Career | Dialogue with Professor Rob Carroll II

In the previous blog, we discussed career planning and the definition of success. Today, we will be focusing on the following issues:

  • The life experience of Professor Rob Carroll
  • What leads him to become an investor?
  • Who was the biggest influence in his career and how did s/he influence him?
  • What qualities does him value the most in a person and why? How do we know whether someone is trustworthy or not?

Professor Rob Carroll

Rob is a Director of Catapult Ventures and chairs Catapult’s four Investment Committees. Catapult is a Venture Capital Fund Manager with assets under management of £130m. He previously worked at 3i plc in Leicester and London and ECI in the Midlands.

Rob is Chairman of Replay Limited in Newark a Non-Executive Director of Open Go Sim in Nottingham. He is also an angel investor in Ekkosense Ltd. He has lectured at Nottingham University Business School since 2011 in Venture Capital and Private Equity and was appointed Honorary Professor in August 2013 and Professor of Practice in July 2016.

Q1. Can we briefly go through your background and the key events that shaped your life path?

I was one of the four children. I was the oldest. My dad was self-employed. He ran a small business. That was quite interesting because I saw the stresses and strains of an entrepreneur running a business. I remember we used to have to keep out of his way when he did his tax returns, because he was a bit fractious while that was going on. But I suppose what that taught me was that if my dad could run business and turn it into a moderately successful one, then it didn’t hold any fear for me, because I thought if he could do it, I could do it. That did help me make a leap from paid employment into starting my own business. That was quite a memorable event.

It was a very competitive family. I don’t look back to my childhood particularly fondly for various reasons. But it did teach t me to be competitive. I was reasonable at sports. I played rugby, which, again, is competitive and tough sport in the UK. You know in the UK we have counties, such as Nottinghamshire, Shropshire and Leicestershire. I represented Shropshire at an event called the Triathlon, which is where you could run, shoot, ride and swim, and you have to do that in a day. I think doing sports to a reasonable standard, when you’re young, instils a sense of competitiveness and also the will to win, which I think is quite important. I do thank my family for this.

So that was from school and family. I initially wanted to be a doctor, but the school I went to wasn’t a particularly good school. And I was advised that I wasn’t good enough to do that, which was interesting. I don’t think that would happen now. They recommended that I set my sight a little bit lower and be a pharmacist instead, so I applied to pharmacy and got to be trained as a pharmacist. I suppose that taught me: if you think you’re good enough, then don’t be put off by people who talk you down. Therefore, in terms of being a parent, we always encourage our children to be the best they can rather than say “you’re not good enough to do it”.

Sorry to interrupt but can I ask one quick question? How do you deal with the frustration when somebody denies your ability? Do you think you get the resilience from your competitive side or?

I suppose what happens is you’re very disappointed about it to start with. But if you get knocked down by something, you’ve got to get up. You can’t stay on the floor too long. You’ve got to adjust yourself and get up. Every time you bounced back from a setback, it does make you more resilient, because you know it’s not the end of the world. If now I’m facing a very big problem, I just go to “what’s the worst that can happen?” When you think through what’s the worst that can happen and realise nothing is very bad, it gives you strength to carry on. This experience taught me two lessons:

  • Always push yourself and trying to do the best you can
  • Life is quite hard, so people receive setbacks and are knocked down. They need to have petrol in their tank. They need to be encouraged. Therefore, I try to encourage people rather than say “you mustn’t do that because you’re not good enough”. I would never ever say anything like that because I experienced the downside of this type of approach.

You are a very compassionate person. You get this compassion from your own experience as well?

Yes, I suppose everybody is a mixture of their experiences. I was just determined that I wouldn’t inflict that on somebody else, because I had it inflicted on me. I make sure that I treat people differently to what I experienced and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Then, because of all of that going on, I fell out with my family. I’ve packed bags and left home. I went right to see my girlfriend to say goodbye. She said “you can’t go on your own. I’m coming with you”. Then we left home together. I fell out with my family and also fell out with hers because she came with me. We then ran away to Somerset, which is in the southern part of the country, just with a tent. We ended up on Taunton railway station and had enough money to set up a camp site. This is after finishing A-level and before going to university. I made contact with some friends that I went to school with who had also gone down to the south to try and find work for the summer. To cut a long story short, they came and got us. We ended up working at Pontins for the summer, which is a holiday camp. We worked for about 12 weeks over the summer as waiter and waitress. I didn’t phone home and they didn’t know where I was, although my girlfriend did phone her home and told her parents where we were. I then got into university. I came home very briefly to collect some clothes and went off to university. I didn’t really speak to my family for a couple of years after that. This experience taught me to be resilient because there was no safety net. Later on, I reconciled with my parents. My dad now just lives down the road and he comes around to visit very often. But that was quite a difficult period. They never came to visit me in university, for instance. All of that teaches you resilience. I either had to succeed or not succeed, and that reality has stayed with me.

After my degree I then started to live at home with my parents again because as a pharmacist you have to do a pre-registration year, which is poorly paid. At the time it’s a 3-years degree and a year working before you became a fully qualified pharmacist. As a pre-registration student, as it’s called, you don’t get a very big wage, so I decided I would try and live at home with my parents whilst I was doing that. It lasted 6 months and I realised that didn’t work. So, I moved out again. I then got a job for Boots and I worked in the Midlands for about a year. I was reasonably ambitious at the time, and I decided that there wasn’t any chance of promotion in the area I was working, so I rang Boots’s head office and said, “where is the best area to go for promotion?” They said “it’s not a very nice area. But if you want to go to southeast London, then that’s probably the best place to go for promotion because we can’t get anybody to go there”. Then I said “fine, I’ll move”.

I moved to London to work in one of the roughest areas.  I then contacted a college friend that I went to university with, and we moved in together. Adrian Reynolds is probably my longest standing and closest friend. We lived together for a year in a not very nice part of London and were both pursuing our career development. Then we felt it was not very sensible to be paying extraordinarily high rent. Therefore, Adrian and I teamed up with another college friend that had been at university with and decided to buy a house together which was fun. We did it all properly and legally, so if anybody pulled out for any reason in the future, then the others had the opportunity to buy them out and buy their share. That also taught me: even if you are friends, it’s very important to not just shake your hands but to have a proper formal legal agreement, just in case you end up falling out. We didn’t fall out because it was all legally documented.

I then met Jo, my wife, after graduating from the university. Jo was very friendly with my brother’s girlfriend. They introduced us and we started going out. When we got married, I pulled out of the mortgage for the house in London and had enough money to buy a house for the two of us. The other guys bought me out. So, the lesson there is just make sure things are documented properly.

Then, I worked for boots as a store manager and Boots moved me around the country to manage bigger stores because I did a reasonable job. If you do a good job for a big company, they put you through decent training programmes. They then also start to formally assess your management potential. They put me through a 2-days assessment centre to really understand what potential I had, along with about 25   other people. We were all being assessed for senior positions and for future career. I did well at that. They then asked me to do an MBA, part time over a three-year period. I stayed with Boots for a year after completing the MBA. I then left them and moved into finance, because that’s what I wanted to do.

Q2. What leads you to become an investor?

I wasn’t happy with the job I was doing for Boots. An MBA really opened your eyes to what’s possible. One of the best things I’ve ever done, apart from getting married and having kids, is doing an MBA because it opened your career horizons and also gives you confidence. At first, you may think that you’re not good enough to do an MBA and all the people on the course will be Jeff Bezos types. Yet when you do your MBA, you realise that you’re equally as good as other people on the course. That gives you confidence. Rather than do the MBA and then apply for different jobs, which is more of a random approach, what I decided to do is to try and do it in a scientific way. My MBA dissertation was on search and selection techniques in the UK and Europe. I was interested in how people are selected, so I wrote a dissertation on how good the interview is about predicting future performance, how good a psychometric testing is, how good assessment centres are, how good handwriting is in terms of assessing people. These questions interested me. So, what I decided to do, instead of randomly applying for jobs, is to try and work out what I enjoyed, what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at. I did loads of tests on myself because knowing yourself is really important. If you don’t know yourself, then you don’t really know what’s best for you. It’s more difficult to make successful career decisions with a lack of self-knowledge. I went through various tests to know myself, and out of that came an understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses. The job that came out as a result of this process was being a venture capitalist. I thought “what is a venture capitalist?” Going through my MBA, I did a module about venture capital just to see whether what these tests suggested I was good at was actually a job I would enjoy. I found the course very interesting and thought “yes, I can do this job, because it plays to my strengths and also fundamentally fulfils my needs as a person in terms of my purpose”.

The lesson there is: know yourself, test yourself, know what you’re good at, and then be guided by the science on which jobs you apply for. If you understand what does it for you or what makes you happy and what you need in your job and then go and find a job that satisfies those needs. If you do it this way, I feel that you are much more likely to be successful and be happy. It also helps to prevent you from being in the cycle of applying for jobs, finding that you do not enjoy it and then finding another job. If you understand what the fundamental things within the job that make you happy and you’re good at, you’re much more likely to match yourself with the job that you can do. Then, you end up being happy.

In terms of being an investor, my needs as a person are things like helping people and being patriotic. I’m interested in business. I like people and find people interesting, and I can form lasting relationships with people. Being an investor, say if I invested in your business, we would have to get on, you would have to trust me, and I’d have to be able to influence you etc. I think people have an interesting view of an investor, but it’s really all about the people side of things rather than the number side of things. You can’t influence anybody without making the time and the effort to have rapport with them. For instance, I can’t influence you unless we have a rapport. So, you have to spend time on building rapport before somebody will listen to you. I think some people try to influence others too quickly before they have rapport. Therefore, three other learning lessons here are:

  • Building rapport first before you try and influence people
  • Collect mentors. As you go through your career, you will come across really good people. You will think “I really admire these people. I think they speak sense”. So, just say to them “I want you to be my mentor”. You can have as many as five or six mentors. Then, if you ever come to a difficult career or personal decision, consult with your mentors. A problem shared is a problem halved. Life is quite hard and to do well in life it’s all about making the right key decisions and spending the right amount of time in getting them right. If you’ve got five or six people to bounce the idea around with and whom you value, then you’re much more likely to make the right decision. It’s like having a board of directors. One person can’t get every decision right, but if you got a board of directors, you’ve got four or five people to talk to before making your key decisions.
  • Also be willing to mentor others. If you have benefitted from people mentoring you, then always be willing to mentor others. You will enjoy it! Don’t be mean with your own time and put off other people because life is much more fulfilling if you help others.

Q3. Who was the biggest influence in your career and how did s/he influence you?

One of the biggest influences was my chairman at Catapult, who was my chair for about 10 years. We went through a lot of ups and downs during that time. I remember he said to me once, “it’s always important to put more into the pot than to take out from the pot”. So always try and give back more than you take out, because then you make the world a better place. Interestingly, the more you put in, the more you get out, because people want to help you. Mich Stevenson was my Chairman. He was tough and fair. He taught me how to chair a meeting and the importance of putting petrol in people’s tanks using praise rather than criticism.

Q4. What qualities do you value the most in a person and why? How do you know whether someone is trustworthy or not?

Career wise, it’s all about choosing to work with the right people. Assessing people is one of the most important things you can do to be a successful person, because if you make the wrong choices there then the cards can be stacked against you. So, choose to work with good people. When applying for jobs, A company such as Amazon, Google, Netflix et al will put you through a rigorous selection regime. They know that if they select the right people, their life is going to be much easier in the future. Recruiting the right people is a really big factor of your own personal success. There’re various ways you can recruit people, but I tend to focus on two things:

  • Is this person conscientious?
  • Is this person reliable?

I think lots of the other qualities of a person can be absorbed by these two criteria. Take trustworthiness as an example. If somebody isn’t trustworthy, they are unlikely to be reliable. And if somebody has got poor time keeping, then they are not conscientious. If somebody doesn’t put the effort in at work, then they are unlikely to be conscientious. So, the key criteria for me are conscientiousness and reliability. Whilst ability is obviously important to me is perhaps not the most important thing. As long as somebody really tries hard and is reliable and conscientious, then they will reach the peak of their ability if you also mentor and coach them well.

Chinese translation: 一聊人文


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