Better Late, Than Never #ConnectingHRAfrica

Some amazing HR people are in Africa supporting Retrak – I am proud and honoured to call them my friends. Please support them if you can.

Donna Hewitson

#ConnectingHRAfrica – Day 3

Today, I cried. Like, proper sobbed. I hadn’t expected it nor had I prepared for it. I sat in the bath, shower running, and had a proper cry.

If I know that I am likely to be in such an emotional situation, I can prepare, close down, become clinical and limit the extent to which my emotions are seen.

Today, I was caught out.

We spent the day at another boy’s centre. A centre which supports boys who have been with Retrak for 3-6 months.

Where do I start? Firstly, the staff captured me. The genuine love, care and will to help the boys on a path which will, hopefully, see them reintegrated with their families was immense. Retrak staff educate, counsel, guide, provide medical facilities, facilitate fun and games along with lending a supportive ear. Never judgemental. Always there.

Our agenda for today looked a…

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#tweepathon

So I will be taking part in this with my reluctant companion Goose this weekend – please help us out with a few quid!

Murmuration

Forrest_Gump__Run_Scene__177483The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing serviceHenry Wadsworth Longfellow

This coming Sunday, 20th March, 26 volunteers will run a tag marathon in aid of Sport Relief in 15 minute stages starting at 7am and finishing at approximately 1:30pm. From Bushy Park to the south west of London to Reigate in Surrey via Rome and Romania.

I think this might be a unique event, as the whole thing has been arranged, and will be managed and promoted on the day and beforehand, via Twitter. The participants will, for the most part, not meet each other on the day and are spread over a wide geographic area. Two legs are being run by children. One leg is being conducted by bicycle. Some legs will be walked. Dogs will run too. Some of us have met…

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Never too young to learn to lead

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This weekend I was told (second hand) about the work a head coach at one of the London Universities American Football clubs is doing to improve the leadership of his team and it got me excited. These lads (and they are lads, 18-22 year old students) are getting great experiences playing as part of a team, making commitments to one another and building friendships that will last for years. But more than that they are learning about what it means to lead, both the good and bad and those skills will be invaluable as they make their way into the world of work.

This isn’t one of the big UK University American Football programmes – they haven’t won national championships or bowls and they only have one player there receiving a sports scholarship. None of their players have chosen to attend that college over another as a direct result of the American Football programme. (I know for many of you reading this the fact that there are scholarships and that coaches actively recruit students to join their teams will be a surprise but having been in Denmark with the GB U19’s team earlier this year I witnessed it first hand. Bright, talented young athletes being ‘recruited’ by some of the best programmes in the UK from around Europe is not new but it has become much more prevalent in recent years. Universities that easily attract some of the best and brightest in the country, have high benchmarks for entry are also building great teams and the sport in the UK – the recent success of the GB Student programme is testament to this.)

Anyway back to the point of this post. So this smallish programme in an inner city university wanted to build and grow and improve, they have a 30-40 man roster and a pretty solid coaching staff. They had a good committee and everything was ticking along ok – they weren’t smashing it but they got a fair few wins under their belts. However, the Head Coach wanted more. He wants a successful programme of course but he also wants the players to get the most that they can from being part of this team and to do that he needed leadership.

At the end of last season (the BUCS American Football Season is Sept – Mar roughly) he worked with this players and coaches to elect a leadership committee – not the club administrative committee but a group of players who’s role would be to act as Leaders for others on the team and help to influence the direction of the club and it’s growth. But he didn’t just stop there – he didn’t just have an election and appoint them he decided that he wanted to develop them too. Recognising that he wasn’t an expert in the area he did some research and went out and bought a book on leadership development that had a number of exercises for the reader to complete and then in the off season he shared a chapter and the exercise with the leadership committee each week and asked them to complete the activity. They did and they lapped it up. It was additional work for them all but in their weekly group meeting (Skype I think)they would talk about the skills they learned and how they would use them.

Let’s remember these are young men, young men at an inner city (not redbrick) university who like to play American Football. Not exactly the target audience for most leadership books.

I don’t know what the impact on the team is – I’m not close enough to them but I do know that the passionate head coach is thrilled with the way the players have responded and half way through the 2015/16 season the team are 5-0 with wins at home and away.

What I also know is that as well as the education these lads are receiving and the discipline and benefits of being part of a team, they are learning leadership at an age where the skills and behaviours will become second nature to them and that can only stand then in good stead for the workforce right?

The work being done at the University by the head coach and his team is a great example to other teams and organisations – let’s hope it is copied far and wide.

finding the eye in my storm – a story of resilience. 

There’s a lot of talk about Resilience at the moment, including a CIPD conference later this month focusing on it. It’s something I was musing about earlier in the summer. I announced my musing as is my way on Twitter and then promptly went back to musing and not much else. 

The reason it’s flagged up for me at the moment is I am back in a bid team and as is often the way with bids there is a steady build up to the issue of the tender documents post the PQQ where you can research options, develop business cases and gather evidence. And the the bid hits. 

We finally know what the client is really thinking (we’ve guessed in meetings, workshops and let lets be honest beers but it’s never exactly as expected). The timescale is usually short and we crack on. All the planning and preparation is matched to questions and delivery plans. We seek to clarify what some of the obtuse language means and try to make sure we really know what they are asking. 

For me this usually means reviewing the people, mobilisation and general management sections of the bid. Developing blueprints and storyboards for the answers and then having these reviewed. And this can be where it gets tough. You see more often than not you’ve poured everything you’ve worked on for the last few months into a standard template, that doesn’t always fit, to answer a question that doesn’t quite meet everything you want to tell. So you tweak and redraft and recheck the costs and benefits and understand the risks and submit it for someone else to scrutinise. They haven’t had the focus that you’ve had on this and only this and generally have a wider oversight. Time is short and there are a number of other work streams going through the same process. The review team are rarely trained for this- just like many leaders and managers they’ve learned how to give feedback through practice and not particularly honed these skills 

All of there factors lead to one thing – the review only looks at what is missing or wrong. There isn’t time to celebrate or congratulate just to pick apart and challenge. This is the whole point. What needs to be done and what will make the bid better but boy oh boy you need to have thick skin. There’s no time to get defensive or precious over your content. It’s time to pull up your big girl pants and take it. 

It can be bruising, deflating and demotivating. It can make you question whether you know what you’re doing and whether you are the right person for the job. You do and you are. You just need to roll with the punches. It’s genuinely isn’t personal. It’s about making your submission better. It’s not that people don’t value the time and effort you’ve put in. They do – they recognise the long hours and careful thought. Honest they do. But they have a job to do. They are the critical friend (emphasis on the friend). 

Honestly I’ve been through this quite a few times (I seem to be developing a bit of a niche for myself in the whole bid area) and each time it’s the same. It’s tough but it passes. You can’t dwell because the bid clock is ticking. You have to suck it up and move on to the next stage. Redraft, edit, review and then start writing. 

This is where my resilience is tested. The blank page. It can take me days to get started. Not days doing nothing but thinking, drafting in my head, working through the solution and then eventually getting it down on paper. 

Tick took the bid clock is still ticking.

The days get longer, you find the times of day that work for you (funnily for me it’s very early morning and early evening – I am least productive during ‘normal’ office hours) and you cope with the fear. The fear that you’ll never find the words, the fear that what you are writing is complete tosh. 

And then you submit for review and hold your breath. The process is generally the same – what’s missing, what’s wrong, what doesn’t make sense or isn’t clear. Rarely what’s good. 

Bid writing is usually a solo pursuit until review (like most writing I guess) so when you submit it can be quite exposing. You can’t hide behind your drafting process rather have to stand behind you drafts!  Sometime you get great comments and insight. Others it’s wordsmithing and missing commas. It can be brutal. It can be positive. But again you have to be up to it. 

I’m lucky. I have pretty thick skin but even I find it tough. The product of my last few weeks. My late nights, sleepless thinking, ideas taking shape and filling the page. But again time isn’t on your side. It’s about scoring the points. Telling to story and getting the win. So you need to know what’s missing, what needs clarity, or what needs editing. 

So how can this process be made better?  Well for start recognise and acknowledge the feeling. It’s ok to invest in your work and want others to like it. You’re not the only one – we each cope in different ways but the rest of the team are going through the same so seek support and give support. 

Try to take a step back and objectively review your work, get yourself some trusted advisers and your own cheer leaders and never worry about asking for their help. 

Don’t be an ostrich – this is a tough one but if it’s not working you need to admit it. Either walk away for a while or get some help (remember this others going through the same, or your advisers and cheer leaders?).

Laugh – it sounds simple but it’s important to keep perspective and keep smiling. And agin. Gin helps. 

Have something to look forward to after the bid is submitted. For me it’s down time with my boys, ideally somewhere with limited internet/phone. 

This is what works for me. This is what keeps me going, helps me find the eye in my storm and come out the other side in tact. 

I have to thank a few people for being the best during this most recent storm including @FitzieP @fuchsia_blue @brazelnut @ms_organised and @nicky_t all bloody brilliant with or without Pom-poms. 

But what about the young people?

It’s been two weeks now since George Osbourne presented his new budget.  There’s been plenty written in the papers and over social media around the welfare reforms and the impact of those proposed and other aspects of the budget.  But here i am two weeks later and there are still many more questions for me than answers and I’m concerned about the impact of some proposals that on the face of it sound like good things.

So first the Living Wage – or more accurately a new tier for the minimum wage.  You see we already have a National Living Wage (it’s currently £7.85 and there is a London Living Wage that is currently £9.15).  George plans to introduce a new ‘Living Wage’ in April 2016 for all those over 25 years old of £7.20 an hour increasing to £9 an hour by 2020. So now we will have a minimum wage structure that looks like this (or there about as these are the 2014/15 rates):

Wokers 25 and over – £7.20 an hour

Workers 21-25 – £6.50 an hour

Workers 18-20 – £5.13 an hour

Workers 16-17 – £3.79 an hour

On the face of it this looks like a good thing right?  Increasing the Minimum Wage for the majority of the workforce has to be a good thing?  But what are the unintended consequences of this?  Will we see increased age discrimination where workers under 25 are favoured by employers as they are more affordable then their older counterparts?  Will we see those over 25 excluded from section or even dismissed once they hit the higher rate as companies who haven’t yet recovered from the economic downturn?  Companies terminating contracts as they can’t afford to pay the increased costs associated with the increase in wages? A shift from the youth unemployment to increased unemployment in the over 25s?

And what sort of work will be offered to those under 25 – most work at minimum wage level is low skill.  So will we see an increase in underemployment with those with A levels, higher education, degrees working as pickers and packers and cleaners?

In the real world £6.50 a week is £13,520 per annum based on a 40 hour a week contract.  This assumes that people are in full time work not part time or flexible hours. Ok we’ve had an increase in the personal allowance so much of this is tax free but after tax and NI lets say you could take home £1k per month.  If you are lucky you are living with parents and they are either letting you stay there rent free or only charging you a nominal amount – or you could be renting a room in a shared house.  Let’s be optimistic and say that you are spending £400 a month on rent and bill.  That’s before you’ve eaten, or travelled to work, bought shoes or clothes, paid insurance – heaven forbid you want to save for something or even contribute to a pension.  And what about having children or if you’re unwell?  Not so ill you can’t work but ill enough that you have to fork out up £8.20 per prescription.

Look it’s always been tough – I remember my first job I paid 50% of my take home pay on rent.  But I was in central London, walked to work, tube travel was affordable and had a final salary company pension (thank you Civil Service).

But wait we have a double whammy for those under 21 (well a triple whammy but I’m not going to talk about housing benefit here) – if you are seeking employment and receiving benefits you have to undertake work experience.  Yep that’s right in order to get your benefits if you are under 21 years old you need to undertake work experience.  I’m assuming this is unpaid, I’m assuming there isn’t a government organisation somewhere set up and ready to offer meaningful work experience to the thousands of young people who this will impact?

So employers need to provide this.  Employers who want to make a difference and support young people above and beyond the way they are already supporting them will need to put in place work experience programmes to facilitate this government scheme.  Honestly – who is in a position to do this?  Other than the pickers and packers, the shelf stackers which employers will be able to offer work experience above and beyond the scheme we already have in place to 18-21 year olds NEETS?

Where’s the support for this initiative?  Where is the government programme to help this happen?  How can we ensure that it isn’t just about free labour where they would be receiving the minimum wage?

Don’t think I am against this – I think that work experience can be invaluable but not forced through in this way.  Young people blackmailed to undertake low skilled work to access welfare.  Yes lets get young people to work but lets given them support and skills and opportunity  – where’s the carrot here?  All I see is stick.

It’s early days, the headlines lack substance and we are awaiting details.  But I’m concerned, it’s already really hard for young people to get work and opportunity and I’m unsure that either of these proposals are the answer.  That all we are doing is shifting the unemployment bubble from the younger end of young people to the middle.

We’ll wait and see – wait for guidance on implementation and hope that the government listen to employers when they work this through.

ME and me

It was ME/CFS International Awareness Day last week, 12th May, and this is my story. (it’s a long one – you might want to make a cuppa first).

Telling people about my ME feels like a weakness in itself. Trying to describe what life is like with a chronic illness that can’t be seen, treated and isn’t really understood can be difficult. So in truth I just don’t tell people. I let them think that I am flaky with social events, lazy, unfit and overweight due to my apathy and lack of self-control. The reality is different but I’ve lived (and worked) with ME for more than 25 years, have more good days than bad and I am, mostly, in control.

When I was 15 I was doing pretty well at school, was playing hockey for the town and county, taking part in drama clubs and productions and had a good active social life. I had my career mapped out and had already met with the recruiting officers at the WRAC (yep it was so long ago that women were recruited into a different part of the army). They were going to pay me a bursary during my A’levels and if my trajectory continued as it was supposed to would sponsor me through university before I joined Officer training and followed my grandfathers footsteps into the Army as an engineer – focused on getting into the REME. It was everything I wanted; I was going to travel the world, continue playing hockey and use the maths/logic part of my brain whilst using my performance skills to improve my communication and leadership. I was confident, ambitious, happy and healthy.

I was booked to go on my first skiing trip with family friends and had been to C&A (this was he 80s remember) and bought my new turquoise jacket and black salopettes (it’s funny the things you remember, I can clearly see the jacket – I was so proud of it). And then I got tonsillitis, again. I’d had tonsillitis on and off years, it was one of those things that when I got ill/low it flared up. Usually a course of antibiotics and a bit of rest and I was back to normal, right as rain and raring to go. This time was different; I just couldn’t seem to get better. I was exhausted and my glands were badly swollen both in my neck and under my arms. So we went to the GP – not something done lightly in our house (the story of my appendicitis is for another time, but lets just say despite being told it was an emergency and they were very close to bursting the ambulance was refused as no one wanted to cause a fuss……).

Our GP was brilliant, bloods were taken and I was prescribed some more antibiotics and told to rest. I kind of rested, went back to school a few days – a few steps forward a few step back. It was confirmed that I had Glandular Fever and I was expected to recover in 6-8 weeks. Glandular Fever – the kissing disease. I hadn’t been kissing anyone (my heart had yet to recover from the smashing it took when Adrian dumped me and then started seeing Lesley from round the corner) but it was explained that it happened sometimes when your immune system was low.

But I didn’t recover; I got worse. Too tired to make it up the stairs to bed, and then when I was upstairs too tired to get back down (I am an expert at the stair bump – when you bump downstairs on your bottom). I went from an energetic Tigger type to someone else. Nothing was broken, I had no rash or spots, my glands would go down (and up and down and up) but I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was thirsty so much of the time, and drank pints and pints of orange squash. If I wasn’t too tired I would eat, I never lost my appetite and ate plenty but not always at the same time as everyone else, usually when I was awake enough.

I had good and bad times of the day. I was good in the early morning – often fooling myself that I was ok and could go back to school or go out. I would then crash around 11am and not really recover until sometime after 7pm. Sleep didn’t come easy which was strange for me as someone who had always been able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat no matter where I was.

I took more and more time off school and the friends dropped away, moved on with their lives and stopped visiting. I continued to have the blood tests every two weeks and they continued to show that I had Glandular Fever. However, it shouldn’t have lasted this long and I should be recovering. Sometimes my legs just wouldn’t work – I had a constant dull pain like a toothache in my legs. I spent days in bed, I couldn’t read as my brain couldn’t hold the words. Could watch TV or films but couldn’t retain any short-term information. Music was sometimes too loud and conversation too tiring. I wasn’t good company and looking back can understand why my friends stopped popping round. I was boring, ill with this mystery disease that no one understood.

Our GP was a rock throughout and when it was suggested to my parents that I might have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome he was brilliant in getting both them and the school information. I remember a few years later when I had moved house and moved GP and I saw my notes and I saw the first early suspicion of the diagnosis – an innocuous ‘CFS?’ written in the notes. CFS was in the news at the time – it was more commonly known as Yuppie Flu and sneered at by many. Myalgic Encephalomyeitis is now more widely known as a chronic, neurological illness that mainly effects the nervous and immune systems. Symptoms include severe debilitating fatigue, painful joints and muscles, disordered sleep, cognitive impairment, irritable bowel syndrome, hypersensitivity to light and sound and depression. I pretty much ticked every box.

The treatment cycle commenced. I was told I needed to do more exercise and force my body to respond – not the best idea I soon found out. I had to eat a clean diet; chicken, broccoli and 7 up, no additives or colourings – this didn’t last long as well as being exhausted I was freaking miserable. Anti-depressants, cognitive therapy, sleep, rest, antibiotics, different antibiotics, just blooming well snap out of it. I tried it all. Over the years I have tried many many different things (reike and reflexology anyone?) but in truth the only thing that has worked is learning to listen to my body and myself and being a bit more selfish. Not going out, cancelling arrangements, leaving the party early, choosing what to sacrifice and what to save up my energy for.

It sounds simple, like energy is a definitive object and you can save and conserve what you need. This is mostly true but then my body will throw a curveball and even when I am well rested and have taken a sensible approach it will just stop.

Now, many of you reading this will know me and have met me. Will know that I work full time in a pretty full on job. Take on extra circular activities, love walking my dog, cooking for and going out with friends, theatre and gigs, football and well pretty much watching any sport going. But you see this all comes at a price.

What you don’t see are the days I go to bed at 6pm and just lay there for hours unable to read or listen to music or lift my head. The weekends I can’t get down stairs and have to re-employ the stair bump. The things I have to not let bother me, the clothes that are left unfolded the projects left unfinished, the books I just can’t focus on for long enough that are piled up.

I love my work so my social life is a compromise. Little things, I can’t go to this drink or that do, I haven’t got to the cinema to see that film I really want to, I gave away my tickets to this gig or that show. Every day I compromise. And those around me compromise too.

In my late teens it meant not finishing my A’levels, not going to university and missing some of the parties, clubs and holidays that I should have been too. In my 20s it meant moving back home with my parents, explaining to London Underground staff and the ambulance why despite looking fine and having not fallen I couldn’t leave the bench I was on at Highgate station without help, always falling asleep when out with friends or sneaking off to bed, never quite finishing things I started. In my 30s it was about the rows with my ex-husband over the mess I would create, how I was too tired to do this or that but not too tired to work.

And now in my 40s its about choices, the endless patience of my amazing partner Fitzpatrick and the understanding of my family and small circle of friends who know that it’s not about letting them down it’s about making choices.

Work has changed too, and the world of work for me is easier now than it was 20 years ago. A traditional 9-5 won’t suit me – I can have weeks where functioning day to day during ‘normal’ office hours will see me produce nothing of value. But the ability to work from home, access files, systems and documents 24/7 means that I can work when I am well – be that 4am or 9pm and no one blinks.

I have ME, I’m not embarrassed but I’m not shouting it from rooftops or wearing it like a badge. I don’t let it stop me but know that it restricts me, and that often the choice is out of my control.

There is no cure, no magic treatment but you know what I’m alright. Yes I’m 4 stone (ahem maybe more) overweight and yes I sometime spend an entire weekend seeing no one other than himself and the dog and barely moving from the comfy chair. But I’m good. I’m living with ME and I’m (mostly) in control. Just bare with me if I disappear sometimes….I’ll be back soon.

For more information and support about ME have a look at Action for ME or the ME Association