While it’s obviously implausible to claim that any one person’s career somehow encapsulates everything Unlocking Potential does, it is undeniably true that some people’s stories don’t just resonate with ours, but also illustrate what we’ve always been about.
Lewis O’Brien of Eliquo Hydrok is one of those people.
To cut a long, 20-year-story short, Lewis has progressed from being an Unlocking (Cornish) Potential (UCP, as it was then) graduate placement to where he is now: the business’s Managing Director. And much as that might sound linear and meteoric, how and why it happened, and what he learned along the way, reveals a lot about Lewis, and about us too.
During his Design Engineering degree, Lewis enjoyed the time he spent on placement with Eliquo Hydrok and was keen to go back. Via UCP he was able to, and he began working on what, effectively, was a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform for the business, even though strictly speaking CRMs didn’t really exist yet.
What stood out for Lewis was what a quick immersion into every aspect of the business this project was. Just about everyone was going to have to use what he was designing, so his work, indirectly, amounted to a comprehensive tour of the company, of who did what, and why. Exactly the kind of introduction, in other words, which starters leading a more structured and silo-based working life would miss out on.
This kind of approach was not only useful for the specifics of that project and for Lewis’s learning, it would also serve as a template for how he progressed and was encouraged to think.
His fast-forward absorption of all facets of the business helped accelerate that progress, but more than anything, how he developed the early CRM project would characterise how he would work overall: what’s the problem to be solved here, what do we need to happen, how could things be done better, with a better outcome for everyone?
Answering these questions without reflexively deferring to precedent or tradition leads to new ways of thinking, and to novel solutions to previously-intractable problems.
Lewis’s graduate placement at EH saw him swap a University environment for something more mentored. He particularly remembers his two main mentors (Louise and Jock) whose role, as he describes it, involved showing him where the doors were and, in some instances, giving him the keys which would open them. In practice, this might mean developing his skills, sending him on courses or, as per his experience developing the CRM project, ensuring he was exposed to many parts of the business. Going out on site visits for installation or maintenance, for example, were great ways for Lewis to see – and come up against – the limitations of his designs when they came into contact with real-world problems.
It was at this stage when he also went away and learned a lot about coding, PHP, databases and HTML: things he’d never really experienced previously but which would help enormously in the various roles he’d occupy.
And those roles were rarely formally defined. Lewis says his progress through the business was characterised less by a process of promotions and careful calibration, more by a sense of doing whatever was most needed at any one time. His job description was often kind of retro-fitted to accommodate what it was he’d ended up doing. Moving between elements of the business, learning many facets of it, being by nature a problem-solver: this was how Lewis moved within (and up) the business, and also how he ended up gravitating towards a more client-facing role from something more technical.
These freedoms, this sense of exploring, being open and not always reverting to the tried-and-tested: this is the atmosphere which the now-senior Lewis O’Brien wants to foster, how he believes new graduates can best prosper. Asking questions, challenging orthodoxy and making mistakes are qualities to be prized, and the best way for young people to get the most out of (and give their best to) the companies they work for.
Lewis says that new starters, graduates and apprentices have mindsets which differ from those he and his peers had 20 years ago. Considerations such as work-life balance are in play at a much earlier stage than used to be the case. And, in turn, as an employer, the idea that you show a starter their desk and expect them to sit at it, five days a week, nine until five, for several years is similarly a thing of the past.
People sometimes want a sideways move, a chance to work in a different environment, a career-break, a way to widen their knowledge. It not only pays a business to keep its people happy, but those people will, in turn, become more valuable and engaged by virtue of having broadened their experience, met more people, absorbed more about others’ roles.
Asked to itemise the three elements which had been most important to him as a UCP graduate placement, Lewis cited: