grudgingly, to allow Oliver to sit in and observe the weekly staff meeting.

Stephen was confident that he’d planned a model week that would be an admirable advertisement for the much maligned world of work.  Over the weekend, feeling virtuous, he even told his wife that he was toying with the idea of offering work experience for sixth formers on a regular basis.  She quietly suggested that he’d best survive the week with Oliver before making any long-term commitments.

‘Welcome to Healthy Publications, Oliver’ Stephen beamed, overlooking the fact that he was twenty minutes late. 

‘It’s Ollie, not Oliver.’

‘Oh, sorry.  The school told me you were Oliver.’

‘Yeh, but everyone calls me Ollie.’

‘Right.  Anyway, we’ve got a busy schedule lined up for you, but before I run you through the programme, let me ask you what you’re hoping to get out of your week with us?’

‘How’d you mean?’

‘Well, today is Monday, what are you expecting to have gained by 5 o’clock on Friday?’

‘I’ll have to leave by 3 on Friday.  It’s football practice.’

‘That could be tricky.  We’ll be on our way back from Birmingham on Friday afternoon.’

‘I can’t miss football practice, we’ve got a big game on Saturday.’

‘I see.  I suppose I could re-jig the programme,’ Stephen conceded reluctantly.  ‘We could go up to Birmingham on Thursday instead of Friday.’

Not, thought Stephen, a promising start. The boy seemed ill prepared and aimless.  Never mind, Stephen was confident that the various activities he’d planned for the week would help Oliver, or rather, Ollie, to see the importance of being reliable and purposeful. 

Stephen produced his ‘Ten Commandments’, a document he always shared with new starters.  He gave Ollie a copy and expanded at length on the merits of each point.  It read:

Do these things and you’ll exceed my expectations:

1  If you aren’t clear about something, ask.  Questions are always welcome.

2  If you are unhappy about something, always say so.  Don’t let things fester.

3  If you see something that needs doing, just do it (it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission!).

4  Experiment with different ways of doing things in order to find a way that works best.

5  When you make a mistake (when, not if!), say sorry and learn from it.

6  If you can see a way to improve something, go ahead and suggest it.

7  If you aren’t sure what other people think about something you’ve done, ask for feedback.

8  If something you’ve done is criticised, remember it is what you did that has attracted the criticism − not you as a person.

9  Choose to be purposeful and positive rather than aimless and negative.  The choice is yours!

10  Use work as an opportunity to grow and develop your talents.

‘Cool,’ said Ollie, seemingly underwhelmed, stuffing the page into the back pocket of his jeans.

On Monday afternoon, a key member of staff, the woman who looked after the accounts, unexpectedly gave in her notice.  She told Stephen she’d had a row with the office manager who had refused to allow her to go on vacation even though she had already booked a holiday and paid a non-refundable deposit. Apparently hostilities between her and the office manager had been building up over a long period and she had reached the end of her tether.  Stephen, appalled to discover strife in his team of which he was unaware, immediately brought the two women together in a well-meaning attempted to negotiate a peace deal.  This rapidly descended into a slanging match, with both women screaming obscenities at each other, ending abruptly when the accountant quit without serving out her notice and the office manager, in floods of tears, locked herself in the toilet.

‘Sorry about all that,’ Stephen said to Ollie. ‘The day turned out to be rather more exciting than the one I’d planned.  Never mind, we’ll get back on track tomorrow.’

‘Cool,’ said Ollie, his thumbs busy texting something to someone on his smart phone.  

On Tuesday, just as Stephen had started to brief Ollie on the company’s marketing strategy, news reached the office that a lorry, on its way to deliver a large print run of some of the bestselling publications, had collided with a tanker on the motorway and burst into flames.  Apparently both drivers had escaped from their cabs unharmed, but the fire had been ferocious and both lorries had burnt out, melting a large area of tarmac and closing the motorway for the rest of the day. This left the company’s stock levels disastrously low and everyone had to abandon their normal duties and spend time on the phones apologising to customers and reimbursing them for orders that could no longer be fulfilled.

‘Well, Ollie,’ said Stephen at the end of a fraught day on the phones, ‘I hope you can see how we have to stay nimble, on our toes, ready to adapt to unexpected events.  Life in business is never boring, that’s for sure.’

‘No worries,’ Ollie said. ‘Pity we didn’t get to see the fire.’    

On Wednesday, just as Stephen had started to brief Ollie on the 5-year rolling business plan, a VAT inspector arrived unannounced, demanding to be provided with a quiet office and all the financial documentation for the previous year.  Stephen, caught on the hop, asked if the inspector could perhaps return on another day since the person who looked after the accounts had left suddenly and not yet been replaced.  The inspector, however, would not budge, insisting that the whole idea of an on-the-spot check was that it should be on-the-spot, thus preventing the possibility of any, er um, ‘window dressing’.   So, the inspector, clearly not a fan of how to win friends and influence people, spent the day ensconced in Stephen’s office, painstakingly going through the accounts, querying everything he suspected might be dodgy.  Once he’d discovered that £135 was owed in unpaid VAT he became more affable, professing himself delighted with his day’s work.

‘Well, Ollie,’ said Stephen, having spent the day at the beck and call of the inspector, ‘yet another example of our little plan bumping up against reality!  Never mind, tomorrow’s another day and I’m sure you’ll find our visit to the NEC illuminating.  It’s an hour and a half’s drive up to Birmingham so we need to leave promptly at 08.30.’

‘Cool,’ said Ollie, pulling on his coat.

That evening Stephen, chatting with his wife over a glass of non-alcoholic wine, admitted that he wasn’t looking forward to Ollie accompanying him to the exhibition centre. ‘He’s morose and monosyllabic, not exactly good company,’ he sighed. ‘’Cool’ is all he ever seems to say.’

The next morning, Ollie sauntered in ten minutes late, not that it really mattered because Stephen was on the phone apologising to a disgruntled author who had not received her royalty payment.  ‘She’s always grumbling,’ Stephen explained as they fastened their seat belts.  ‘You’d never guess she’d written a best seller on healthy gratitude!’

The drive to Birmingham took longer than expected, with a slow crawl past miles of road works on the motorway.  As they crept along, Stephen waxed lyrical about the joys of being in the publishing business, radiating faith about how self-help books transformed people’s lives.  Ollie, as usual, seemed unfazed.  For the last leg of the journey, Stephen, horrified to have discovered that Ollie had never heard of Leonard Cohen, put on his favourite CD, pausing it every now and again to explain the meaning of some of the more obscure lyrics.  Ollie showed no sign of sharing Stephen’s appreciation of Leonard Cohen’s undoubted genius.

Eventually, later than planned, they arrived at the NEC and parked the car.  They set off on a brisk walk to the exhibition centre but had only gone a few yards when Stephen grimaced, dropped his briefcase, and clutched his chest.  He staggered, attempting to steady himself by grabbing the wing mirror of a nearby Range Rover, but his legs buckled and he collapsed onto the tarmac like a faulty deckchair. 

Ollie immediately swung into action.  He phoned 999 on his mobile, asked for an ambulance and put his phone on speaker. He loosened Stephen’s tie, tilted his head back and checked whether he was breathing. 

‘We’re at the NEC, car park 2, row K.  My boss has stopped breathing, I think it’s a cardiac arrest.  I’m starting CPR now.’

‘An ambulance has been dispatched.  What’s your name?’

‘It’s Ollie.’

‘Are you alone with the casualty?  Do you know what to do?’

‘I’ve done first aid.  Got my Duke of Edinburgh’s award.  We’ve practised on dummies.’

‘Good lad.  It’s your boss you say?’

‘Well, sort of.  I’m shadowing him for the week.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Could be my dad.  In his fifties I guess.’

‘The ambulance is just 5 minutes away.’

Ollie, continuing with vigorous, rhythmic chest compressions, managed to say,  ‘Thanks.  That’s cool.’

The ambulance duly arrived and the paramedics took over.  ‘Well done, mate, a brilliant job, you deserve a medal.’ 

Stephen’s heart was restarted with a defibrillator and he was stretchered into the ambulance.  It drove away at speed with its blue lights flashing.  Ollie brushed himself down, picked up Stephen’s briefcase and walked to the station to catch a train home.

On Friday evening, after football practice, Ollie received a phone call from Stephen’s wife.

‘Is that Ollie?’


‘I’m phoning from my husband’s bedside. The paramedics said you saved his life.  How can we ever thank you?’

‘No worries,’ said Ollie.

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