Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford in 2005 should be required reading for anyone in business.
Or life, for that matter.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
One of the dots in my life was Robert Strodel. He died a few weeks ago in Sharjah just before his 61st birthday.
When I started working for Lufthansa at Heathrow, he was reservations supervisor and on a course in Germany.
I asked around what he was like and I seriously thought that his first name was “Fucking”.
“You’re not working for fucking Strodel, are you…?”
Few appeared to have a good word to say about him. Evidently someone with a tricky User Interface.
A week later, the office door bursts open and in strides a young – 2 years my junior, I was 21 – guy, suited and briefcased.
“Did you pass your course then, Robert?” someone asked.
“Of COURSE I have passed my course” he bellowed.
“Here we go”, I thought….
Strangely, we got on well and he became my first mentor. Not because he liked me (which he did, actually, and the feeling was mutual – we became good friends), but because it was part of his plan.
He was a championship junior chess player in Austria and ambitious to an extent that someone would later describe as “frightening”.
He was focussed. He had a plan for everything.
His father was Director of Engineering at Austrian Airlines, his mother came from quite a good family (I came to know them all quite well) and he was raised with massive hurdles to master and expectations to fill.
He started working life with no formal qualifications and somehow turned up at KLM’s cargo terminal at Heathrow at the tender age of 17 and got them to offer him a job.
A year later, he moved down the corridor to Lufthansa and became their youngest supervisor.
He decided it would be helpful to his career to be married, so he chatted up a bird at the Hatton Cross branch of Barclays Bank and dragged her to the altar. That sorted the problem of only being able to offer his boss beans on toast at his bedsitter. Entertaining your boss is good for your career, ergo we entertain the boss.
He decided it would be good to have someone with the same work ethic to deputise for him, so he gave me more and more responsibility, gave me stretch assignments and introduced me to the people who mattered in Frankfurt.
We worked 30 hour days (see above..) when British Airways went on strike (frequently) and worked out that we could probably run the reservations department by ourselves and trouser 6 salaries instead of only 2. The unions wouldn’t let us.
He told me about the Peter Principle – “everyone rises to their level of incompetence” – and warned that it happens to everyone and that one should tread carefully.
He decided that it would be useful to his future career (which would take place in Germany – all mapped out..) if his wife spoke German, so he shipped her off to Vienna to his parents and moved into our house. 4 guys and a mynah bird. A bottle of gin a night. Kicking a ball around the park with the guys. Permanent residents at the 3 Magpies. Crazy Strodel mode. This gives you an idea. We were the same size back then (I still am..) and we decided it would be financially advantageous to share our assets.
Jackets, for example. An incentive to be first up in the morning.
Invariably short of cash. His get-rich-quick schemes were hilarious (although DHL nicked our idea of couriering documents across the Atlantic – we were going to use our reduced rate travel
until the company cottoned on and sacked us on our days off, but “The Times” wouldn’t put an ad in the paper unless we had a solicitor or something and we hardly had enough money for clothes – see above). A suitcase full of fabric paintings and shadow theatre figures from the Far East with the idea of selling them at GREAT PROFIT to the Indian community in Hounslow. Not a big market for Indonesian folk-art in the Indian community in Hounslow, but they made good Christmas presents and I think I still have some…
He never lost his accent. Heroically rolled ‘r’s. (“Strrrrodel is my name”….). An utter inability to separate ‘v’ and “w’ (“What’s that aircraft, Bob” “A Wickers Wiscount, you vanker!”)
His father’s engineering genes got lost in the DNA mix somewhere. His toolbox in his flat consisted of a single screwdriver with a chisel-like blade and a massive wooden handle that doubled as his hammer.
We helped my uncle move house. Ex-RAF Group Captain, Senior Technical Officer at V-Bomber stations during the Cold War. Massive collection of good tools.
“Vot is all ziss RRRRUBBISH?” he demands.
“They’re very expensive tools, Robert” says uncle.
“Expensive RRRRUBBISH zen”
After he’d moved to Frankfurt (I took over his job), he called me up one day and said something along the lines of “My salary deductions are more than your gross salary, you should come over here. I’ll sort out a job for you”
I struggled along with a severe lack of German for a while and he moved on first to be an instructor at the Lufthansa Learning Centre in Seeheim, second to decide that he needed a different wife and then to Sao Paulo’s Viracopos airport as Handling Manager.
Visited him there when Ms jb had a flight with a couple of days off. They got on like a house on fire, she close to the point of spontaneous combustion and Strrrrodel liberally splashing petrol on the conversation.
Crew rest area. Don’t need them. We could sell those seats for $8000 every flight. Do you think your husband can go to the office, work 3 hours and then go and have a sleep?
Then straight into Crazy Strodel mode, helped along by a couple of caipirinhas. Dangerous here. Always eat with a loaded gun next to my plate. Why’s that outside light still burning? We don’t know which switch? BAM! No more light bulb.
A couple of years later, he’s back in Germany after a midnight flit from Sao Paulo (never did find out the whole story…) with Customs supposedly in close pursuit. Gets a job at corporate HQ in Cologne to project manage a task force reporting to the CEO and gives me a call to come on board as a domain expert.
One of the first things he did was to give me a pile of Executive Board submissions to read.
“If you don’t master the nuances of language at this level” he said “you won’t be taken seriously. You can say what you like, but they won’t hear you”. Pearls of wisdom.
Off he goes to Pakistan and later India where he becomes MD of Lufthansa Cargo India, running ropey 727 freighters out of the sub-continent to the Emirates.
By this stage, I’ve been in more or less constant demand for a wide range of projects.
Introducing QM in the intercontinental network. Let’s rapid-prototype with India and use them as multipliers for the rest of the Far East.
The next time I see him, I’m Director of Key Account Management at Lufthansa’s IT subsidiary and on my way to a client in the UK.
Who comes striding along through Concourse A in Terminal 1 as purposefully as when I first met him in 1970?
Now with his own consultancy and drumming up business for an obscure (at the time) airline in Abu Dhabi by the name of Etihad.
“I need Crew Scheduling software. Do you have some?”
“Send someone down to show it to us”
As business-like as ever, then straight into Crazy Strodel mode with some wildly improbable yarn involving a camel, his 4 wheel drive Pajero, 24 Pakistanis and a sly-grog operation.
“Don’t forget to send someone down. This week”
Etihad became our client, he became its first CEO, it grew from 340,000 passengers in our first year as supplier to 7.1 million last year.
At one stage, I gave him a heads-up about some scuttlebutt at pprune.org that didn’t bode well for industrial relations at his airline.
“If zey vould vork harder for ze airline, zey vould have less time for zis silliness.”