David D’Souza

Mentorship Director, CIPD

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

Summer holidays when I was about 11? Sitting in the font room of the house watching cricket, eating peanut-butter on toast whilst the sun bathed the room in a summer heat. Mum at work. Nothing to do but read, watch TV and laze

2. At what age did you become an adult? What happened, and how did you know?

About 31? I slipped whilst carrying my young daughter on my shoulders and almost crashed into a rock pool (head first). I think if I’d fallen it would have killed me – or her. I realised that in trying to regain my footing I’d instinctively twisted so I’d take the force of the fall. I thought ‘Maybe this is what being a grown up feels like’.

3. What do you think is true that most people think is false? What do you think is false, that most people think is true?

I think most people think they are special. And they both are and aren’t. The one thing most of us have in common is that we think we are somehow unique. It’s ironic that what binds us is that we somehow aren’t bound. I think that lots of people – I couldn’t say most – but lots of people seem to think that belief and hope can carry them through or solve things. I’d rather rely on a plan and activity than belief and hope, but then maybe that’s where I get my belief and hope from. I’m not sure I’m anywhere near answering this question

4. What are the three books that you would unhesitatingly recommend to others? Why?

I wanted to answer this one because it sort of leaped out at me. I don’t unhesitatingly recommend much to anyone. The exception to that might be Paddington 2, which is just an amazing film and just a bundle of delight… but normally everything can and possibly should come with a caveat. We’ve all had someone say ‘read this’ and then thought ‘this stinks…’ and not known quite how to tell the person that they’ve got your preferences so wrong. Books are highly personal. If someone has a need ‘Can you recommend me a good book on x’ then I’d probably suggest something, but I’d probably still say ‘Gets a bit weak at the end’ or ‘The research is a bit patchy’ or something similar. And I’d default to non-fiction because that’s mainly what I read these days. I’m getting old.

5. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

I didn’t finish university. I dropped out after mental illness and a lot of problems in my family and went and stacked shelves in a supermarket. People think I’ve had a proper corporate career, but mainly I’ve just stumbled about from place to place and I only even really thought about having a proper career when I was about 28. People talk to me like I did a grad programme and then progressed in a sort of traditional way – but in fact my career is a range of random unplanned events. Which is why whenever I’m asked for career advice I’m happy to oblige, but I’ll talk about what I’ve seen in people I know and respect who have been successful. Because mine is mainly luck. Nobody would ever plan a career like mine – nor should they.

“People think I’ve had a proper corporate career, but mainly I’ve just stumbled about from place to place”

6. What is your untrainable superpower?

I don’t have one. All of the superhero rhetoric we hear in business is just noise isn’t it? It’s hard enough being an adequate human being without stretching things out further. I know I have advantages in work due to speed of thinking and critical thinking – and honestly if you are lucky enough (as I am) to combine that with speed reading then the thing that looks like a superpower to others (and isn’t) is that the time eating work of reading papers, writing summaries or sorting out an inbox takes me comparatively no time. If you can do that low value stuff in 1/3 of the time it takes others then you get far more freedom to do and think other things. It’s not a superpower, but it’s an unfair advantage/useful cluster of skills. I used to have a ridiculous memory – now I have a good one. But my good one remembers being excellent.

7. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What did you learn from the experience?

I always feel like an outsider. Every conference, every time I meet people for drinks – even a group of close friends. I hate crowds and all I’ve done over the years is develop coping strategies. Which are, at times, too good because people think I love a lot of stuff I hate. Can’t believe I didn’t see me at that event? I’ll do anything I can to steer away from having to make conversation with random groups of people. Asking me ‘Why do you enjoy networking so much?’ makes about as much sense as asking me ‘How do you remain so clean shaven?’. I sort of like Twitter, but not for the reasons that many people are on there. Broadly I’m not sure I like people – which is problematic for my career choice, but seemingly a surmountable problem

8. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Boards and Senior Teams that are all white. I know some people will say they aren’t acceptable now, but a glance at the composition of the FTSE100 Annual Reports would suggest they somehow still are.

9. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

Lab Rats by Dan Lyons. It is a book I would recommend with reservations. But if you’ve read this far you will know that I don’t recommend without them. It’s a thought provoking polemic that addresses many of my concerns about modern business and the odd cult like behaviour that otherwise seemingly sentient human beings submit to in work.

10. Cheese or Chocolate? What kind?

Mint Aero. It’s the only acceptable answer. Although Milky Way would be close. Or Finger of Fudge or Dairy Milk. No, Mint Aero. Although do you remember Pyramints? They were brilliant. But I’ll say Mint Aero. Or a Crunchie.

“Mint Aero. It’s the only acceptable answer”

11. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

I like to think that I’d be a sort of crazed inspirational preacher. You see that sort of figure in zombie movies or horror stories quite often and I reckon I could really commit to that. ‘HE THAT LIVETH BELOW WILL COME FOR YOU AND YOUR SINS’. That kind of stuff. It would be a fun role to play and I’m sure I’d get some preferential treatment in the camp we all have to live in as part of that dystopian future. Maybe I get to use the shower first? Maybe I get extra irradiated mash potato? Preacher gotta preach

12. Which fictional villain do you find yourself sympathising with most? Why?

I’m flipping this and just pointing out that Finding Nemo isn’t about a fussy parent. It is about a reckless fish that won’t do what it is told, fails to heed advice and puts other people/fish in danger. It isn’t a journey of discovery. It is a tale of arrogance and the wisdom of listening to those with a better understanding of the world than you. If did I have to pick a villain to sympathise with then Darth Vader. Nobody ever really stops during the films to check on the welfare of someone with serious respiratory issues and who is missing most of their limbs due to burning. None of the meetings pause to say ‘Darth, it’s been a busy few weeks and you must be tired? I know you’ve had a lot of changes in your understanding of your family situation. That must bring up a lot of conflicting feelings’. I feel the movies would be more rounded were that to be the case.

13. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

If someone is working in one of my teams… then I really want them to remember it as a time in their career where they were cared for and supported to develop more so than at any other time in their career. And that’s not because I want to ‘be their favourite boss’, it’s that I genuinely think you owe people your effort to strive towards that. I hate doing the leadership thing badly… I think that’s a skill or near enough. It’s not about me being being perfect, but I care enough to keep getting better. Anyone who has worked closely with me would know that if people aren’t saying how much better things are since they started working for me then I’ll take that as a point of failure on my part.

14. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

I worked for Metro Bank for a bit. Broadly speaking I’m scruffy and relatively informal at work and like to shape things. I chose to work for an organisation where you could be disciplined for forgetting a tie pin and everybody knew what angle the dog bowls needed to be displayed at. I did the worst work of my career there by a country mile. I was moving from Yorkshire to London and I didn’t know anyone and got offered a job at the first new High Street bank in 100 years and I didn’t think more deeply about fit than that. I would not make that mistake again.

15. What’s the one bad quality you don't mind in a colleague? Why?

Being overly eager. I had this conversation with one of my team the other day. Somebody had got a little carried away and tried to solve something too quickly and it hadn’t turned out well. I absolutely didn’t mind because I could see they were trying to make a positive impact. I’d far rather work with people who I occasionally had to hold back a little or help understand the benefits of restraint than people who are constantly waiting for permission. If you’ve got people trying to make a difference then it’s just about making sure they are pointing in the right way and you are listening and learning from what they find. If you’ve got people who expect all of the momentum to come from you – then that’s tiring and everybody loses out.

16. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? What was the situation?

I guess the closest would have been at Metro Bank where relationships weren’t great and results weren’t either. I took that away, stewed and learned from it. So I was able to learn more over time and with reflection. I promised myself some things I’d learn and take from it and not forget – and some things that I was made to feel that I’d never make anyone else feel.

17. What’s one industry challenge you don’t actually think will ever get solved?

Useful constructive human feedback to unsuccessful candidates carried out by the majority of organisations. There might be a tech solution that solves for more for more – but I doubt it will solve the real issue. Being clear on why I didn’t get this job and being constructive enough to help me get a different one…

18. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

I still hear/see people focusing on volume of applications as if that was a good thing. It rarely is – I appreciate there may be exceptions, but broadly ‘we received eleventy billion applications for this one role’ is a mark of something going horribly wrong rather than wonderfully right. You need enough good candidates – beyond that you are wasting the time of either the people applying or your your team in working through them. If you aren’t helping people self select then you aren’t helping people.

19. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

For anyone who has seen the film Office Space I think there is a profound lesson there. Not caring about the corporate games can be a real advantage. I actively didn’t want a career when I was younger because I’d seen my father have a work related breakdown and didn’t want to risk it. Which meant I could do and say things that were far more honest and direct because I wasn’t worried about my career. So I was never worried about speaking to the CEO or things like that early in my career – where it is easy to freeze – because I genuinely didn’t care much what they thought. If they asked me for what I thought I’d just say it, without taking a safer option, because I didn’t care. Eventually I started getting promoted regularly because I just used to point out the elephant in the room – and people actually normally do want someone to do that, they just don’t want to do it themselves. There’s an interesting thought experiment as to whether a black woman would have found the same success taking the same approach. Or whether the saying the same things would have prompted the same reaction. I’m very much guessing not…

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Kate Griffiths-Lambeth. Kate has had the most interesting career that could be imagined… including incredible experiences in recruitment. You also won’t find a richer thinker or more honest and open person. She is remarkable.

Thank you to David D’Souza for taking 20 Questions With the Brainfood Tribune.

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