Meet the Team : John Coffin, Challenges Worldwide Senior Mentor

John Coffin was first involved with Challenges Worldwide as a Mentor on projects in Uganda and the Philippines in 2014. He moved into a remote senior mentor position afterwards for the CW ICS Programme.

We had a chance to catch up with John while evaluating the success of the Summer 2016 Challenges Worldwide ICS programme in which John provided remote assistance to Challenges Worldwide ICS volunteers who were consulting with SME’s in Ghana, Uganda and Zambia.

Here our Alumni Engagement Officer Lewis asks John about his career path:

 Did you do anything similar to the CW ICS programme before you were 35?

 “For nearly ten years I had been  a business advisor to the Young Enterprise company programme, here in the UK, so that means every year I’ve been in schools normally with what I guess you call them is lower sixth (16- 17-year-olds). Dealing with youngsters who are setting up their own businesses, and giving them advice on how best they might run that business for a period of effectively 9 months each year but from setting up the business to actually winding it up at the end and what to do with their profits if they’ve made any. So I’ve had that experience of working with young people in a small business environment”

“There weren’t those type of programmes when I was brought up in what is now Zimbabwe and at a young age I got involved in what was then known as the junior chambers of commerce (JC) and I was president of the Salisbury, now Harare JCs. That involved me in a number of activities and ultimately I went to a world congress at JCs International in Hong Kong 1962 and landed up being offered a two-year contract in the United States in the headquarters of the JCs International. So I landed up in Miami Beach for two years. Working but essentially for a voluntary organisation. So I wouldn’t say anything like that [Challenges Worldwide ICS programme], I lived and worked in Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years and I’ve also lived and worked in South Africa for nine years and Papua New Guinea for two and a half years. Those opportunities didn’t exist when I was young back then but I am enthusiastic about what we are doing now so I need to be involved in it.”

So you think that initial international experience when you were younger set your career on a really good trajectory?

“Oh I think so, if you have international experience, it kind of, I know this sounds trite but it broadens the mind and I think you have a much better understanding of the challenges that businesses face than you might have if you just been doing and I don’t mean this unkindly, the same job for a period of time but as I said the opportunities are much greater now than they ever were for me as a youngster. I mean when I did my, what was then higher school certificate, now A levels, we only had two streams. Either you did Arts or Science. My school we didn’t even seem to know that a subject business studies existed, which is a shame really because I should have taken it then!


What is/was your most recent position, with what organisation and which sector was this in?

Still do some work, an academic charitable institution management accounts. Previously, part-time basis, company secretary and  internal auditor for an IT company in Reading. FT interim finance director Finish group, UK operations.


All international orientated jobs then?

“Yes.  I have always been part of an international multinational”


What was your first job?

“My first full-time job was in what was then the Southern Rhodesian government, I worked in the vehicle licensing office, issuing vehicle licenses which in those days, there were no computers. Issued by hand, cashing up at the end of the day. I lasted there about 18 months and then I moved to the local Lever Brothers (Unilever group) as an accounts trainee.


 So did you ever see yourself going to Hong Kong, Uganda and the Philippines?

“No, I think when you start, you must remember that that’s a long time ago and as I said early, opportunities didn’t always exist as they do now. You thought, I’m going to carry on living here but because I was English born, I’ve always understood that probably somewhere in my life we would return to where we called home and that’s exactly what I’ve done but you don’t see opportunities like that and I have never refused an opportunity like that. If I’ve been given an opportunity to move somewhere or other, I’ve always taken that opportunity, I don’t think my family was always as enthusiastic about it as I was”

“I was working here in the UK and I was offered a job in Papua New Guinea, and I thought this is excellent training local accountants, to become more practicable in their accountant work, they were qualified but had no practical experience and I went out there for two and a half years and I thoroughly enjoyed that”


Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

Things were different, “I first joined Lever Brothers [Zimbabwe], we had a company secretary, he was a qualified company secretary and I was studying the same qualification, and I really felt I had to go and do that and at the same time develop an accounting view as well, which I did and that gentleman was an inspiration because he gave me support to get through my qualification and sign the necessary papers to get me properly accepted by the institute. So I think that’s the kind of thing but I don’t think that’s necessarily somebody that you sat there and said I want to be like him. I think Life is full of frustrations, and sometimes you just feel, well I would like to do better than I doing at the moment but I’m not quite where I should go with this.”


What do you enjoy most about being a Challenges Worldwide mentor?

“I think it’s the different kind of things you get faced with, that you can be offered a question about something simple, like how do you do a cash flow for this business because it’s got slightly different things, how do I explain to the manager of the business they need to keep their money separate between personal finances and business finances. One recently which was cooperative type business where I landed up writing some draft rules for a cooperative so that it would help them, the local volunteers, under the ICS programme to give advice to the local business. I think things change all the time, that’s what makes it interesting, you’re never going to get the same question, each business is unique. Although I come from a heavy industry and mining background, I dealt with things as far remote as how to brew wine in a 45-gallon drum in your back yard from hibiscus flowers to how we use waste to make charcoal briquettes. And you have to be adaptable enough to understand each process of the business. I think that’s what I’ve done throughout my working career, and that is you have to get out there and see how the business works. But actually you have to get out and see how the business works, I hated going underground in the mining industry but I deliberately went underground so I could understand what the best costing system was and so you need to see each business is different, what do we need to do to help that business.

“But we have to be approached by the volunteers…they can give me a report on what’s going on the ground and ask for my advice or simply say this is what’s going on the ground, help. And we will try to give that help. I’m an advisor, you don’t have to accept my advice. Hopefully, they will do and I can do something useful to take that business forward.”

“The more advice we can give them in that period of time, the more productive that ten weeks will be”


And the more information they feed you, the more interested you are and that becomes a positive cycle?

“Absolutely…we’re not sitting hoping no one will contact us for a quiet life, it’s the reverse; we’re getting frustrated that they haven’t.”


Young People

 What are the three most important things to ensure your career progress?

Take advice and not to be scared to ask for advice…When I started off, it was like you were nervously unsure whether you should ask somebody in case they thought you were an idiot. Don’t be scared to ask for advice.”

Don’t be surprised if you’re faced with something new. You have to adapt to new circumstances throughout your life. When you go out as a volunteer, probably you’re going to be surprised that you’re in a new country, a new environment, and probably with a business which doesn’t look much like what you thought a typical business was and you have to be flexible”

“That’s what you have to do, be flexible, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and if you’re going to set targets, set them way too high. I think someone said once, “if you shoot for the moon, you might not get to the moon but you might get a couple of stars”. My advice is always to, shoot for 100%, if you shoot and you get 50% although you haven’t got where you wanted to be, you’ve certainly got better than where you were at the start. If you only shoot for 20% improvement and get you get to 20%, you’re still not better off than with a higher target. Don’t be scared to ask, people are happy to help.    


What three things do you look for when hiring a young person?

“I think I would want to try and see, how flexible they were in their approach. I don’t think you want to interview somebody who is so ‘dogmatic’. You need a personality, you don’t have to be good looking or something like that, you have to have a personality that you know will fit in with other people. And you have to have ambition, but not unrealistic ambition. You need to be able to see not quite where you are going but where you hope your path will take you. And don’t be scared, if that isn’t the path you end up taking. I mentioned earlier that I spent virtually all my life in finance and accounting, some management roles. I started off studying to be a civil engineer and at the end of the first year, realised I couldn’t do advanced mathematics to save my life. Now I was only doing that because my dad was a civil engineer and it seemed like the right thing to do. So be brave to make that change if you feel you can’t follow what someone else thinks is the right thing for you.”

“I’m not saying you have to travel the world to be flexible but you have to have a mentality that is flexible. You have to recognise that whatever job you do, you may be faced when you come into work in the morning with a set of circumstances that you haven’t faced before. And you have to be flexible enough to either work out what to do or who to talk to, to work out what to do!

“Each organisation is different, some organisation may not look for someone that is flexible. If you have a job description, all you may be interested in is somebody who can actually do what is listed in the job description. My advice to young people that I come across is to say, you need to be able to show that you’ve done something, not out of the ordinary but different. So you’ve been a volunteer under the ICS programme or you were involved in the Young Enterprise company programme or something like that so you can show to people you’ve got the academic qualifications and I’ve been able to do a job reasonably well but that I’ve actually got some flexibility in my life that I’m prepared to do other things as well.”


Would you agree that transferring skills from placement to the workplace is important?

“Absolutely, but those skills won’t necessarily be how to do a cash flow or how to make sure that the numbers add up properly. The skills might simply have been, how I have dealt with a local entrepreneur who had ideas about building their business way beyond the possibilities of the business.” “A couple of years ago, someone wanted, a local business where volunteers were, wanted to build a new factory. And we discovered that actually, she couldn’t sell what they were producing out of the old factory, so the point of having a new factory was useless but at the same time, that experience of people, the volunteers out there explain to her that her situation wasn’t going to take her where she wanted to be is a challenge in itself for them. So you may not even know you’ve picked up a skill, you may just suddenly discover that later on in your working life, gosh, this is something I learned when I was in Uganda a few years back”


Volunteers need to sit back and think about what they’ve done as you’ve said, they might overlook some skills?

“Under the ICS programme they’ve got to do the Action at Home as well, now that’s a slightly different thing because it requires them to do something within their community. And maybe being out on placement has given them some extra ideas or help them to be more flexible about what is needed in their own community but definitely, you need to have that approach.”


What is the most difficult interview questions you’ve ever been asked? Hopefully, it’s none of these questions!

“I think it’s where the question doesn’t appear to have related to anything to do with the interview. So my view is that actually, you have to go interview prepared for that kind of questions. It thinks one of the things that you should always do is to have, extra activities that I have already mentioned but also maybe a hobby. I spent a whole chunk of my life in amateur dramatics. Not a logical place for an accountant to be but it actually helps. Do you need to have to face a question, like, ‘what do you do with your spare time? You may be embarrassed to answer that question because you might just go to the pub and drink too much or you go to watch your local football team and that’s all you do. So if you’ve got something else that is different just something that is another activity, it might be as simple as, I go to my local hospice and volunteer there at the weekend. Anything like that. I’ve kind of avoided the question, which is the most difficult thing”


I think we touched on something there, that you spoke about there like having a personality for employers to see and have activities outside of work for employers to see. 

“Well, I think that’s important because the problem is that when you’re going for a job interview, they’re going to see an awful lot of other people as well. And, you’ve got to have, even in your CV something that catches someone’s eye. You can’t just have a situation that says, ‘I did my GCSEs and I did my A levels and this is what I got and I went to whichever university it is and I’ve got a 2.1 in whatever the subject is’. You’ve got to be able to get someone’s attention who is reading these and have to wade through a whole bunch and past work is not always particularly helpful in that. So you need to be able to show something that says ‘oh, you worked as a volunteer on the ICS programme, I’d like to know more about that’; thinks the interviewer, ‘we’ll get them in, see what it’s all about’. So be prepared to answer questions about what you’ve put in your CV. Be prepared but don’t exaggerate your CV. I know a lot of people like the idea that they should put down stuff. It’s so easy for interviewers to drive holes in what you’ve said, so don’t exaggerate it. Be prepared to move forward and I’m afraid there are so many candidates that often for a job that you really have to have the personality to show up in your CV and then in person at an interview to tick the necessary boxes”


Some young people feel frustrated that they cannot get the job they are after or start a business and feel anxious about their future. What would you say to them?

“Well, I think they are going to be anxious and it doesn’t really matter if they have been out as a volunteer or not. They’re still going to be anxious. I think that the first thing to do, this would be my advice initially is. When you come back, by all means, apply for jobs but don’t be scared to do something which doesn’t pay. If you can work as a volunteer, even in a local charity shop. You’re able to show the discipline to go to work and to work certain hours, that you are trusted and probably picked up a referee along the lines, which is probably the shop manager. So you need to have referees that can talk positively about you to potential employers. So my advice would be, don’t just sit there and wait for things to come to you, you have to get out, do stuff, even if it doesn’t pay. Do stuff so you can put it in your CV and, as I say, you might pick up a valuable referee or better still, you might pick up a contact that is able to say to somebody else in a business who can say “you should use this person he/she could be very valuable to you.”