6 min read

Recently I was invited to an online business group and as I went to introduce myself and what I do I began to reflect, for the first time in a while, on where I’m at and how I got here. So my introduction ultimately led to this blog.

I’m Craig Thompson, founder of Vibrant Talent Development and the Northern Ireland Talent Development & Retention Forum (#NITDF). I used to manage training & recruitment for an outsourcing company before I realised those Sunday night (and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…) blues I was struggling with stemmed from a values conflict and it wasn’t going to change until I changed something.

There is arguably nothing people will do more in their lives than work, add in the commute and that makes depressing reading. What makes it worse is they often do it for a wage they can’t survive on and to be treated like a number. This used to really stick in my side. I had to put on a brave face every day in work as the guy hiring & developing people, selling them the company, when the truth was the company couldn’t have cared less about them. What made it all the more galling was that they were self-sabotaging.

No business benefits from a toxic culture. People don’t stay in a business like that. When they are there, it’s in body but not in mind. They don’t perform, they take more time off sick, customers have a poor experience and everyone resents each other. I used to go to great lengths to hire brilliant people only to watch the initial flame die out and see them disengage or leave in a matter of weeks. And nobody but me seemed to care. Actually that’s incorrect, non-managerial employees cared as they saw their buddies leaving. That then had a knock on effect on their own engagement with the company. So one day, I quit. Just like that. Unplanned and with no job to go to. I just couldn’t stomach it anymore. I was sat in a boardroom thinking life has got to be about more than this. Now looking back I can tell you if you haven’t got there yourself yet – it is!

My notice period ended and two weeks after that I sold everything I owned of any financial value, which equated to my car, bike and weights equipment, and moved to Spain completely unexpectedly. What I learnt along the way was that the world loves to tell you scary stories to keep you down, but if you’re not happy – why stick rather than twist?

I remember my employer at the time telling me “you’ll never get another job walking out without one to go to.” Nonsense, I had a good CV and I was prepared to go back to answering phones in a contact centre for less money to get away from what I was involved in. I felt like a traitor to my own values working there. I told them they should be more concerned about the fact I was prepared to step backwards in my career, to get away from them, than my future job prospects. You only get one life, it’s time to start living it I thought.

I set myself a 6 month time limit for my mid-life crisis which was spent soul searching on beaches eating €1 burgers, drinking €1 beers and at one point paying €25 a week to sleep on a mattress on a dining room floor as I had no savings banked for this impromptu life evaluation. But I didn’t care, and I wasn’t yet done. I wasn’t yet ready to go and get a job, and you’ll be amazed how much a single person can get by on when they do away with life’s luxuries and just live. I was determined that the feelings of resentment I had toward the world of work had to go, whatever I did next I was going to be fulfilled by it.

I want to be clear that I mean the world of work and not just that one company that had been employing me at that time. Funnily enough I really respect my old boss from that company and some of my colleagues. It wasn’t their individual faults the company was such a poor employer. They were part of a broken system and towing the line just like I had been. And I had been, no matter how I felt under the surface, I still delivered what I was employed to deliver – and to industry award winning standards.

I’ve worked since I was 11 or 12 years old. When I was 16 I had four part time jobs. I’ve worked as a waiter, contract caterer, cleaner, dish washer, retail assistant, been a lorry driver, van driver, airport baggage handler, airport security officer, worked in a full service marketing agency in a variety of roles, blagged my way into a job as a restaurant pizza chef despite never having made dough in my life until that point, handled complaints in a contact centre, been an HR analyst and spent a few years managing training & recruitment before I gave up. In my eyes the system was broken – and I’d worked in enough places to know it. The world of work had to change. It wasn’t working for the employers and it certainly wasn’t working for the employees.

I looked all around me and I just thought what is the point in all this? People slaving away to pay bills and die. Companies hamstringing themselves bringing in great talent only to usher it straight back out on a conveyor belt with poor people practices. Sorry if that’s a bit morbid – but it’s how I felt. I knew, however, that my experience was only mine and perhaps others felt differently. They had to.

I believed there were good companies out there, run with better values, but there weren’t enough of them. After 6 months of mulling it over – that’s still what frustrated me. I couldn’t go back into a corporate again and tow the company line. I looked around at the jobs on the market and nothing inspired me. It was going to be more of the same. For me, it was time for change. Someone had to be the catalyst, and while I had never wanted to be self-employed, after seeing the struggles of family members when growing up (mostly desperately chasing clients trying to get paid so they could pay their bills – not something I ever wanted to be doing), I knew in my heart I had no other choice. I was going to change the way the world ‘works’. One company at a time.

I decided to go self-employed and go looking for the organisations who wanted to be better workplaces and I was going to help them get there. It’s been a hard road. Starting a business with no money, no profile and no connections is not for the faint-hearted. But through gritted teeth, relentless effort and a resolute focus on the reason why I was doing it – I’ve made progress. I’ve worked with clients between the UK, Republic of Ireland and Spain. I’ve worked with clients from the insurance, utilities, hospitality & catering, media, manufacturing, software, advertising, recruitment, accounting and legal industries amongst others – doing my bit to help them become more vibrant workplaces. I’ve had some incredible experiences over the past five years, worked with and met some wonderful, truly inspiring people who I never would have met had I played it safe in 2014.

Now we’re taking it up a gear. Now we’re bringing a digital cultural evaluation platform, mooqi, to market. It will support our cultural transformation work at Vibrant but enable us to do it much more intelligently and effectively. We have exciting plans ahead for what we’re going to do with it/ how we’re going to evolve it and we want to get it out there as far and wide as possible to really start to make a ding in the universe, as Steve Jobs would say, and really start to improve both work, and by extension – lives.

My journey has not been easy or in any way straightforward. This pandemic is just the latest in a long line of challenges and it’s been disappointing to finally have momentum and then have this situation take it away temporarily. But we’ll get through it, because we have to. Because we have work to do. And work that matters. So as hard as the past few years have been, I wouldn’t change it for the world because I’m now fulfilled in what I do. And I guess in that respect, it’s a win!

Now, your turn, who are you and why do you do what you do?