Thursday, March 11, 2004


Being a headhunter is basically being an estate agent with a few zeros on the end. Here’s a job/house – it’s empty. Here’s a candidate/buyer – they fit. A bit of high-touch consulting, a few long lunches and hey presto a fifty thousand pound fee.

At work, we have lunches for everything. Lunch in the oak-panelled corporate dining room, for those above the salt, every day. Lunch when people join (we are a friendly firm). Lunch when secretaries get pregnant (we are a family firm). Lunch when we win new business (we are a successful firm). Only we don’t do lunch when people leave to go to a competitor (we are a failing firm) they just disappear.

Tarquin gets promoted from Junior Consultant to Consultant, largely on the strength of parentage and his old boy network connections and breaks open the bubbly at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. He has his wine merchant send it over, on the basis of a rumour he heard from the management committee.

I hear him on the phone to his wife. She is blonde and they have four identikit blond children. Would they hide me from the Nazis?

“Pookie,” he whispers, “Jamesie told me, strictly entre-nous, that I’m in. Announced tomorrow, but always good to be ahead of the game, eh?”

She whispers something to him on the phone. I love it when people in offices other halves’ tell them they love them.

“Yes, yes, I – “ he lowers his voice to a whisper even I can’t hear “- you too. Now, call up the chappies and let’s do dinner tomorrow night at the Ivy.” A few words at the other end. “Yes, yes, I know, mention Grandpa, he practically owns the private dining room. Can I leave the menu to you? Kiss the kiddies for me. Chow.”

Kimberly and I remain at Junior Consultant level, banging our heads against the glass ceiling at every turn. We talk about setting up our own firm, it’s just a phone, a fax, an ISP and a database, right? I remind her that we’re on the outside looking in, and the people who make it – like Tarquin - are on the inside looking up.

* * * * * *

I can hear Tarquin in the next-door office. He has no sense of volume control at all. Very occasionally he lowers his voice and I know he’s either whispering sweet nothings to his wife (or possibly a string of other women, though that’s pure conjecture) or looking for a job. Given that he’s got “managing partner 2008 onwards” tattooed in indelible ink on his forehead, he’s unlikely to be jobhunting. And anyway, he’d obviously want to be headhunted.

Crispin Carlson, the leader of the Banking practice, whose blood is so blue he’s practically opaque, is leaning against Tarquin’s open door. One of the things that I can never fathom is, the more money you have, the less you should appear to have. So the guy’s from old families who went to the right schools and whose parents have a pile in the country often have fraying (Pink’s, obviously) shirt collars and cuffs, and slightly unkempt suits that look like they could do with a dry clean.

On the other hand, my third-generation immigrant genes require perfection at all times; freshly pressed, not a wrinkle in sight nor ladder of tight. Almost as if there is a diversely proportional relationship between having money and looking like you do. Not that my parents are paupers – they wouldn’t want people to think they don’t make a living – but they’re comfortable.

I can see an egg stain on Crispin’s Turnbull and Asser tie. The voice in my head that is my Mother tuts, silently.

“Tarquin, that idea you ran by me at the practice meeting yesterday.”

“Any thoughts on that, Crispin, going forward?”

The difference between me (and possibly Kimberly) and everyone else at Brothers and Wiggles is that no one ever asks a straight question. And people are always talking about going forward. I mean, what other direction in there to go in?

“I think the idea may have legs, Tarquin. I liked it. Thomas likes it. And Zane was impressed.”

Zane is a young high-flying consultant who just transferred from our Wall Street office, to inject some buzz-word bingo into our slightly ailing financial services practice, and he’s the current golden boy.

In partnerships, personalities go in and out of favour. I know, because when I was a lawyer, the same games were played, albeit for less money and over a shorter period of time. So somebody’s star is never stationary, it is clearly on the ascendant or descendant, and the trick of office politics is to hedge your relationships so that your net interaction direction is an upwards trajectory. Too much hard work for me, I get sick of constantly having to benchmark everyone I’m talking to.

“Glad Zane liked it. He’s impressive, isn’t he?”

Tarquin’s playing the game too. But then he’s a fabulous game player, having had the secret rules imparted to him at Eton or Sandhurst or his Oxbridge College or anywhere, in fact, that I haven’t been. The rising stars’ rating is generated by the number and frequency of vague references to their obvious talent made on a daily basis. And of course Tarquin knows his time will come, and he’s merely issuing credit notes.

“He is, boy. But your idea. Definitely has legs, why don’t you take it for a walk?”

I keep a notebook in my desk for writing down English phrases heard in the office, and that’s definitely going in there. Together with “throwing toys out of prams” and other childhood- and pet-related terminology.

Tarquin’s phone interrupts my thoughts about the alien language the financial services practice in particular, spoke.


I hate it when people bark their name at my when I call them up.

“Yes, no problem Katy, you’re a star.” I imagine Katy preening herself at the other end of the line, surrounded by her below-the-salt cheaper office furniture, and saying “no problem, HP.”

I know it’s only a matter of days until some kindly-uncle type asks me to perform a menial task with the sop that “I’m a star”. Yeah, right. A legend in my own lunchtime. Most of the men here only call secretaries a star. It’s not a compliment.

“Crispin, that was Katy. Apparently there’s been a bit of a ruckus at your club, and they just called and said could you postpone your lunch appointment, the place is crawling with journos.”

“How unusual. I’ve been a member of the Athaneum for years, and we’ve never had anything like that. And I’m meeting some old school chums for lunch, thought there might be an assignment in it. Better go sort it out.”

And with a flourish of his poorly pressed suit-tails he’s run down the corridor. I half expect him to jump to the ceiling at the end of the corridor like a naughty schoolboy.

How can I be expected to do any work when there is real, live theatre in my office?

I turn to my inbox, because while I’ve been earwiging I’ve heard ten or eleven signifying pings that tell me I received email. Some joker from the IT department loaded the sound files when they came to clean my PC, and although I probably could find out how to turn it off, I quite enjoy the slight distraction. I’m a short-attention-span kind of girl, so it breaks up my day nicely.

Of course most of the emails I get are of the “have you left a parcel in reception” sort, which are both annoying and uninformative. And of course it’s a global email system: there’s someone in our Chicago office who keeps choosing ALL to send messages that say things like “I left my favourite Snoopy mug on the second floor” which get sent to everyone in the known Brothers & Wiggles universe. I’m surprised she still has her job, or at the very least keeps replicating the same mistake.

One of the things about email is the escalation procedure manoeuvre, which I’m as guilty of as anyone. Before email, you’d never ask your secretary to make thirty-two copies of every memo you sent and just for good measure CC them to the CEO, your mum and God, but somehow, the subtle power of the CC and BCC buttons are endemic now. Peter might as well see this (rough translation: should cover my arse). Tim should glance over this (rough translation: it’ll scare the shit out of Pete to see that Tim’s got this too. That should make him respond pretty damn quick). I imagine in the future there might be university courses of the subtleties of when to blind copy someone (CYA) and when to just plain copy them. The upshot of all this is that when I strip out the mug-emails and the multiple-copy emails, there’s only about two real ones a day left. Like memos, really.

Crispin is bumbling up the corridor like a fading Oxbridge academic. I hear him take up his door-leaning position again outside mine and Tarquin’s offices.

“Tarquin, just looked into the ruck at my club. You’ll never guess what. It’s quite shocking really, especially at the Athaneum.”

Tarquin looks up from him PC, although I don’t know why, as he rarely keys anything, preferring to use the secretaries for manual-labour tasks such as sending emails and checking his diary. But he’s skilled at looking busy.

“Pray tell, Crispin.”

“Well, you know Peter Starr?”

“The ageing B-lister with that Channel Four arts programme? What’s it called? ArtSmart?”

“Never know if it’s ArtsMart or ArtSmart, but yes, that’s him. I was sitting next to him at a table at the Ivy only last week, you know. He was with one of those young model types. You know the sort.”

“I do. But he’s hardly our sort of fellow, is he, Crispin?”

I know that gay people have a Gaydar, and Jewish people have a Jewdar, and that black people don’t really need a Blackdar, although doubtless there are a whole range of other –dar jokes out there. And I can be a little sensitive in this blue-blooded haven, (my Antisemite-dar) but I know what kind of fellow they mean. And I know why he’s not their type.

Peter Starr is Julie Stein’s father. I read a Relative Values profile in the Sunday Times recently of him and his brother (a moderately well-known media lawyer, Stein & Partners, who seemed to have built his practice on the back of his brother’s rather argumentative – ie litigious – approach to being employed). Peter changed his name once he made his way up the BBC, having started out in production, and then crossed over into radio journalism, and moved from there to presenting TV arts programmes. He’d turned into something of a late-middle-age celebrity; apparently he got sackloads of fan mail at his Hampstead home from ladies who get their roots done twice a month. His career now was made up of a mix of TV work, opinion pieces in lesser known magazines, and the occasional talking head/chatshow appearance, where he could always be counted on for good value.

Light on content, heavy on media-camaraderie, Peter Starr looked like an advert for expensive hair implants, with his not-quite-believable thick straight hair hanging in a heavy fringe over his forehead, affording him the chance to sweep it out of his eyes whenever he ran out of something to say. He had a reputation as an intellectual lightweight, and a wife who could apparently run rings around him, Barbara, who ran a small but commercially very successful art gallery a short walk from their Hampstead home.

“Oh, I don’t know, HP, there’s something about him I like. Though hard to place as a candidate.” Crispin smirks, as he says this. The firm is renowned for its discretion, and, even if it did place media personalities, the last thing it would want is a flashy TV star with a big mouth.

“So what’s the connection with the Athaneum?”

“Well, seems that he was lunching with Sir – “ Crispin lowers his voice, but I just hear him mention the name of the director general of the BBC, who the firm’s Board practice had just placed as a non-exec director at an up-and-coming third generation telecoms company.

“Really? He’s better connected than I thought.” I hear Tarquin make a mental note to invite Peter Starr to something or other. Star possibly on the ascendant?

“Yes, anway, they were having lunch, in the members dining room, and there was the most awful kerfuffle. Linda Stanton-Briggs, you know her?”

“Isn’t she a researcher to Peter Mandelson? The one who had an affair with – “ Tarquin lowers his voice this time, and I can’t quite hear the name of whoever he’s talking about.

“Yes, exactly. That was a scandal, that one. But very hush-hush. People in high places have a lot of power. Well, Linda was seated at the next table, I don’t know who she was with, but she’d had a couple of glasses of the old vino – “

“They have a wonderful wine cellar there, you know. My grandfather’s a member.”

“Quite, Tarquin, yes. Quite. Well, on the way out, she was really quite the worse for wear, being escorted by her friend. When she walked past Peter’s table, he apparently ignored her. And she started yelling and screaming “Don’t ignore me, Peter Stein, I’m having your baby!”

“No! I can’t believe that! At the Athaneum of all places. And there must be, I don’t know, thirty years between them?”

“Oh, at least. He must be late fifties at the youngest, and she’s, well, young enough to be his daughter. And he has a wife, you know the Stein Gallery in Hampstead?”

“God, these things are a mess. People have very complicated lives, don’t they?”

Tarquin is so arrogant that I want to wring his neck. He’s twenty seven, and married with two kids already, and has his whole life mapped out in front of him. And it will bear a remarkable similarity to his father’s and grandfather’s. But what gives him the right to be so sanctimonious? Who knows how their life is going to work out.

“Yes, they do.” Crispin says this as though his own life is pretty damn complicated, and years later, I find out that he’d been having an affair with a series of young, male researchers, generally at other firms, for the majority of his professional career. And he has a wife, too. As Tarquin said, other people’s lives…

“So what’s going to happen?”

“Oh, it’s already happened. Don’t know how, but the press got hold of the story immediately, and by the time Starr – “ I hate the public school thing of calling people by their surname “ - got outside, there were hoards of paparazzi there. Methinks it will be the front page, tomorrow.”

I’m so much on the inside here, that I even get to know what’s going to be the top news story in twenty four hours time. Amazing.

“Well, Crispin, thanks for filling me in. Quite something. Always rely on you for an interesting tale.” I can feel Tarquin’s smile through the partition. I imagine it looks something like the Joker in Batman. It’s a smile designed to garner support.

“OK, well, toodle-pip.” Crispin starts walking along the corridor, and turns suddenly, semi-crouches down and mimes pulling two guns out of his holster like a Wild West veteran. “Don’t forget, amigos, it’s a war for talent out there.”

I think this is a reference to the firm’s current mission statement; win the war for talent. It sounds to me like its phraseology has been randomly spawned by a beta-test mission statement generator developed by a failed management consultant.

No comments: