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Helping people develop
  1. Hamish Somerville

Abstract

James Somerville, or Hamish as he is known, qualified as a vet, worked in industry and is now a business coach. He is based in Switzerland

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THE purpose of life according to Socrates is ‘know thyself’. Fifty years as veterinary student, practitioner, commercial adviser, senior manager and independent coach have convinced me he was right.

Why choose veterinary medicine? Some of my contemporaries at Edinburgh in the 1960s had obvious reasons: following in father's footsteps, contact with farming, passion for horses or small animals. Others made apparently arbitrary choices. My choice was a compromise between agriculture and human medicine.

Learning to drink beer, play college sports and being with the same crowd for five years was fun. I had a taste of commerce organising balls and dances and saw the value of team spirit when the Dick played the University. We learned the principles of veterinary medicine and seeing practice consolidated the learning. Comparing myself with vets from other countries I am grateful for an excellent grounding in veterinary medicine.

In my second summer vacation I had the chance to work with a dedicated teacher, Barry Leek, on nerve transmission in ruminants. I learned that I was not cut out to be a scientist and found myself reflecting on mankind's relationship with animals. In a coffee break I suggested that pain was ‘in the mind’. Professor Iggo, for whom I had great respect, suggested I drop physiology and study philosophy. It took me 30 years to follow his advice.

Hamish in action front left in a raft in Switzerland with a team from Novartis

On graduation in 1966, I decided to go into practice to complete my education. Thanks to James Herriot I can relive the good bits of these days. Long may he be read. My first move from practice in Staffordshire was necessitated by the 1967/68 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in which I helped, as a temporary civil servant, to eliminate most of the practice's patients. The memory of piles of acute liver fluke carcases I saw while practising in Cumberland in 1968 boosted my motivation to help to develop and launch triclabendazole (Fasinex) many years later. Small animal practice in London gave me experience in surgery and more interesting insights into human dealings with animals.

In September 1969, I developed severe undiagnosed jaundice. In isolation in Guy's Hospital I had time to reflect on myself, experiments with animals, mass slaughter of cows with foot-and-mouth disease, and people who claim to be animal lovers because they feed pets on best steak. I decided to look for a job in commerce.

In February 1970, I started work for Ciba in Cambridge. The environment was much influenced by the late Robert James. Robert was a highly enthusiastic agriculture graduate who saw business as a game like cricket. We had great fun, but I found I lacked technical knowledge for the work. In 1972, Peter Lane, Bayer UK veterinary adviser, and I restarted the Association of Veterinarians in Industry. I helped run several successful AVI symposia, through which I acquired useful knowledge for my job and learned the value of pro-activity and networking.

In 1979 I moved to Switzerland and was promoted to head of international product development and member of the executive committee of Ciba-Geigy Animal Health. I had a superb overview of a global animal health business and the process of developing and launching new molecules and new products. Communicating in German with experts in chemistry, biology and finance was a challenge. However, it was working with different people from different countries and with different backgrounds and communication styles that taught me most about myself.

Learning to work with people

In the UK I had worked with enthusiasts who liked fun and excitement. My new colleagues were interested in the bottom line, making profit and avoiding loss. Enthusiasm didn't convince them. I had to learn to see it their way and be interested in their interests and talk how they talked. With analytical colleagues who wanted to avoid mistakes and loss, I learned to slow down and talk facts, logic and details. With goal-getters looking for profit, I got straight to the point and talked about what was in it for them. Much of this I learned from being exposed to excellent training in communication and selling skills developed by Ciba-Geigy in the USA.

I learned that we all learn most from the people who we find difficult and are not like us. Different types of people make strong teams. Enthusiasts have energy and ideas, but on their own they have too many ideas and starts and no finishes. Strong leaders are essential, but too many bosses have too many goals and no teamwork. Analysts are precise and reliable and check details, but too many analysts get lost in detail. Facilitating types get results by working with others. On their own they are not great achievers. From facilitating colleagues I learned the value of asking for help. By asking, cap in hand, for help from human pharmaceutical colleagues I was able to start the project that led to the introduction of benazepril (Fortekor) for heart conditions in small animals.

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In strong teams fights are inevitable. The challenge is to handle the fights in the team. Significant new products often depend on non-conformists who think out of the box, ignore objections and make breakthroughs. I learned a lot from working with Joe Boray, professor of veterinary parasitology in Budapest before the 1956 uprising. Joe managed our field stations in Australia around 1980. He had, and still has, limitless enthusiasm for parasitology. He gave the impulse that resulted in the development of Fasinex. Sadly, he left the company before I could get him into the team in Switzerland

Regulatory controls have greatly increased the time and information needed to show product safety, efficacy and quality. For the UK product launch of Nuvan Top against fleas in the early 1970s, I remember having one lever-arch file of technical information. For the initial registration of lufenuron, (Program) 20 years later, I remember 23 copies of 30 files. This kind of detailed information was never my strength. It was time to move on.

I enjoyed industry, and I am sure I had opportunities, but I lacked the commitment to get to the top of the tree. I was on a branch that I didn't want to stay on. To round off 25 years I wrote a dissertation for the degree Dr Med Vet, Zürich, on the contribution of the Basel chemical industry to veterinary medicine. I looked for ways to earn a living from my passion for communication.

A new way to earn a living

Trekking in the Himalayas in 1993, I became interested in Buddhism and finally took Professor Iggo's advice. I started to study and practise Buddhism. Buddhist psychology has helped me enormously to understand and explain simply and clearly the personality types and communication styles that are the core of my coaching business. Since 1995 I have had enormous fun coaching communication, leadership and team performance with individuals and groups in many countries and at all levels in mainly multinational companies. I have continuously developed and simplified the coaching materials, personality tests and team performance assessments (see www.pospositive.com).

Coaching is one of the few professions where experience and age are not disadvantages and may even be of benefit. I am proud to have started as a vet and happy to have become a coach. I hope to continue coaching and following Socrates's advice to know myself into a ripe old age.

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