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How I Told A Client He Was Wrong

In the 1980’s a fine art gallery in Mayfair needed to replace their PA / Administrative Assistant after ten years’ service. During that time she had overseen everything to do with the running of the gallery – the cleaners, bookkeeping, insurance, shipping and the management of his high net worth clients from around the world. These relationships needed careful management because, as remarked in The Great Gatsby, the very rich are different from you and me. 

I visited the gallery to take the job specification and met the three who worked there, the majority shareholder, his aristocratic partner and the departing assistant. Paintings worth hundreds of thousands of pounds hung the walls. Privately, the assistant gave me insight as to the way the gallery operated on a daily basis. She was American and had run the business end while they networked among their wealthy friends. She adored them both and was not intimidated by their titles and Etonian schooling.  She was like a Nanny who watched their spats and squabbles with a smile and a sigh as a part of her working day, managing them and the business. 

I drew up a shortlist of candidates keen to enter this exclusive environment.  One candidate stood out, Marian. Born and educated in Switzerland, her first UK secretarial role was in an international law firm.  On the retirement of the Founding Partner, she joined an international private bank and continued to interface with wealthy clients. She was numerate, with a keen attention to detail, loved art and was hungry to learn all she could about it. Her intellect and experience of working with demanding employers and equally challenging clients of every nationality, religious and political persuasion were an ideal preparation for the role in Bond Street. 

The major shareholder was desperately keen to avoid employing the wrong person so I suggested a third meeting over lunch to set his mind at rest. He welcomed this idea. Marian called to say she was unsure how well the lunch had gone but would still love the opportunity of joining if the job were it offered.

Seconds later the Client rang me in a fury. Under no circumstances would he be offering her the job.  ‘She has had the temerity to ask me how much money the company currently has in reserve! She asked about my cash flow and liquidity.  How dare she? The brass nerve of the girl!’ Clearly her cultural directness had fallen outside his expectations and this very special candidate was about to be discarded for all the wrong reasons.

This was not to be an easy conversation and had to be taken slowly in view of the temperature of the exchange. I told him I was not willing to transmit his message as I thought he had misread the conversation. Marian was demonstrating intelligence and prudence.  She did not want to make a poor quality decision or expose herself to financial risk, given that she was in a highly paid job with full banking benefits. She was showing proper interest in ensuring she made a wise move. There was silence at his end of the phone whilst he grudgingly accepted this. But she had still moved outside his rulebook of social behaviour in asking about his finances and that had needled him.

I tried another tack. Could he see the advantage of having a charming, personable member of staff confident to ask the same questions of his wealthy clients, ask for deposits, and demand prompt payment for his Old Masters? I asked him to consider this and call me back.

I waited in an agony of doubt.  What was he doing? Was he throwing the office cat out of the window, pouring a large whisky?  None of the above - he had been thinking!  He agreed such directness would be very useful and perhaps he should raise her starting salary.  

I was jubilant for them both. At that time the average length of stay of a London office worker was under two years. This business partnership lasted eleven happy years till she returned to Geneva and opened her own Gallery. What good service she gave and what an opportunity he gave her for a new career. 

Thirty years ago Marian might have lost out due to her ‘inappropriate’ question as judged by a male twenty years her senior. I ask myself how many other opportunities have been lost for lack of mediation by an experienced recruitment consultant?

Angela Mortimer

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