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Robert Davidson addresses the University of the Highlands and Islands


A talk given by Sandstone Press Founder and Managing Director, Robert Davidson, to UHI Careers, University of the Highlands and Islands on Thursday 2nd February 2017.

Right away, this event’s organisers set me a challenge in the title of the talk: What qualities do we, at Sandstone Press, look for when we employ graduates? This is a question I am reluctant to take head on because, for one thing it will vary from post to post. We take great care with our job descriptions and after each interview we complete a spread sheet of how the applicants fit the requirements by their own presentations. Prospective employees should look at the job description carefully and see how they can best present themselves point by point. They should also think carefully about whether the post really suits them.

A second reason for my reluctance is my feeling that if I am to prescribe what qualities and characteristics the candidate should have I get a little too close for my own comfort to prescribing what the candidate should be.

The first thing I would want to say to any young audience follows the responsibility of every parent and grandparent to every child, every uncle and aunt to every growing young adult, and every veteran of the workplace to every newcomer, and it is that you are good enough. The first thing is that you should be yourself.

It is not at all unusual for anyone of any age to be smitten with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, but especially those who find themselves in the wrong job, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These feelings can be quite crushing so, especially in these circumstances, you should understand that you are good, you are worthy, you are competent, you are strong and you can handle what life and the workplace throw at you.

Failure is real, but those who have never failed have probably never tried. Failure may be setback but it is also guidance. One of the many travelling adages we have at Sandstone Press is: ‘Most setbacks are for the best.’ Not all setbacks, because some can finish you, but most. Setbacks are what occur when the world as you think it is collides with the world as it is. Only one of these can prevail and you should alter not just your thinking with that experience, but also your decision making. Remember it was your own decisions that brought you here, decisions that have had consequences or would hardly be worthy of the name ‘decisions’.

Beyond the job description, I would cite resilience resting on a realistic self-confidence that the candidates themselves must seek to nurture.

Publishing is part of the creative industries and, as such, we share a mental space with theatre, visual arts including galleries, with textile design, performance arts such as drama, music, dance, circus, and many more. Like them, we live where art and business meet. We also share our space with education, to which I give a sentence of its own because it is the great binding urge of humanity: that we should share our experiences, and our thoughts and our feelings, feeding always into the pool of knowledge whether at local and immediate level or to a depth and width that can include all of humanity through all of time.

At Sandstone Press we have published two fine series to feed directly into formal education. First was the Sandstone Vista twelve book series for adult learners of reading in English, which was edited by Moira Forsyth and is now in in use by tutors and their pupils. At present, we are completing another twelve-book series for use in Gaelic under the Lasag imprint for young Gaelic speaking adults, edited by Alison Lang. Working on both series has opened new horizons for us, brought new learning and increased networks of contacts and colleagues. I hope that is clear. When you give of your creativity and industry you also receive.

Our graduate employees should be alert to this and develop such connections.

I have had two careers. The first was in civil engineering the second in publishing, literature, the arts generally. It surprised me that there was considerable overlap. I identify myself now as a writer, editor and publisher. That is, a sort of an artist. Someone who is sensitive to thoughts and feelings, but these days it seems that all I ever think about is money. At a certain level, this is also true in civil engineering. It can bear some thinking about.

The attitude to money is crucial, to see it not simply as something of which we must have as much as possible of. More, more, more; now, now, now! A hunger which can never be satisfied is not just a hunger, it’s an addiction. Instead, I would prefer us to look at money as a motivation, a measure, a source of energy, a force to be directed. Watch its movements because they tell you stories. The question: Where’s the money? is never a wrong one to pose, but there is more to it than simple greed.

At Sandstone Press we do a lot of tendering. We have appointed our marketing consultant this way, also our sales agency and our distributor. We frequently put our print work to tender and we are always testing our proofreaders. What we do is put the work specification, which might be for goods or services, out to possibly six contractors, asking them to say describe they will meet the challenges and what their price will be. The appropriate level of authority, sometimes the Board, sometimes Production, discuss and come to a decision. It doesn’t necessarily go with the lowest cost but it usually does and, in something like print production it almost always does.

This is because quality is almost completely assured with the printers we approach and the cost comes down to the imagination they can bring to their production and logistics, and practical matters that are outside of our field of vision such as what materials they may have to hand from other projects. If you think about that you will see how important it is to go with the lowest price and hold to that almost as a principle. On the one hand, imagination must find its reward if we are to have progress. On the other, efficiencies as well as being good for business, and the lowest price to the end user, are also good for the environment. Also, the tenderers must trust your processes.

The graduates we employ must have the flexibility of mind to take their thinking about money out of the supermarket, the boutique, the bar, even the most pressing of rent and mortgage requirements, into this other kind of thinking. They must also have the strength of character to lay those valued personal relationships to one side (yes, the very relationships they have been working on) when applying this principle.

Another travelling adage at Sandstone Press is that every penny has to work, in every sense of the word ‘work’. You should also understand that the skills and knowledge you gain at this University and the experience you gain while working in the Arts, can and will be transferrable to other industries.

Our graduate employees should take their learning where they find it. They must in no way countenance the idea that to graduate and leave university is to finish learning. Actually, it’s not all that much more than a good start (although it is a good start). Not even such a wonderful teaching institution as the University of the Highlands and Islands can teach everything about every subject. Continued learning comes from books, from the spoken word, from experience lived and observed.

Still on the subject of money, one thing Sir Jackie Stewart says is this: ‘Keep your costs down, that’s your profit’. I have never seen the ‘equal to’ sign drawn so clearly in words, and it’s a tough one to accept. You might as well do so now.

When putting together those civil engineering tenders I mentioned earlier, the contractors’ buyers will call suppliers and get the materials’ costs. Obviously, they call the same people and get the same prices. When they put their final cost together all these parts should add up to the same sum. Their final tender price is usually set on zero profit, or very little, and yet the range of final prices can be very great. The difference comes in the imagination they bring to their construction methods and the management efficiency they feel they can rely on for their execution. This is competition. It can be hard to accept that competition and cooperation go hand in hand but they do.

The ability to apply imagination to a practical project, as in fact an engineer does, down there in the mud and well away from the ivory tower, is another quality I would seek and hope to develop in a graduate.

In publishing we have something similar with the deep discounts that give to all retailers and the likely, relatively low sales we will have when we are breaking new authors in particular. The ‘industry’ side of ‘creative industry’ works far too close to ‘zero sum’, but so do all other industries. Otherwise: keep your costs down, that’s your profit. That, and the occasional hit. The graduates we employ must be capable of not only understanding these pressures but of seeing them as part of a wider picture that delivers great reading to a public that is imbued with the power of choice.

Another of Sir Jackie’s maxim’s, which I picked up by chance from a radio interview, is: Don’t be afraid of working with people better than you. I can hardly tell you how liberating this was because, when I heard it and understood, I realised how that sense of inadequacy that many of us share and that we tend to keep ashamedly quiet about, as described at the start, had made me fearful. I was afraid that my position might be eroded or even lost. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of being found out.

Since then I have made a point of working with people who are better than me and it is very much to the good. For one thing, I have discovered that I am not so hopeless as I feared. For another, we are all grow in this environment. My hope is that our graduates will remain with Sandstone Press and grow with the company. If they don’t, my hope is that they will have grown as much as they can with us and that they will go on to great things elsewhere.

I hope you have picked up the subsidiary point in this: Don’t be afraid.

All of this brings me to the subject of Leadership. It’s an awkward word. Say that you aspire to a leadership role and people are liable to think that you are perhaps somewhat large in your self-estimation. Leadership is associated with grabbing a flag and running into hail of bullets shouting, ‘Follow me!’ It is too easily associated with heroism, probably soldierly, but possibly the heroism of a, say, Germaine Greer who forged out on her own and now finds that those who followed have either not caught up or gone in different directions.

Leadership is neither of these. Leadership is largely the foresight to see the problems and crises that are coming and the courage to go there early and deal with them before the caravan arrives. In civil engineering I thought of them as the ‘hotspots up ahead’. Do it well and the people following might never know they were there as they go past. Leadership is making the right decisions at the right time. Leadership is setting people free within parameters you have created in the first place. Done well, leadership is barely visible. Leadership looks easy.

Graduates in the creative industries should watch their leaders and, when they assess them as is inevitable, see how far they have looked ahead, feel how smoothly the journey has gone, and enter the decision-making processes as far as you are allowed because this is where the real learning is done.

My strong counsel is that you find what you love to do and grow outwards from there. If you find yourself in a job you hate, change. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable personal environment, leave. You are in competition with no-one but yourself, with nothing but your own arbitrary ambitions.

A site agent I worked for in the 1970s advised this for when any young engineer started on a new site, ‘Turn up clean, sober, and on time. Have a pair of sparkling black wellington boots in one hand and a fresh notebook in the other and smile. When the going gets tough, don’t actually assault anyone.’

Decades later, I still turn up every morning before 8.00 and usually keep going until sometime after 5.00. I do this because I love what I do. I love the creation of the lists, the selecting of texts, the editing, the design, the reactions of reviewers, bookshops, journalists, most of all appreciative readers. Sandstone Press is both a construction project and a work of art forever in progress. My hope is it will go on, doing what it does, well into the future. That it will continue to publish great books for an appreciative readership and provide even more high quality jobs for this area, Highland Scotland, which is the most beautiful place in the world to my eye.

I hope I can leave it as my legacy but not as a prisoner of my vision. Future changes will not be my business but the business of people much like the people who make up this audience, who are possibly in this audience, and like those graduates who are working for us now. For me they extend a long line of working people I have shared my life with: joiners, steel-fixers, tunnellers, authors, artists, composers, designers, typographers, most of whom I remember with great fondness. As said, I turn up because I love what I do, but I turn up with a smile because of the people I work with.