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Searching for Elephants - Episode 5

Shaun Barker is retiring after 14 brilliant years with LifeSearch. He and Tom Baigrie have a conversation that covers all areas.

From the early days of LifeSearch's Leeds branch to more recent memories of Cape Town.

Shaun reveals why he was scared the first time he and Tom met and gets to ask Tom a question that he's had on his mind for 12 years. 

Shaun - Hi guys.

Tom - How are you mate?

Shaun - I'm alright, yourself boss?

Tom - I'm very well Shaun. LifeSearch is fantastic just now, and has been all 2020 really. But hey, we should first welcome those listening in. Thank you for joining us. What's coming up is a chat between Shaun Barker retiring after 14 years of leading LifeSearch in Leeds and me, Tom Baigrie, I say leading, not managing, because I think good people don't need management to be at their best. They need coaching, and care, and a plan and empowerment and to be respected and trusted. That'll get them giving up their best. And none of those words chime with manager, to my mind anyway. So a conversation between two old boys, two leaders, who've done pretty well by, what Shaun? A fair few 100,000 customer families over the years and buy each other, despite or perhaps because of being very different to each other in character and origin. Hope you like it.
Ah, gosh, it's been a flat out day. I suspect your days have got a bit quieter. You'll be helping a bit. But there'll be also saying to you 'It's alright mate we can take it from here. Have a breather! 

Shaun - Yeah, absolutely. They've got to get used to being without me. So yeah. 

Tom - And boy, we made a fuss of you. 

Shaun - I know, yeah. 

Tom - I think you're benefiting from being the one of the first big leavers in effect the second really after Brian Wilson. And we made a fuss of Brian too. And I guess the next three or four we'll get lucky. Whoever they might be. One of them might be me the next three or four? That'd be a good thing. Help everybody. 

Shaun - But yeah, it was. It was really emotional. I mean, some of the stuff that guys were saying I had a virtual leaving do with my team. And they were echoing some of the comments and things which is really nice. And they did surprise me with fantastic leaving gifts. 

Tom - Oh, good. 

Shaun - They got me a day's photography with the big cats at Chichester Zoo. So you get up close and personal with the lions and tigers. And then they've arranged for overnight accommodation the night before. And then the following night in a nice Four star hotel for Christine and I.
Tom - Isn't that a lovely present. Gosh. Really good. 

Shaun - That blew me away. Yeah. 

Tom - Fantastic. Well done you because you don't get that unless you deserve it. Frankly, what a 14 years you've had, hey, Goodness me. 

Shaun - Yeah, very interesting, very varied. And it's been a joy to develop the Leeds office. See the guys coming on and flourishing. And yeah, to see LifeSearch itself, obviously from the initial small band of brothers that we were shall we say, grown to where we are now. Under your guidance. So respect. 

Tom - Well, thank you. Thank you. And I think for me, this conversation could be one of mutual love and affection, and all the wonders that are LifeSearch. But I think it'd be more interesting for anybody listening, if we try to tease out issues we've dealt with together and differences we have over the way we dealt with those, just to see whether we can teach ourselves stuff. Or you can teach me because your learning days are not drawn to a close. Of course they're not. But you know what I mean. I'm going to keep trying to change this business for the better. And you, I betcha you're gonna keep watching it. And all the people in it from a distance.

Shaun - Absolutely! Well, not necessarily from a distance, I'll keep popping in. 

Tom - Excellent. Excellent. Do you have big plans for retirement? What are you what are you heading towards? 

Shaun - Heading towards looking after the grandkids? So I've got six grandsons in total. So I've got five aside and reserve. So we'll be doing the usual grandparenting in the school holidays, etc. Chris and I will be going off and enjoying our travels. Be that in this country or abroad, and I'm going to be focusing more on my photography. 

Tom - Fantastic. Fantastic. Does retirement scare you at all?

Shaun - It does. It scares the hell out of me. Started work when I was 15. So all of a sudden to not have the routines, etc. Yeah, big, big step. Big, big mind change as well. You've not got the salary coming in. What do you do about that? And how do you fill your time? 

Tom - That's excellent. That's excellent. Yeah, no, the concepts are not that far behind you. The concept scares me. It scares me a little too. Golf, golf and drinking can only take care a retiree so far, and you don't have golf. But photography is a wonderful thing to do. And of course, the excuse for international travel is just perfect. You've got to get to the top of everything and look out over the open savannahs and seas and everything else. Fantastic. So let me move it forward to, I suppose worth pointing out to those who might be listening that the reason we're in Leeds was because I said, we need to find the right person. And we'll go where they are. And yeah, and we found you. And I heard about this man who'd been running a mortgage broker, I think, haven't you? 

Shaun - Yeah. 

Tom - And who was at a LifeSearch that actually recruited you? Because I think we only met kind of after the event, I can't remember.
Shaun - We met the second time I came down to London, my first visit to London, I met Tamsin and she put me through my paces, so to speak, and then invited me down the following week to meet your good self. 

Tom - So she must have made that decision pretty, pretty swiftly. And I did too. I think you kind of I don't recall interviewing anybody else for the job that I might have done, but I don't recall them. So. And as I recall, we then said, find us an office first. Will you? 

Shaun - You did. Yeah. I have to say. You were one of the few people who scared the pants off me. So congratulations. 

Tom - Why? Why would I do that? You're the one with the gangster tattoos mate not me.

Shaun - You were dressed in your finery when I walked into your office with your braces on on your big cigar in your mouth. And 

Tom - No. 

Shaun - Oh, yes. I thought 'oh my word'. But yeah, and the interview was unlike any that I've ever been through before, you had two sheets of paper with some MI on. And you said to me, right, That's a top performer advisor roleplay me on that one. That's an underperforming advisor roleplay on that one. Now. So talk about flying by the seat of your pants. Oh, my word. 

Tom - Goodness me, what a hard bastard I never realised that. Sorry about that Shaun. Apologies for dropping you in the deep end. 

Shaun - Well it must've worked.

Tom - It must have worked really well. Yeah, I think I know what I would have been. I mean, the two hardest things aren't they, it's as hard to get the best out of out of a good advisor. And to keep getting the best and to nurture them. As it is sometimes not always, but sometimes to turn around someone who hasn't quite got the clue yet. Or has lost the Mojo. So okay, well, there's one brutal way of interviewing. So you, you went north to Leeds. And if you look back at those early weeks, the early sort of first six months. 

Shaun - It was very much a hands off situation, you let me get on and do it. Because in your words, it's your office, you run it. And I respected that. And that's the way that I reacted best to leadership.

Tom - The old personal responsibility trick that I must have pulled off 1000 times now. So it's your job. And then the person you say that to just flipping rises to the challenge. And I recall and I guess the incident that comes to my mind most and this will be quite difficult to publish, was there were two incidents when I came up to Leeds to solve a problem because you needed me to. And one was an occasion where performance had just gone south. And you I think told me, they were blaming just about everything except their own energies, and they needed a bit of a talking to I think you must have done that. Because it wasn't really my habit. Or maybe it was a bit. I went up and I gave the assembled advisor force right rollicking in the sort of way that an old fashioned boss might do. Do you remember that that occasion? 

Shaun - I certainly do. Yeah. 

Tom - And I remember just having a fundamentally negative effect on everything. No one, no one, no one felt able to take that from me at all. 

Shaun - It went down like a lead balloon, unfortunately. But saying that, we learned from it. And I took a lot of responsibility, personal responsibility for that one as well. I think at the time, if memory serves me, right, that's when Christine was going through her early stage of cancer.

Tom - Oh goodness.

Shaun - And I were possibly taking it out on the guys. And one good thing is that they weren't afraid to say so. They weren't afraid to say 'we don't agree with this'. And I pushed back against it, hence getting you up. And we learned from it from there. And that's I think that's when I fundamentally change my approach to the team and my approach to leadership. 

Tom - Talk us through that. 

Shaun - I had the reputation before, we had the so called Hurt Locker which is a mythical room, which never really existed. 

Tom - Sure. I know. 

Shaun - But yeah, I had this sort of stigma. And I think when Christine was ill, I got a new perspective on things and on life and on people in general. And I think I mellowed, and that would have been about 11 years ago, something like that. 10/11 years ago. 

Tom - So three years in we were well established. I mean, because we had that first chaotic period. Forgive me for jumping about but that chaotic period of I.T. What was the original? We moved to RDS to improve stuff. What was the first one called? 

Shaun - Citrix? 

Tom - Citrix! Oh, wow. 

Shaun - Or as we nicknamed it 'Shitrix' 

Tom - Yes. Very good. And its main victims were up in Leeds, it wasn't as bad in London, because we were whatever we were, closer or just we weren't using Citrix. I think you had to use Citrix for every transaction. I had to use it just occasionally. 

Shaun - Yeah, we had at one stage, the early shift came on and logged on, and everything was fine. And then the late shift came on. And when they logged on, they knocked the early shift off. And then we had a digger cut through the cable on Saturday. 

Tom - That was the office and for quite a while, I think, wasn't it? 

Shaun - Well, no, because I stopped until four o'clock Sunday morning with the BT guys. And they blew a new cable, a new fibre-optic all the way down the street and up to the fifth floor. And and I was amazed how did that did just blow it with compressed air down this tube. So like 'oh my God'. 

Tom - And you were standing over them saying I need to be trading in the morning. 

Shaun - Yeah. 

Tom - Fantastic. Fantastic. I often get accused myself of saying remarks in the throwaway fashion. Well, it's because I do. That have a far greater impact on the people I say them to them than I think they should. Because of just I suppose the role I play in in the business, you've got to watch what you say when you when you have sort of the power. And there was one remark that I bet you wish you'd never said that's always quoted back. Which is exactly the sort of thing I could say to someone, you know, if you don't pull your socks up, they'll be on the walls. And thinking about, I don't know old war movies or whatever had been my rationale. But some innocent youngster could hear it and go, he's actually threatening to beat me to death, which we'd say oh for goodness sake belt up. But that wouldn't be quite. Do you remember that sequence or that time? Or was that just an urban myth created by? 

Shaun - Yeah, that was an urban myth. 

Tom - As I talked about it, I thought it must be.
Shaun - At the time I possibly prolonged because I used to say to Joan, after certain meetings with individuals, 'Joan, can you just go wash the walls down in the interview room?' So it just prolonged.

Tom - Yes.

Shaun - And you don't realise at the time, what sort of an impact it has on people and how it can follow you around for years afterwards. To this very day, people still talk about The Hurt Locker. But there was no such thing I can honestly say, I think I can count on the fingers of one hand, the amount of people that I've had to raise my voice to at LifeSearch. But you get this stigma attached. And that was one of them. 

Tom - Oh, Shaun, let's not let's not let's not hang around there because as as you say, did LifeSearch kind of style of management influence you? Did you influence the LifeSearch style of management? Did we just find our way together into this, what now is a very defined way of management by essentially care and tolerance. What what do you what do you think of that, that evolution that history?

Shaun - I struggled with it to begin with. And I think a lot of the guys did as well, especially being old school, shall we say. But I had a real a real good mentor in the shape of Christine. She without doubt is the best people leader. Barring yourself, obviously, that I've ever come across. So we used to chat about work. And some of the things I'd say to her, she just said, no, not that way. Can't do it that way. You've got to get the people to want to do it for you. And not to feel that they have to do it for you. So I did change my leadership style. And sometimes you slip back to the old ways. And if you can catch yourself doing that, that is a really good trick to have. Where as years ago, I was just Shaun the taskmaster. Now I'm more like a work dad. 

Tom - It's a great thing to have evolved into Shaun, it really is.

Shaun - Yeah, and I think the results have shown that over the years, but yeah, we had some good advisors. They left we got some more we developed them and more recently, in fact, today, one of one of my guys, Dan Benson, has made the elite advisor. 

Tom - Fantastic. That's a huge achievement. 

Shaun - Yeah.

Tom - Okay, so moving, moving on a bit. What are your thoughts on remote working, going forward? We've clearly made a decent fist of it this year, but long term going forward, how do you think those doing your job in the future are going to have to adapt and and behave?

Shaun - I think we will always need an office presence, on a smaller scale and much smaller scale. Because working from home doesn't suit everybody. I know from within my team, that you've got the likes of Dan Benson who have absolutely grasped it and flown with it. But then you've got others who, unfortunately, work in one room, eight hours a day and not interacting with anybody. It's had an impact on the mental health. So I think that we will always need an office for people to go into maybe one, two, three days a week, if that's what they want to do. And also for things such as New starters. Because this job is all about learning on the job learning from the people that are doing the job, etc. You can do that remotely but ideally, you've got to look them in the eyes. 

Tom - Yes. 

Shaun - So for mentoring and things like that, with the newbies, I think that will go down well, and for things like team meetings, because you need to be able to celebrate success together. 

Tom - Yes, I think we're very much as one on that there are there are sort of certain specialist reasons, you should always enable people to work in an office if they want to, absolutely, and so your office has to be judged to be big enough for that, obviously, you wouldn't have a desk per person to enable that, you'd make an assumption that maybe a third of people might want to be in the office at any one time. So you'd have an office, that's a third big, but actually your office would be slightly reconfigured, I think, I think you'd have to have meeting rooms as quite a big part of it. So that whole teams could get in to an office and meet. 

Shaun - Yep. 

Tom - And maybe then spill out onto the desks for the rest of the day. But some would go straight back home again, after a team meeting or whatever, or you have a luncheon, sort of you know, it's more like the office is serving a specific function around bringing people on, improving, whether it's mentoring or team encouragement, or recognition, all those sort of things. Or even if you've got a difficult meeting with someone, then you'd probably want that to be face to face. And it's sort of for those purposes, that the office would be used, rather than just a daily place of work for the vast majority of people. For some it would be that. So it's a very interesting thing, we're gonna have to work out a lot of it's guesswork. 

Shaun - It is. But I think that the good thing with LifeSearch is that the planning ahead that we did with the IT, we couldn't have done it at a better time. If you imagine where we would be if everybody didn't have laptops, if we've got the old workstations. So I don't know that was CJ or whatever. But that forward planning, as worked an absolute treat for us. 

Tom - Yeah, I mean, there's no question we were very lucky because we got Chris Nielsen, ably abetted by CJ and others, of course, got the move to the cloud done. And as I understand it, just the sheer computing power of that meant that all our old kit was pretty useless. So we had to get new kit. And it was Chris, I remember it at board meetings, Chris saying 'we're going to do it all via laptops', and me thinking 'crikey, how much does that cost? No, I think that's a waste'. And I kind of eventually they convinced me didn't make much difference. And so fortunately, we made the right decision. 

Shaun - A lot of the financial Institute's and change as well. Christine's bank, Santander. A lot of them are changing their branches now into mini call centres. Chris has quite a big branch at the moment. And she opens up at 9.30 until two o'clock, and then the counter staff actually then become call-operatives for two hours. So eventually, I think that the branches will disappear. So yeah, everything that the Coronavirus is brought a lot of change on a few years before I think companies are planning to do so. And we're in a fortunate position to do so because we've got the IT there. And we can build on that. So you can get clients interacting I think would be a good move. Be that visually, or sharing screens with them and things. 

Tom - Yes, I think technology will leap into the space and enable ever better comms or remote comms between them. I was just going to move away from banks in which I have only a passing interest shown although you are obviously married to one, so it's different. But just on the slightly lighter, lighter, lighter vein. Any favourite memories of LifeSearch? Any anecdotes that you would share idiosyncrasies or oddities in the business? It's had a few in it's time.

Shaun - It's definitely had a few in it's time, I think, favourite moments and things were Cape Town gets me. And you know that that is one of my, that is my biggest regret. Yeah, but going out there and opening it up was such an honour and a privilege. Love the place, love the people. And I can see why you love it too. 

Tom - Why didn't it, I mean, it has worked. Let's be quite clear. Tracy-Lee has got a great support team. And two TI's. And we have a future in South Africa, no question at all, in Cape Town. But why didn't the advice side work? Talk honestly here or brave should I say.

Shaun - We didn't, we didn't manage it correctly. We tried to. We had various people go over there to run it for a while. And they treated it as a bit of a holiday. And they didn't take it seriously. And I think a lot of the guys in Cape Town thought it was just a big, a big jolly to be had. I think that we picked the salary wrong. I think that we were misled by the recruitment agencies, because bearing in mind, they got paid a percentage of the salary that we took people on at. So the higher we took them on at the more they got. 15,000 Rand a month is very nice thank you very much. So it's a lot of a lot more money than a lot of the people were earning anyway. So why would they then push for more money? 

Tom - Yes.

Shaun - So possibly a lower basic with a more attractive bonus package. But I also think that the work ethos wasn't, wasn't right. And we weren't strong enough at the time, I don't think we didn't have the presence out there. To handle that in the right way. 

Tom - That's interesting. That's interesting. Yes. And also interesting that we couldn't quite face all those facts. As a business. You know, I, we were managing essentially a lack of success. But we weren't getting down to brass tacks, but certainly at a senior, at a board level, and really tackling it, we were kind of doing different things and trying different things. And effectively a bit of a case study in how you fail. Because essentially, looking back at it, if we had spent a lot more time doing what we did in Leeds, and finding the right local leader, and bringing that right local leader into the LifeSearch way of thinking, and then said, right, this is yours, you do this, and giving him every support, we'll be able to give anyone in Cape Town a hell of a lot more support than we were able to give you in Leeds back in the day. But it is all about finding the right leader and we clearly never did. 

Shaun - Yeah, I think if we, the other thing that we fell down on was the fact that we only had one business source to work from. 

Tom - Yes, yes, we failed to get the diversity of unprotected families that we needed. Yeah, so a bit of a chapter of errors really. And I suppose an expensive one though, it was never really such a problem. And if we come out of it with, well what we have come out of with is Tracy Lee and her team, and if post lockdown and COVID we can grow that and develop that, then it may yet proved to be a triumph. It will though be a study in persistence, and how you keep things working, or you get things working just by trying over and over and over again. But also I just think leadership, you know, either you have the right leader I think we do in Tracy, I'm sure we do in Tracy. 

Shaun - If you just sent me out for six months. 

Tom - Yeah, it would have been done? 

Shaun - And said sort it, it would have been done. 

Tom - We couldn't because you said you didn't want to go for six months. That was the problem. 

Shaun - That's no, that's not the case. The running of the operation was taken out of my hands.

Tom - So why did we do that?

Shaun - Don't know.

Tom - Just management. Okay. And a clear sign to me because I wasn't particularly in control of that. I'm quite sure I agreed it was put to me and I agreed it. 

Shaun - Yeah, I would have got would have gone back out Tom and done whatever it took to get it going because it's like with The Leeds' Office I look at it as my baby. Yeah. And I don't do failures very often. 

Tom - What are you doing for the next six months Shaun? Christine would love it, when does she retire? Hey! 

Shaun - She retires the same day as me. 

Tom - Okay. Well, you know what Shaunee come about November, December next year, October? No, it'll have to be a bit earlier than that September next year, you'd be bored witless. And you ring me up. And you say, Tom, what about Christine and Shaun, managing the Cape Town branch for a year, I'd want a full year commitment of you out there. But then you'd say hang on the grandchildren, the grandchildren. Ah well you know what, some things one just has to see how they go. But if you are bored of grandchildren, give me a call. 

Shaun - We don't need the two of us out there necessarily, because Chris won't come out there that long. I'd give it a shot. 

Tom - But I think from what you said earlier, I'd want her out there quite a lot Shaun as your mentor. And because she clearly is a large part of the reason why you've been so

Shaun - She is.

Tom - Very successful, and you have, your time in charge of Leeds or time in charge of LifeSearch has been a huge success. 

Shaun - Thank you.

Tom - It really has. A vital part of our, of our ability to expand has been having lots of Yorkshire people we could talk to and recruit. And now of course, lots of them run franchises across the north different bits of it. And so suddenly, we have a much more national footprint, which is great fun. 

Shaun - And I think, as we've said, as well, working from home, means that you can now attract advisors to either core or franchise irrespective of where they're located. So, again, that's a win-win situation.

Tom - So as we get to the end of our time, Shaunee come on, what financial advice would you give to a young Searcher just starting out?

Shaun - Invest in your pension.

Tom - Yeah, good advice. It's a good advice. I can just see a 23 year old advisor going for 'God's sake, I'm going to buy more beer'. But you would be right, and they would be wrong. Yes. 

Shaun - Retirement is the longest holiday you ever gonna have. And there's nothing worse than going on holiday and having no money to enjoy yourself. So you have to plan for it without a doubt. And the earlier you start, the less painful it is, as I know, personally. 

Tom - Yeah. Yeah, that's that's very good advice.

Shaun - The other thing when it comes to the role is set yourself a mentor and work with them, set yourself daily, weekly targets to actually match them and then beat them. And once you've done that, then move on to somebody else that you can look at. And always, and again, one of the things that I learned with LifeSearch, and I still preach about it to this day is that you've got to put the client first, a lot of companies I worked for in the past claimed to be client centric. And I'll say to people to this day that they don't hold a candle to LifeSearch. So if you treat a client, so you they were your grandmother and you do the best by them, then you will go far wrong. 

Tom - I think that's that's really very, very good advice. Very good advice. Shaun, anything that we haven't talked about that you really want to say, if there are any things you think we should talk about, well, go on. I've asked you questions you. You take over mate.

Shaun - One burning question that's been there for the last 12 years. I was stood on a cold train station in Bingley, one winters morning, and I got a call from Brian Wilson saying no, I'm not you boss anymore. Duncan is now your boss. So Duncan became Head of Sales. Which didn't go down at all well, as you can imagine. Because when you and I spoke, you said right, you will be the leader in the north, you will be the Tom Baigrie of the North. And all of a sudden, Duncan's Head of Sales. So that didn't go down well, what what happened there? Can you recall?

Tom - I can't recall. But I can guess which will be pretty similar, I guess. I think Brian had run his time in Milton Keynes, and it was time to replace him. And we would have had a discussion about what we replace him with? Do we replace him with a leader in Milton Keynes, and you in the north and therefore have to in that that position? Or do we try and find someone who can do Milton Keynes and essentially manage you, lead you. And the standard structural efficiency of having one person reporting into me, as opposed to two would have been layered into the recruitment strategy, I suspect. And then we got Duncan and he offered a lot of what we needed. And and yeah, and was the right man for the job we felt. And yeah, so that was the decision. Clearly one that wasn't communicated to you properly, either in its inception or its result or anything else, you were just given the bum's rush by a senior management and no one told you about it. Which is something I should apologise for immediately and accept complete blame for that was that must have been a very tough time for you.

Shaun - Hmm.

Tom - And yes, I'm sorry it was clearly, if it's been a question for 12 years it was clearly very badly communicated and not something you ever wanted to challenge me on until now so you have my object apology because I've no doubt at all that the better strategy in hindsight would have been to give you more control and command and yeah, so yeah, apologies for that. 

Shaun - Apology accepted.

Tom - We made it work we made it work in the end.

Shaun - We did.

Tom - We muddled though and that that is what a lot of life is. 

Shaun - To look at where we are now and where we came from. As I said before, total and upmost respect boss. The man done good.

Tom - That's two of us mate that's two of us. Shaunee I think that's our hour kind of up 

Shaun - I think it is. 

Tom - It was wonderful to talk to you, we managed to avoid most controversy but there are little sparky bits in there which I rather like.

Shaun - Well when you when you're up in Leeds next we'll get together and have a beer and we'll carry them on. 

Tom - That's a very good idea though perhaps we should rope in a Dean Sykes and a few others of the, Shabaab a few others of the, what's the word? The people who've had to live with you and me all these years I mean, that's quite a quite a thing to have to do for all these guys. They've done pretty well themselves. 

Shaun - We've not had an official leaving do as yet but yeah, they all say that they're gonna come out so yeah, let's do it. I'll get it arranged. 

Tom - Make sure I'm there that will be a absolute must. Good stuff. Shaunee an absolute pleasure to work with you, my friend. A huge pleasure to work with you and great fun talking to you now. But thank you for well, really being a vast part of LifeSearch's achievements. And yeah, you held down the North, like some character out of Game of Thrones, you faced them down and you sorted them out. It's a pleasure to usher you off into the sunlit. Well, one day, the sunny uplands and a wonderful retirement. While, we go on building this wonderful thing that we've got going.

Shaun - Okay. Thanks, boys. 

Tom - Cheers. Thanks so much. Cheers. 

Shaun - Bye bye.

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