“we’re just so busy”….except for me, thankfully.

The life posts of this blog have taken over the work bits lately, which is a healthy change for me.  I have this thing called adrenal exhaustion. Actually it’s clinical name is adrenal fatigue. Never one to do things by halves, I kind of ignored the fatigue part and soldiered straight on to exhaustion. To be fair, I didn’t even know I had it when I was at the fatigue bit. Mostly because all of my life until just recently I have been too busy to stop and pay attention. To my own health! Writing that now just sounds ridiculous. It was true; and at almost 45, one of the life lessons I am finally getting. There are many reasons I am with my beloved Unhusband; him teaching me the pace that life should be taken at, is one of them. (I do believe the word should needs to be removed from public circulation, however it is terribly handy sometimes!)

So not paying attention to fatigue gets me to exhaustion. How did I get there? Could be cycling in the Alps – 2 mountains per day for 3 days, a 342km round trip. That was certainly the clincher. But living the life of always busy, constantly striving to achieve, overdoing every last thing – from cleaning the house to eating and drinking, to studying just didn’t suit me long term. Over-achievers disease can be a wonderful thing if you have the adrenal glands to sit it out. Clearly mine were very ordinary from the offset. I think I got a few second hand things in this body, they were one of them. Liver is a bit ordinary too, metabolism……well the list goes on . Oddly enough – they’re all linked to the wonderful adrenal glands, who knew?

Life, stress and just existing all depends on these 2 little glands in our body that drive almost all of our functions. The fact that they are not recognised by the medical profession the world over only starts to raise my ire. I won’t go into the detail of being diagnosed with this business, but let’s say if I did, the NHS would not come out looking like a profession concerned with wellness. (My favourite quote given to me during this time by a well respected NHS GP – and the best one I saw! – was, “Well, we don’t really do much about nutrition at the NHS”). Anyone with any IQ points can make a leap between nutrition and obesity – right??

Moving on!

After almost 8 months of being ill, I reflect on various things that contributed to this little state of mine. Yes, it could be the bike ride. It was HUGE! It was a long haul to get fit enough to do it (I still don’t think I was!); it could be the emotional year I had with one of the closest people in the world to me being diagnosed with and later dying from cancer. It could be that I spent weeks flying all over the world, eating food that didn’t agree with me – particularly during training for the bike ride! But you don’t know what you don’t know right? I know I am a Glutard (coeliac is the clinical name). I’m allergic to all kinds of things food wise, mostly wheat and gluten. With it come all kinds of other food allergies and sensitivities that your body can’t process because your intestines are damaged. If they don’t work, you don’t get the nutrients into your body that you should be. Vicious circle. Suffice to say, my diet has now changed radically (yes, again!). To the point where a dear friend asks me if I am off the paper and onto high grade cardboard now, given the restrictions to what I can and can’t eat.

Glutardia was only a bit of it. The ride, the emotional stress of losing someone you love, and all the bits of life in general. I had given it a good beating over the past few years, moving country, arriving in the GFC, not getting work, starting my own business, training for the ride, doing the ride, back and forth to Australia to support those in crisis. But when I think about it – and of course I have for a long while – this ridiculous effort has been going on for years! How many jobs did I do where I worked insane hours per week. One of which, over the past 15 years of my career, I know I was truly appreciated. One!! This is why it made sense to me when I read the amazing book Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan. One page in particular screamed at me. I have taken the following from her, but could have written it myself.

Knowing the hard limits to our cognitive capacity and the huge costs of long hours should not be an intractable problem to address. We have a century of data and a roll call of the disastrous consequences that follow those who insist that heroic hours are a proof f commitment to an employer. Companies that measure work by hours could make themselves smarter by the simple act of measuring contribution buy output rather than input, and celebrating those who can go home early.

Many people – and not a few companies – like to think that they can somehow stretch the cognitive limits of their minds, that doing lots of Sudoku or using programs like Brain Trainer will somehow enlarge their capacity. They’re out of luck. They only exercise that seems to nurture, or at least protect our brains aerobic exercise 1. Yoga, toning and stretching may make you feel good, but in fMRI scans, only aerobic exercise seemed to have a visibly positive impact on the brain. If you want to protect your own intellectual capacity, or that of your employees, the only way to do that is to go to the gym – or go home! When Gail Rebuck assumed the chairmanship of Random House, she inherited what she calls ‘an hours culture’ in which everyone stayed late to impress the boss. Unwilling and unable to work in this way herself, she let it be known that anyone working past six pm was either incompetent or had a boss who didn’t understand how to manage workload. The culture shifted overnight. The sooner we associate long hours and multitasking with incompetence and carelessness the better. The next time you hear boasts of executives pulling an all-nighter or holding conference calls in their cars, but sure to offer your condolences: it’s grim being stuck in sweatshops run by managers too ignorant to understand productivity and risk. Working people like this is as smart as running your factory without maintenance. In manufacturing and engineering business, everyone learns that the top priority is asset integrity; protecting the machinery on which the business depends. In knowledge-based economies, that machinery is the mind. (p301).

For all of you who work like this, I urge you to think again. I doubt anyone has ever said “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at work” on their dying day. I know too many managers who manage their people in this way.

I played the game. I was addicted to the power, the rush, and the over-achievement of it all. I was really good at it, I practiced hard; I made myself ill for weeks, I didn’t really have a life, I ran around telling everyone how busy I was all the time, I got a gold medal in moaning about it really. Now though, I just can’t bring myself to listen to people who tell me how busy they are. We are as busy as we make ourselves and if you are busy – you are. Enjoy it. If not, shut the bejesus up and stop moaning. It’s a 21st Century affliction. Where did we ever get the thought that busy was so good? We now spend our days on social media telling the world how busy we are – The Busy Brigade are trying to take over the world! Although, now I live in the UK I have to say it seems far more prevalent in Australia!

We are all different. I thought I was a robust, tough little cookie – I still think I am. I just think now that I am no longer equipped to withstand it as I once did, or as people still do today. I was ill for long periods of time. I had migraines every other month that shut me down for 3 days! When we start listening to ourselves, it is truly frightening what we hear.

I’m not saying that over-achieving is bad. I still achieve, I still have goals and lists and I have an amazing life. I just don’t need to do it at such a break neck pace. It made me ill. Not doing it doesn’t. That bit ain’t rocket science!

hr… it’s lonely at the top

In reading the latest post from Alison Chisnell, I realised and I guess recalled, what I remember feeling, at a time when I was deep in middle earth HR. That this is a lonely job. It is a tough job, and one you don’t seem to make friends in (it’s just easier that way!)

I mean that in the best possible way. If you think about what we, as HR Professionals get charged with; what we are told, what we do – a lot of that is surrounded by confidentiality, integrity and privacy. If you hear something, or if you are the official holder of information, you are usually where the buck stops. If the CEO has decided to outsource the business, you get told but you can’t tell anyone else. If there is a performance issue with a staff member, same deal. I have even been entrusted with relationships that have needed to be kept secret!

Alison’s post reminded me what it was like, being in a position of managing change within an organisation. It isn’t just HR Professionals who can be isolated, senior management are in the same boat. The saying of it being lonely at the top didn’t just magic it’s way into our phrase books. I’m not talking about HR being the “top” of the business world (although, we all know it should!), or making a point about it being a better role in any organisation (again…..!), but usually, when the heads at the top want some change in the business, we are either the first to know about it from them (preferable), or the first to hear it on the grapevine, possibly because something has been done in a “unique” way. It makes us the top of the tree sometimes, when it would be far easier not to be.

Either way, the idea of HR Professionals talking to each other, supporting each other and sharing our experiences is a healthy one. In the world of Social Media, or in fact most online business, everyone shares everything – results, what to do, how to do it, how not to do it especially! In HR, we tend to want to be the keepers of information. Shared knowledge is a powerful thing. To be the one sharing your own knowledge, helping people out and perhaps lending an ear or a shoulder of support needs to be encouraged. Thanks for the reminder Alison!

even in death there are lists to make

My best friends’ mum is dying of cancer and I am riding my bike up the French Alps and, yes, those things are related.

I visited my best mate recently; not my standard idea of a holiday. She won’t exactly get a great rating on Trip Advisor for the quality of the stay, the entertainment or even the food – I cooked most of it myself. I do think she got one more smile she hadn’t planned on, one more chuckle she thought was gone and a quick flit of time where my best mate in the world got a tiny reprieve.

Life never ceases to surprise and delight. In the midst of this phase of life, I saw some amazing and shocking things that reminded me of the joy and beauty of life. I saw sadness and helplessness, frustration, anger, disappointment and bitterness. I saw a woman stop her car, pick up a wounded bird and take care of it. I saw a sunset out of a plane window that reignited my faith. I needed the jolt I can reassure you.

The only other woman I have ever called Mum has lung cancer and secondary brain tumours. She is in the final stages of her life and her daughter is trying to make that as memorable, pain free and relatively normal a life as she possibly can.

She writes lists my mate, just like me.

On my friends’ list was written the word “End”. She explained that it was a reminder to her to ask the doctor what happens when her mother passes away. You might think it odd to write yourself a note to remind yourself of something so important. I marvel at how she manages to remember to breathe in and out for herself every day, given that she manages every imaginable facet of her mothers’ life right now, including how she breathes. Writing herself lists is quite possibly the only way she does make it through the day; her reminder of what normal is.

I’ve known her and her family for 27 years. We have had the most interesting intertwining lives that any friends could have. We have been quite literally parts of each other’s family for that long. I dated her brother, she dated my cousin, and we even married brothers. I am convinced we only did it so that we could be related, to strengthen a friendship that comes once in a lifetime.

She’s tough, my best mate in the world. Always has been. Endures things far longer than anyone else because she is just made of that and that’s just what you do. You pitch in without being asked to help; you have close personal conversations with your friends’ kids because their parents can’t quite get through to them. You travel vast distances in short periods of time for a party, funeral, or to support friends, family or even someone you once knew.

Our lives have mirrored each other, but we ask that no more. Both our fathers’ died of cancer within years of each other. Whilst marriage to the brothers probably wasn’t one of our finest moments, she did create the most awesome adorable child from hers. I have a lovely wedding day photo album.

My bestie is the eternal optimist, finding the sun shiny bits of life amongst the bleakest coal darkened moments. She cares for everyone, she puts others first. She is without question the funniest human I know. She is sharp witted and intelligent and loves a debate. She is fiercely independent to the point where she hasn’t fully realised that she can accept help however it comes, and she can even ask for it.

I have always had great respect and admiration for her and all that she does. Of course she has made some dubious choices, who hasn’t? Sometimes her choices have been influenced by me and sometimes not. Those influenced by me aren’t always the smartest, but boy have they have given us some wonderful stories! We recently decided that the Child of the Union is Saffron and we are the Ab Fab girls. Mad as cut snakes, hilariously cracking up laughing at our own humour, antics and bad jokes, whilst the Child of the Union asks us not to disturb her as she does her maths homework. The kids’ life is a combination of puberty, divided parenting, step-families; I-pods, books, boys and now death. And she wants to focus on her maths enrichment homework. Admiration and respect for the kid too.

So I temporarily entered the world of the carer. Not for the first time. I watched it from afar when it happened to my own father and when time and distance permitted, popped in there too. (Not nearly enough and a world of growth later acknowledge that I could have done better.)

The carers’ world (for the acute patient) is one where the phone never stops ringing, where you spend your days driving to and from the hospital, doctors visits, appointments for scans or x-rays or medication appointments, or treatment or therapy or a dozen other different things. A world where if you don’t make lists, the tiniest details are forgotten or not done. A world where you have to repeat the same information over and over and over again to all the best intending and well meaning people in the world. A world where you are asked what to do to help, but you can’t give a definitive answer. There is so much to do, what is important, what gets done first, what can be left alone? A world where you cancel appointments, but would never dream of asking someone to cancel theirs.

It’s a world where millions of people live for myriad reasons. My own sibling and his family do it for his son with cerebral palsy. I saw my Mum give up every part of her day, every aspect of her person to care for my Dad. They were partners for life and she stuck to her end of the bargain up until the day she threw his medication across the room in anger, sadness and frustration. That she had worked so hard and cared so much and still was powerless, she still lost him.

My bestie finds her caring rewarding. So does every other carer I know. Of course she is frustrated, angry, upset and sad. She keeps going through it all. My brother and sister-in-law keep going through it all. My mum just kept going. That’s what you do as a carer. It saddens me deeply to know that we live in a world where Governments get a reprieve because of people like these. Collective governments around the world breathe a massive sigh of relief, because these people are being looked after by someone else. The carers’ payment from the Australian government is $7.57 per day. Wow. Been to Coles, Woolworths or Tesco lately? I know what you can get for $7.57 a day.

I’m not a campaigner, or a crusader for unfair treatment. Perhaps I should be. Or maybe I am. Maybe I will crusade for dying with dignity, voluntary euthanasia or fighting the governments for the right for carers to be recognised, acknowledged and supported in our community. My bestie is doing this short term. My brother is in it for the long haul. They both have quite low maintenance models to look after on the grand scale. My bestie enquired about respite care. There are people in this world who come to your home just so you can go out, get some fresh air, sanity and pay your bills. They survive on donations!! There are a few things in the world I classify as just plain wrong; that is one of them.

So, get on with it Sharon!
I made a commitment to ride up some mountains, to raise money and awareness for Macmillan, the cancer carers’ charity here in the UK. Does it help my bestie’s mum or my nephew? Nope. Not directly – and for them, not indirectly either. But the feeling of being useless, unable to help, unable to champion the cause or make the pain go away or get them some fresh air is not easy to shift.

Not everyone can be a carer. I doubt if I could honour that role myself. If you can’t be, then take a meal, do their gardening, take the dog for a walk or to the vet, buy some milk, bread & fresh fruit, do a load of washing, their ironing, make them laugh, sit with them and watch a movie. It doesn’t have to cost money and you don’t have to solve the issue, just give you. Don’t get me wrong, if you can – give money too!

So, when I say it out loud, “I’m riding a bike up a few mountains”, it doesn’t really mean much. I love the idea of challenging myself, don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of doing something for a good cause. I get a massive kick out of the fact that if I do something, someone will be helped. It isn’t the people I know. Some of them I can help and others I can’t. I hear stories about Lance Armstrong raising over $235 million for cancer. What I don’t hear is the impact that has. What did that buy that $235m?

I have a theory. Governments and NGO’s can’t afford to cure cancer; it’s too big an industry. The drugs cost a fortune; companies produce them to make profit. End of story. Take away the need for the drug, remove the need for a cure, and remove all that profitable revenue.

Call me a cynic, and please try and prove me wrong.

I am hauling my ass up a few mountains to raise awareness of these invisible members of our community; carers of others. It is a tiny 310km up a few Alps in France. It will last for 3 days plus a few weeks of training. Training I am fortunate and blessed enough to be able to do and enjoy. I need to raise a minimum of £1800. It will buy definite things. Things I know will help sufferers and their families. If you would like to add your bit of help, please donate here. I’m not curing it. Riding up mountains won’t change cancer, or the number of people who get it, or die from it. It probably won’t even raise awareness. It will make me proud of my own achievement and you proud for doing your bit too in sponsoring me. I’d love to reach my target; I’d love to smash it. I’d love to cure cancer. I’d love carers to be recognised. I’m not even running for Miss Universe, but I can still have these dreams.

the cobbler has no shoes

I first heard that expression when I was talking to a friend of mine whose partner is a financial adviser. They had just paid a massive tax bill. Not ever a pleasant situation and I know at some point or other we may have all had to do just that, but when you think your partner has it all under control and then learn the opposite, well let’s just say, not a happy time! He is the managing partner of a large national firm. Yes, you could argue, who could possibly have time to do their own tax, when some of the most influential business people in the country rely on you to do theirs – sound familiar?

Surely it is one of the most common psychological phenomena in the world. Like the plumber who has a leaky tap, the electrician has their wires crossed (sorry, indulge me!), the overweight doctor who smokes, the link building/SEO company that has an atrocious website……or in my own case, the blog that is out of date and the laptop that needs attention (un-husband is in IT!).

I am learning slowly that I do good work for my clients (there is that whole female fraud thing we do so well, but that’s another story!) and I can do all that wonderful strategic thinking, planning and carrying out – for them…but I am loathe to admit, it is something that I don’t do very well at all for my own business. For me, it seems a strange bit of imbalance; I focus all my time on my clients and usually the stuff I do for me is last…and I’m not even a mother!

Is it because we are so busy (we are all as busy as we make ourselves though, remember that!) or is it because of what we expect people in professions to do because they are good at it? You know, we think – oh, they’re in IT, I bet all their own stuff is in order. Or in fact, is it because (particularly for careers in IT), when you go around to your friends and families places, the first thing they do, after handing you a beer, is ask if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at their laptop! A friend once told me when I had started out that he envied my being able to do this blog and that write-up…..because he had become so engaged with his contracting work, that he barely had any time to focus on his own business. Now I’m almost there and none too sure I like it either!

I know I am not alone here, it is a common problem. In truth, I do know the most obvious reason behind it is: this is what I do all day long, then I have to come home and do it all again here too. Where is the fun in that? I’d much rather go for a ride, or go to the gym or throw the Frisbee around the park – anything but more of the same.

So what is the answer? For me, I apply the same rules to this as to any other issue – I call in the network! Professional networks across all of my “professional spheres” – social media, HR and corporate relations, including coaches and of course social media groups, discussions and forums. The personal ones include friends, family and at times, specialist help, counsellors, therapists etc. I have never been too shy to admit that I can’t do it all and I can’t do it alone. I have cleared out all my self-help books….or most of them, but I keep my network of professional advisers.

For those of you who know me, I am the great outsourcer! I love a beautiful garden, but am not that good at it. Get someone in. I love a clean house but resent the time spent cleaning it. Get someone in (bless you Shelley!); I love to cook, but there are sometimes when that just isn’t feasible (un-husband his share of shifts, as does Cook and the local takeaways) – so why not apply this logic to an age old problem?

I am really fortunate to know a very cool and talented bunch of uber business people; the group we call The Rocketeers: thankfully, all very different to me! When I need some help to strategise about my business, or to kick off the strategy for some corporate fund-raising (or even some personal fundraising, big plug) then I get a great team of people together to bounce ideas off – and they come up with stuff I had never thought of.

I do rely on coaching quite heavily as well. I am fortunate enough to have a life coach and a business coach, both work complementing each other and both have very similar strategies to help me to achieve my goals. If you can’t afford a coach right now (I am fortunate that my business coach is a part of the remuneration of my contracts), then the old networking group is a great solution. There are only 4 of us in our group, and even though we have different needs at different levels for different reasons, I value their input individually and as a group. It is also an interesting learning for me, I was never very good in a team unless I was leading it, so they are very patient with me!

So, the old “I get by with a little help from my friends” (big concession, I am not a Beatles fan!) has never been truer, especially now in tough economical times. The answers are usually all there, we just need to step outside ourselves and do some creative thinking, and especially creative listening. Either that, or outsource! Who could ever live in a world without shoes?

…because I’m the customer…

I was inspired recently by someone I met, via his great post at TRecs to talk about customer service, again. For those of you who know me, it is something I go on about and one of my passions.

I have always failed to understand why one of the most basic abilities as people; human interaction, is so difficult for some people. I am fully aware that we’re all different, some are extrovert, some are introverts, some are wild nutters like me – and some are very shy and retiring. I get that. It is what makes the world such an entertaining and interesting place. But a little tip for the retailers and service providers of the world; don’t hire the ones who are introverted and shy, regardless of their skill set.

You see most humans, like me (although some would argue I am not quite like most!) like to walk into a shop and be recognised. Or go anywhere and be recognised. I actually don’t care if it is a raised eyebrow, a grin, smirk or a wink. Just do something. Acknowledge that your door has been opened or someone walked past you on the retail floor. Yesterday I had some time to kill on the way to an appointment so I cruised around a few shops. Sales are on, things are cheaper. Doesn’t that mean that more people can afford to buy things? Ergo – more people go shopping? I know consumers buy more things in the sales, but things aren’t always about the money. No I don’t have loads of it, but I have strong principals and I also want an experience when I shop.

Most of the stores I walked into yesterday afternoon didn’t quite see it my way.

You know, I get that it is the end of the day; it’s dark cold and miserable outside (but usually not inside, so what the…?), and it is close to the end of the week or the start of another week and or whatever other thousand reasons you want to create. But when I walk into your shop – you know the one you created to make money? I expect a little recognition. Obviously I also realise that the owner mostly doesn’t sit behind the counter. Maybe that is the problem!

I do know that of the three shops I walked into yesterday, two of the owners were there. I know I have to resign myself to the fact that I will never get understand the why of this. It is probably like reading fantasy science fiction, or playing golf or wrestling or changing your name when you get married – I don’t get those things either!

The most amazing thing to me about customer service is that is free! Yep, that’s right, one of the very few things that you get for free in this world. There aren’t too many! One of my favourite quotes is “there are no traffic jams in the extra mile” (the customer service guru Zig Ziglar). It is one of the truisms of my life. It costs me no more to smile or nod or ask someone if they need help. And I don’t work on the high street!

It is true, and as most of my readers will know, I am Australian. By definition that makes us think we can talk to and smile at anyone on the street. I am also aware that it has the uncanny and unpleasant affect of making me seem simple. That is OK too. Yes, I am the nutter who smiles at people and makes eye contact on the road. Why? Because I get a massive intrinsic kick out of the feeling that that little smile or nod or wink could have just made someone feel special. I know, it could also make them think that I am a stalker…your choice!

My HR training and people management experiences has taught me that the best person for the job is not always the one with the most qualifications, nor the one who can put that book on the shelf in eight different ways or make the gold sequined dress go really well with those pink tights. Recruiting people for jobs where they are responsible for the promotion of your business needs to be based on personality, the ability to interact, a feeling for intuition and a strong sense of understanding customers – empathy.

You wouldn’t read about it, but, customers also have bad days, hate the weather and have just lost their jobs broken up with their partner or had a bad haircut. We all have stuff going on, deal with it and get on with your job. It’s right up there with one of the things I wish I could change in the world, along with the correct distribution of food between the obese and the starving, the ignorance about climate change and the economy, and the treatment of less fortunate souls in our world, but don’t get me started. I do truly believe that one little action or reaction from a shop assistant might just change the way a person’s day goes. I just don’t get why it is so hard. I also don’t get why a good feeling is so undersold.

As Mervyn says – do we have the guts to find out what our customers really think and want? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect to be treated like a long lost friend; I don’t even expect to be remembered (my ego isn’t that big!) but I do expect to be treated with respect and a bit of happiness.  I am the customer; the one who is buying something to attribute to the success of the store and the money you earn. This is a very simple equation. Be grateful, let your face know if you’re happy about it – better still, let other people know. It’s quite contagious.

Funny isn’t it, that films like Falling Down is seen as one man losing his mind, rather than an understandable build up of the kind of frustrations we get in everyday life. Yes, there are different ways to provide feedback. One of them is to vote with your feet and never return. But in a city like London, do retailers and service providers really care? I am one of a potential twelve million people (at least) who will come into the store. Move aside love, there are more people trying to get in!

For the record, the real service providers are not the ones who talk to clients on social media and say “we’re sorry to hear about your experience, here try this number”. They are the ones who resolve your issues for you. Who make an effort. I know there are millions of stories of people who do go that extra mile and they are to be rewarded.

I know the use of social media as a communications tool is now de rigueur in business now. But let’s not make it like the media and report only the bad stuff. We can start to make an effort by reporting great customer service, not moaning in the hope that someone listens (guilty I know!). Business who have a significant edge over their competitors are the ones who go back to the source of the original bad customer experience and resolve the issue; not merely tweet about it.

Is this awful customer service experience also the reason we shop online? So I don’t have to put up with the whining from the shop assistants about their date last night, or the unfairness of having a job where they make you work or wear a uniform or talk to customers heaven forbid (or is that just Top Shop?). Be grateful for a few things:

  • You have the ABILITY to work
  • You have a job
  • You have the ABILITY to smile and improve someone’s day
  • You will live longer (there’s research on this!)

Any retail experience is not just about what things cost. I am saddened that in a world of over consumerism more people don’t vote with their feet. That we mostly still search for the bargain of a lifetime and then moan about the service we get whilst doing it. Are those two things related? Maybe. Or maybe it is just putting out there what we want to get back, either way we have a long way to go!

Growing up an Aussie kid

The things you learn when you don’t realise that you are. As a kid, I learned so many things, like we all do. I thought I would share a few, because it is a unique environment and this time of year, I get a bit homesick.

I learned that most Aussie days are sunny. If you’re anywhere north of the NSW border, any time from around 4am in the summer, it’s daylight. Winter is a little more kind, closer to 6am.  Imagine teaching that to your kids – “yes, it is daylight now darling, but you can’t get out and play, it’s 5am”. Daylight and sunshine, two of the most taken for granted things when you grow up there and the things I am missing the most right now!

I learned that we are the land of the “big” things – Big Banana, Big Lobster, Big Ram, the list goes on. I am not sure why, all I know is that the drive from Sydney to the Gold Coast every year meant we stopped at the Big Banana. Very exciting as a small child. Going back as an adult however, left a little to be desired. There is very little excitement surrounding a large fibreglass banana.

I learned to take sport and exercise for granted, and although it doesn’t seem that way now with so many obese people wandering the streets, as kids we were in that daylight and sunshine as much as we could get, swimming, running, riding our bikes – could never get enough. I have some English friends who shudder at the thought of daily exercise. I do think there was nothing like computer games when we were kids, except for that thing where two lines moved on the screen stopping a square ball – and we were amazed!

I learned to take friendliness, happiness and smiling for granted. So much so, that I am sure I am considered simple here and throughout Europe! All that heat and sunshine makes you feel different, makes you want to be alive and happy. We talk to people on the street, say hello, pat their dog, help with their bags – weird stuff like that!

I learned that fruit was sometimes out of season! That Christmas meant stone fruit and mangos and that as much as my Dad tried to tell us they were awful, we learned not to believe him! I learned that you only ever bought Australian made! My father even stipulated in his will that the funeral directors had to be Australian. Now that was a tough call!

I soon acquired the taste for prawns, crab and most seafood, except for oysters. Once my Dad told me they tasted like snot. Just once….and I never ate another one. He was right. He was also greedy; that meant more for him.

We watched shows like Skippy and thought Sonny was the luckiest kid in the world. Not only did he get to live with all those grown ups (what was going on there??) but he got to ride in a helicopter and he owned a talking kangaroo. No one owned kangaroos in Australia, especially not talking ones. It took me a while to learn that not everyone could afford a helicopter – and that roos didn’t actually talk, or tsk like that.

I grew up knowing bush fires were part of life, that if you lived in the bush, you had to have a fire trail around the house, and you had to make sure you had an escape plan. I knew that we would get sunburned on every holiday – even every second day when we went to the beach. I know that vinegar is what you put on a blue bottle sting and you learn to dodge real quick when there is wind in the air, ‘cause they blow around in the water a bit.

You don’t get out, that’s just ridiculous.

I learned that Huntsman spiders come in pairs usually, and they jump. They also like the water, which means they will catch you in the shower, naked and frightened, not a good place to be!

I learned that you can run really fast on the hard wet sand but it takes you ages to run up all that soft stuff. I knew that mossies got you if you stayed out just after dusk and that if you put a cross where they bit you, with your fingernail, they didn’t sting as much. Later I learned that you rub Vicks on them to make the sting go away. The lump stays but the sting goes. I also knew that my sister was allergic to them and they made her have big rashes all over her body. She passed that onto her kids! I know that I got hives when I ate too many tomatoes; just like they were apples.  I also learned that if you rubbed tomatoes on your sunburn, it would hurt less. Unless of course the sunburn was on the top of your head, where your part was from your pontyails, that really hurt and nothing makes that better!

I always thought I would keep my permanent tan mark from my thongs (the ones you wear on your feet, the only kind!) but I actually grew out of it. A good summer meant you went through more than one pair. You live in shorts and singlets and when you grow up; you just add jewellery and lipstick.

Sunday nights were all about roast chook, peas, mashed potatoes and then choc chip ice-cream. I learned to deal with getting picked on at school because my European mother would make us food none of the kids had ever heard of. But I learned to fend for myself – usually by swearing at them in Maltese, they couldn’t help but be impressed then. At least we weren’t like Gerard Said, he had cockroach sandwiches. OK – they were dates, but they looked like cockroaches!

Speaking of cockroaches, you learn really young that they can fly, usually at you when your mouth is open! And when you go outside at Christmas time, the Christmas beetles fly around and get stuck in your hair! Between those and the cane toads, the back yard could be pretty treacherous, but always big fun!

I learned that Christmas was all about rushing to open the presents then heading outside for the rest of the day to play with your toys, occasionally coming in to eat the hot dinner that mum cooked because that was tradition, even though some of those days were almost 40 degrees.

I lived in a land of either machismo or just plain stupidity when people had ceiling fans and not air conditioners. The land of above ground pools with a bucket next to the ladder that you put your feet in so that the grass didn’t get into the pool. Heaven forbid you had to go around with the scoop before you were allowed to swim – that took an eternity! I learned how to stay underwater and hold my breath, just so I could beat my brother and sister. I learned to hold it even better when Mum told us it was time to come in…..!! Heard perfectly well of course when Dad called! I used to love going out shopping, fresh from the pool, straight into a pair of shorts and singlet, stopping sometimes if we were really good to get a slush puppie or a slurpee. Raspberry of course, oh unless they were the coca cola ones. Then make those disgusting noises, get into trouble, apologise and do it all over again.

I knew that we could never ask to go in the pool until an hour had passed so that our lunch would go down and we wouldn’t drown. I also knew that we could go in, but had to make sure our little sister had her floaties on if she wanted to go in. I knew that if we were at our grandparents place in their pool, we couldn’t wet Grandpa’s hair – I mean toupee. I also knew that there was no way you could wee in there, they had that purple dye that followed you and so everyone knew that you had done a wee in the pool.  (Mean, mean, just mean – until now of course when I tell my nieces and nephews the same thing!). I learned that if you had swimming for PE then you had to make sure you wrapped your cosies up in your towel afterwards and then put it in your bag, or Mum would get really annoyed!

I learned the slow and hard way never to leave fruit in your school bag, especially not hidden in your glasses case….’cause then you forget about it, and bananas go brown really quickly! They also smell just before they have been in there long enough to disintegrate.

I knew that you never opened your eyes in the pool after Dad had put that floating chlorinator thing in there, or if it got in your way, you picked it straight up and threw it at your brother. I learned just how to wet the tennis ball playing brandings and throw it hard, and fast, usually at the head.

I learned all these things and so many more and I am sure that any kid, anywhere in the world can tell stories like this. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich, and we certainly didn’t’ have any spare money. We had hand-me-down clothes (great as the middle child whose older sibling is a boy!) we ate home cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. We barely ever got money to spend at the tuck shop and if we did, it usually came from Grandpa (with Mum clicking her tongue!). We always ate fruit, lots of it, and all the time. We barely ever ate junk food and soft drink was a Christmas treat. We never asked for anything, if you asked you never got, plus we always knew Mum and Dad never had any money.

Holidays were at places like Burrunjuck Dam or Hastings Point, or on the Gold Coast before we moved there. We used to drive there every Christmas, 1000km of fairly treacherous roads, in the back of the station wagon, sleeping side by side in the back. (God – our parents will never live that down – especially when we remind them, which of course was often!)

We used to stop off at the side of the road to have breakfast, usually in our pyjamas, eating coco pops or weetbix or rice bubbles in those cute little Kelloggs packs – the only time of year we ever got to eat them – what a treat! Mum and Dad had instant coffee in the thermos and we got to eat cereal in our pyjamas by the side of the road, with all the cars and trucks going past. And you want to know something? They were some of the best times of our lives. Some of the richest memories I own.

So when people ask me what it’s like in Australia, I don’t usually tell them these things. I tell them it is way too hot to be comfortable most of the year, that fabulous weather doesn’t always make up for bad politics, racism or expensive groceries or having to drive everywhere or having your TV viewing censored up the yin yang, and your media controlled by one megalomaniac.

But I’m always glad I was raised an Aussie kid (we’re Weetibx kids you know). I am glad that I eat Vegemite and not Marmite and glad that I know what Twisties and Tim Tams are. I still know all the words to the Aeroplane Jelly song, would murder for a pack of Jaffa’s or a Violet Crumble or a Redskin and as a grown up, know that I can order a long black or a flat white and not get looked at strangely! This isn’t about what is great about growing up an Aussie, it is about celebrating the fact that I got to this age and can remember it (my siblings will be surprised!), feeling a long way from home at Christmas and appreciating that I can remember, that I got to live to the ripe old age of 43 and I can think that I am rich and privileged in the smallest possible way, to have lived a life made up of the simple, wonderful things that families and different experiences can bring. How blessed!

Social Media and HR: Worthy Partners or Evil Enemies?

I was recently at an HR Professionals networking function and asked who there was using Social Media in their business. The majority told me that they don’t let their staff have access to any Social Media platforms because “they’d just be on Facebook all day”. I wasn’t all that shocked. Disappointed yes, but I had been hearing that quite a lot. I do get it; there are thousands of reasons why we should keep ignoring it and hoping it might go away. Some of them are even valid.

The biggest impact Social Media can have on any organisation is the ability to change it. If you are not involved in a decision about the introduction of Social Media into your business, then you may be put in a reactive position. Social Media creates open, honest and transparent engagement with customers, suppliers, peers and staff, whether it is used as a PR campaign or a whole of business strategy. It means listening to what people have to say, hopefully responding, and learning to adapt. What does that mean for your staff, policies and business? It could very well drive change in the entire business, so we need to be prepared. Here are some fables, tips and benefits:

Fable: It will make our staff less productive.

I wrote recently about this. Using Social Media in the workplace is no different to using the phone on your desk for personal calls, or using email to contact friends, or going out for a coffee. If you have unproductive staff, they will find any excuse to be unproductive. Monitor the behaviour, not the tool that is causing it.

Fable: Our only online presence is our website.

Are you sure? How often do you Google your company name, managers, Directors, Board members?  I don’t mean typing in your company website address, I mean putting those names into Google or Yahoo or even Bing? Each one of those search engines will get you different results. So it probably pays to check them all. Do the same search on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. That is real time search; what is happening right now. Hopefully you won’t be surprised by what you find.

Fable: All voices are equal.

Are staff sharing praise or complaints about your organisation? Are they telling their innermost thoughts and secrets about the company, co-workers or their boss? Generation Y love Social Media platforms and they love to share; a lot and loudly, to anyone who will listen. It could be bad if they are a staff member. A supervisor or manager could have far greater impact. Are they on the board…..well you would hope not, but stranger things have happened! Usually if they are not saying it to you, they are saying it about you.

Fable: Ignorance is bliss!

OK, so you have been brave enough to Google, Bing and Yahoo yourself silly. Did you find comments or a whole conversation? You may be more visible than you would like. Assess the risk and decide on what to do. Do companies even want to know what their staff are saying? They could be either supporter or detractor.  What about ex-staff members, what are they saying? Surely this can’t be any different to what was said at dinner with friends? Unfortunately it is; times a few hundred, thousand, or million. The old way of being social meant we had a few wines then forgot the whole conversation; it was just having a moan. The new way means it all stays for eternity. The old adage that “Four things come not back: the spoken word; the spent arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity” is so true.  The rest you can find on Google.

Um, HR – we need your help…

So why does all this matter? We never did it before, why start now? All this public discussion can impact on your brand, your reputation or your competition; let alone your retention of staff, attraction of new staff and your own credibility as a contributor to the business. Are you a “values based organisation”, are you on any lists as an “employer of choice”? Does it matter what someone once may have said about you? It does if you have principals and values and you use them to attract talent. There are countless examples all over the internet about one person’s perspective, how it was picked up, misconstrued and shared with millions of people.

As HR Professionals we all know what happens the minute something in the business gets too hard to handle. Our phone rings or there is a knock on the door. If someone came to you with an issue like this, are you prepared? Would you know what to do? I have many colleagues and friends in HR all over the world, unfortunately most of them think I have lost my marbles and gone to “the dark side”. It’s true. I have and the message is: be prepared, don’t be scared, and embrace it! These tips may help you start:

Understand the tools. (the most relevant)

  • Twitter is very powerful for business, short, sharp relevant messages and real time search. (It’s also cool to be on it if you are human!)
  • Facebook is becoming powerful for business. Look for business pages. Probably the best area for direct communication with staff.
  • LinkedIn is the most professional platform. Used predominantly as a recruitment tool, it also has some wonderful moderated groups and forums for discussion across industry and profession.
  • YouTube is of course the most popular of the video sites. Anyone can post content…on anything. Nothing moderated here.
  • Blogs are a great business tool if done well. Used for sharing industry and business information, and learning before you actually have to experience it! Excellent marketing and communications tool.
  • Google and Google alerts. You can set up an alert for your company name so that anytime it is mentioned on the internet; you will be sent an email.

Learn and Research. Set up a personal account on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you are not sure, then create an alias. Once in, go and see what all the fuss is about!

Standards. Create a non-disclosure agreement or a confidentiality agreement, or remind your staff  of what they signed in their employment contract. Find or create a policy, framework or guidelines around what you can and can’t do and say on these platforms.  The quick fix is to add them to your IT, email and web standards.

Finally…..The Benefits

Like anything else, Social Media can be managed and controlled if you think you need to. Remember the introduction of fax machines (how many jokes did you or your staff used to fax around?), computers, the internet, mobile phones…the list goes on.  Think about the core of our profession: our people. Use these tools to engage with them, to understand them, to listen and then respond and to get to the truth of who you are, who they are and who the business is.

Be in control, be aware and start something. You are bound to have a more grateful team who want to connect with you, who want to know they are heard and who want to know they are trusted. If you are blocking access, does that engender a culture of trust? Ensure that this one little act doesn’t go against the culture you have worked hard to create.

Social Media is just another tool. Imagine you are new to a country and you don’t know which newspaper to read. You might buy a paper a day for the next fortnight, scan the headlines, or look at the pictures. However you do it, you will seek out information that is relevant to you. This is no different. You don’t have to be in any of it, you don’t have to know it all back to front, but you do need to be aware of it, of what is happening and how you would act in any situation. Be responsible for being a trend-setter in your industry, create an inviting place to work, and have your people engage with you; for good, not evil.

Have you got the guts to have the tough conversations?

It has been a year now since I had any staff to manage. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels sing. Whilst I did enjoy it and all the challenges it threw my way, it was nothing short of the most difficult thing I ever did. I chose not to have children, so I managed people instead. God works in mysterious ways.

It is true that I will have stories to dine out on for the rest of my days.

Anyone who knows me lived this example of managing poor performance, painstakingly! One of my staff used to take the company car to drive to the shop to get coffee for everyone (of course he walked around the building and took orders before he left). He returned, delivered said coffees, chatting to all along the way, then took time to drink his own coffee and eventually got back to work. He thought this took 15 minutes; his tea break. In fact it took 40 minutes, on a good day. He conveniently forgot that he traded off that tea break when he signed the last Enterprise Agreement giving him a 13% pay increase over three years. Not entirely his fault, no one had the guts to tell him that he couldn’t do that anymore.

If you are let get away with something for long enough, it can become the norm.

This very same guy did a less than sterling performance for 27 years. He was an absolute under-achiever of the highest order. When challenged on his work ethic, his work contribution and his general performance, he quite rightly produced his HR file and showed me that no one had ever challenged him on this before. That meant it must be me, the new Bossy Bitch who had a problem with him and the way he worked.

Well hidden potential

That was without doubt one of the toughest challenges of my career. It took me a year of setting targets, measuring performance, reviewing targets, adjusting targets, sending him on more learning and development than was good for him and basically devising every strategy I could find to get him to reach his potential. He had the most well hidden potential of anyone I had ever met.

Lots of very tough conversations and nine months later, he was dismissed for his consistent abysmal performance, including mistakes costing the company thousands of dollars, ruining our reputation and creating ill will amongst his colleagues (unlike anything I have ever seen.) Dismissing someone in a Government run institution was a tough gig, I give you the drum!

Your staff may just thank you for it.

There are thousands of employees out there just like him. It is tough having to have conversations with people about the way they work, or rather the way they don’t work. I doubt to this day that he thanks me for it, but I have had other staff who have. I have had people return to thank me after I have made them redundant, cancel their contract or just plain old tell them off for bad behaviour. Some of them gloat, and that is OK. Some realise it is the best thing they could have done, or could have had happen to them. To leave an environment that doesn’t stretch you or your creativity and is a lovely deep, well grooved rut can be a liberating experience, regardless of how it happens.

It is never a pleasant job to have to tell someone that they are going to lose theirs. People are human at the core of all that shockingly poor performance. They have lives to lead and children to feed, husbands, wives and parents to entertain and ignore just like the rest of us. Pity they don’t think of them when taking their employer for granted.

I have had to have tough conversations, not just about performance, but about stealing, bullying, racism, sexism and inappropriate swearing. I have had to tell someone it is not appropriate to call the company you work for a euphemism for a female body part. I have had direct and uncomfortable chats with people about bad body odour, inappropriate clothing, smoking in a non-smoking flammable confined space; coming in late, leaving early, excessive private phone calls – you name it. Were any of them nice, NO! Not for me and especially not for the staff concerned.

However, every single one of them knew exactly where they stood after those conversations.

To refuse to tell a person that they are under-performing, is not only poor management practice, it is poor leadership. It’s unfair and in fact, it’s just plain old bad human skills. Most of us just want to do a good job. Some of us think we do, and some of us know it, even though we aren’t always told (when will people get that? Can you just say “thank you for your work”, or “You’re doing a good job”. Is it really that hard!!?). I digress…..and OK, yes I was channelling a few of my previous bosses just then, sorry.

If you don’t provide feedback to people, good or bad, they will keep doing what they have always done, whether it is right or wrong. Having the tough conversations can drive you mad if you are not prepared and if you don’t have the skills to do it well and to protect yourself in the process.

Six tips for having the tough conversation

  1. If you witness the bad behaviour, ask the person into your office. Nicely, quietly and privately.
  2. If you don’t see it for yourself, then ask them to come and see you. Ask them for their version of the story. Perhaps: “I heard something unpleasant about xyz….can you tell me what happened?”
  3. Whatever the situation, start the discussion immediately. Do not make small talk or make them feel like they are going to be having a friendly chat with you. This is business and it is serious.
  4. Address the issue. “I just noticed {or I heard} that you did……(insert appropriate disaster here). I wonder why that happened, can you tell me about it please?”
  5. Give them enough time to provide you with an answer. Let’s be honest here, no excuse is acceptable when someone has used bad behaviour in an office, so the next tip is not negotiable!
  6. Say this, clearly, precisely and succinctly. “I just want to make it clear to you that that type of behaviour is not acceptable here in this office, nor in this business. Do you understand?”

Then stop talking.

My experience is that people listen, tell the truth and respond. They are usually embarrassed to be called on bad behaviour and who isn’t? Ask them if they are clear on it. Never underestimate the power of repeating your point, over and over again if you have to. If they start to give an excuse, remind them in the nicest possible way that they are adults; that they have a responsibility to work well with others and to just do their job.

If there are serious reasons why their job can’t be done, they can be discussed later. Make a note of them, then make another time to review workload, or do whatever you have to do to support them (yep, crap behaviour still requires support…much like parenting!). But make those two meetings separate so they are clear on the performance message, and that they are also clear on who is the leader.

The “…how dare you?” tantrum

Seriously, if ever anyone says those words to me, I walk away. They may as well ask me if I know who they are. As a manager I recover from my shock and then take the person in question for a very strict, very sotto voce conversation (strange phenomenon that, the angrier I get the softer my voice!)  I have had staff attempt to throw a tantrum after they have left my office. I followed them and suggested that they go for a walk, or take a break or go work the guillotine (OK, that was a dream, I was in printing!). Keep your resolve and make sure they are aware that you will not accept that behaviour under any circumstances.

Livestock in your living room?
Livestock in your living room?

Feedback is a wonderful thing and I have been known as the Feedback Queen all my life. I love it. I have learned to accept it and I give both positive and negative feedback graciously. It is difficult to manage people because they are people. Some will hate your guts till the cows come home (but what are you doing with livestock in your living room?) and some will adore you for it.

I know some of you reading this will be wondering if I worked in a prison, or even dealt with small children and farm animals. Not so, just an environment where staff had been let do what they wanted; one with no authority, no leadership and certainly no one there who had the guts to have tough conversations.