When all you can do is play the ball that is bowled to you

To many of us, especially those of us who lived through those days, the TV series Mad Men has been essential viewing. We have come to know the character Don Draper, played by John Hamm, like a friend. And now, this week, Hamm’s new film Million Dollar Arm has come to London. And it’s about cricket! Wahaay! Have the Americans seen the light?

Now, if you don’t play cricket, I am sorry. Please bear with me. Who knows, the lesson in this post might change your life, just as a cricket ball can end it.

For, if you do play cricket, you will know that batting is a dangerous pastime. And it can be a mental disaster. It’s ok once you are ‘in’ and have scored some runs. You have become used to the pace of the pitch, experienced the speed and guile of the bowlers and mapped the positioning of the fielders. The longer you bat, the more relaxed you become.

But, every time you bat, your first ball is nightmare. As you stand there, nervously watching the bowler charging towards you, you have no idea what to expect or whether you will be up to the task ahead. No one has said anything or done anything to you. Nor have you done anything to them. Your only job is to stand and look. But your brain is scrambled. You wonder if your feet are in the right place, your knees sufficiently bent, your back straight, your head at the right angle, the bat in your hands pointing in the right direction and your eyes are working.

Sometimes, it seems, they are not. For there are times, as I myself can testify, when your first ball is unleashed at you at such a ferocious pace that, quite simply, you do not see it. There is the whirling of a white-clothed human being twenty two yards ahead of you; a blurred vision of something red rocketing towards your face and whooshing past your nose; an eerie, evil whirr as the seam of the ball rotates and hurtles through the whistling air; and a sharp smack as it bullets into the gloves of the wicketkeeper behind you. Then comes the humiliation of a knowing, gloating, smirking, superior guffaw from the fielders as they confirm something you thought only you knew. You haven’t seen the ball at all.

Then, horror of horrors, within a minute, in less than sixty seconds, the same thing, the same sheer terror, will be unleashed at you again. To the amateur player, the village cricketer, the brain becomes more scrambled, the self-doubt more exaggerated, the fear more extreme. Will the next ball be as fast as the last? Will it hit me? Should I take a different stance? Stand further back in the crease? Get my head straighter?  Raise my bat less far in the backlift? Was that last ball really that quick? What if I don’t see it again? What am I doing here? Am I good enough?

Professional cricketers, people who are really good at batting, who know what they are doing, who, perhaps, have got their head together, are different. They don’t have these feelings of self doubt. Whether by nature or training or both, they have the ability, and the mental strength, to put the last ball behind them. What has just happened will have no impact on what is about to happen. They wipe it from the memory. It is in the past. Gone. Good cricketers play the ball that is bowled to them.

This summer, one of my oldest and closest friends, and as it happens one of the best cricketers I have played with, was not appointed to a job on which he had set his heart. He works in a place where he has dedicated his entire working life. For the last few years, he has been a worthy and successful number two in the batting order. Now, on the retirement of the number one, many of us who are stakeholders in this business justifiably expected him to progress smoothly and seamlessly into the top spot. And with this important job would come respect, status, a feeling of achievement, of a life well spent.

But my friend missed out. Another guy was selected. Someone from outside the business. Someone none of us know or, frankly, care about. Now, I must not be unfair to this guy. I wasn’t on the selection panel or part of the process. It may be he is a worthy candidate. Indeed it must be. He may have qualities I have not seen. Indeed he must have. But he is new. And ‘new’ is a risk isn’t it? It must be.

It never ceases to amaze me how often this happens, how few leaders of organisations ‘grow their own successor’, as my advertising guru David Ogilvy used to say (no mad man he).

Soon after I started my career at his agency, then known as Ogilvy & Mather, our chairman retired. His successor, Peter Warren, who had worked for Ogilvy man-and-boy, having started in the post room, eased himself seamlessly into the chair. Michael Baulk, also Ogilvy man-and-boy, smoothed into the role of Managing Director.

Baulk and Warren became the dream team. So much so that they were poached by Abbott Mead Vickers – still, twenty years later as AMV BBDO, the biggest advertising agency in London. I remember being amazed that O&M let this happen. I suspect it must have been something to do with share options or performance bonuses, but someone let them go.  At what price? Why grow your own talent all the way to the top and then let it slip away, as has just happened to my friend? This, surely, is madness.

For, needless to say, O&M replaced Baulk and Warren with ‘outside’ appointments who in the eyes of many, not least me, were a disaster. A unique corporate culture that had been grown and nurtured and cherished over decades disappeared down the Thames.

And what about the big wide world outside advertising? Next year, after the General Election, how many of the new Cabinet will be qualified to become ministers of government? What, for example, if a deal has to be done with Ukip? Will these appointments be made on merit or political expediency? Or will these people have been grown, nurtured, into their jobs? I think we know the answer.

So what of my friend?

I can’t help feeling a mistake has been made. But this won’t help him will it? In terms of the top job, he has been given out. And, as my dad used to say, once you’re out, you’re out.

However, while many of us moan and groan from our fielding positions of ignorance on the outside of this decision, and knowing him as I do, my friend’s stance will be solid, his bat straight, his head held high, his eyes focussed on the track ahead …

… and he will play the next ball that is bowled to him.

And this, let me tell you, is greatness.

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