Armed with a modern languages degree from a prestigious university, at the age of 26 I found myself in Northern England looking for a job. A European collections agency advertised for people with foreign language skills. All I knew about collections was the British idiom “money with menaces”. I needed a foot on the ladder and money in my pocket, so I took the job.

Right away I saw two things: first, there was a lot of “money with menacing”. Everyone had targets. They had a lot of arguments and conflict. They were getting results by any means.

And then there were the people on the other end of the phone. Most of them had one of three things happening in their lives. They were either unemployed, in the middle of a divorce or dealing with a long-term illness.

These people didn’t need haranguing, they needed help. And we were exactly the right people to provide it.

Here’s the thing about working in collections: you become an expert in managing money. All those conversations about spending and cashflow, all the stories you hear of customers’ lives, they teach you basic financial principles.

I started to ask different questions. What if we began with the assumption that people genuinely wanted to improve their situation, and just needed support and guidance? What worked for other customers? What would happen if we encouraged and empathised, instead of complaining and cajoling?

After a few weeks the numbers spoke for themselves: my internal results were going up, I was going home with the feeling of having made a real contribution to others’ lives, and most importantly more customers than ever were getting themselves out of debt.

At this point I was one person doing this on my own. The day I pinned the organisation’s first ever thank you card to the office noticeboard I became a customer service leader.

I was lucky to have bosses who supported these ideas, so later when I was the Company Trainer, and then Operations Manager, I helped embed this customer service approach to collections into the culture.

My time in the company taught me three important leadership lessons:

  1. Leadership can happen from anywhere, it’s not about the title. Don’t wait to be asked, go ahead and do it anyway.
  2. Prioritise people over processes and targets. When we focus our energy on our teams and customers the results take care of themselves. Take the time to understand the world from their perspective, then you know how best to work with and develop them.
  3. The principles of sound financial management are as true for companies as they are for people. To positively impact your bottom line you must carefully manage budget and cashflow.

Starting my career in the collections industry was a hidden blessing from a leadership perspective. The drama in people’s stories, and the power of our solutions, helped me quickly learn lessons which others only discover much later in their career.