Saturday, 13 September 2014

Three years on - On taking my Son to University

2014 is shaping up to be a milestone year for us, and I will no doubt blog some reflections on that, with the hindsight of distance and time, next year.  For today though, I wanted to share some thoughts and feelings, which reference a previous blog from September three years ago Reflections on taking my Daughter to University and touch on taking my son, Sam, to university in Farnham yesterday.

Having re-read that blog, when I took Child 1, Natasha, to university, I am reminded why my social media profiles all start with the description "Husband, Dad..." followed by my professional description. That's where my priorities lie and have lain for the last 32 years, since I met Mandy. Up until then, I saw and validated myself by my career/job role as an actor, a role for which I was prepared to move anywhere in the country, for lousy money, mostly to do average work and with no career ladder or prospects in sight. That all changed after I met Mandy in 1982 and we became 'an item' and later married ("Husband"), moved to Hove to start a family and welcomed Tash and Sam into the world in 1992 and 1995 respectively ("Dad"). And I moved into Learning & Development ("the professional description").

So three years ago, I said about taking Tash to uni, "Niall's first rule of parenthood - there are no rules!  It's the ultimate seat-of-your-pants, non-formal, on-demand, experiential learning opportunity.  Just as you've managed to reflect and re-apply what you've just learned, the goalposts move and off you go again.  What works for child 1 does not necessarily work for or apply to Child 2.  They are their own people, from day 1, and I learned that I had to go with the flow, adapt and flex, whilst we tried to maintain a safe, loving and nurturing Home for them - and us - in which to grow."

And boy did they grow. Tash is currently in Cambodia, on a month-long tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand before coming back at the end of this month to do her final year of Interior Architecture & Design at Nottingham Trent University, after a year's interning at two design partnerships in London.  Sam starts at the  University of Creative Arts in Farnham UCA web page on Monday, having taken a year out after 6th form college to work and to reflect on what he wanted to do next. He interned for 6 weeks for a television production company, worked for a well-known electrical retailer and became the in-house sales expert for televisions, he continued to go the movies, to write and publish his ever-insightful movie reviews on his YouTube channel See his latest review here and finally decided that working towards a BA in Film Production at University was the way he wanted to go. Mandy and I had nothing to do with that decision and are thrilled that he has found his path via his own passions.

He got a place at the UCA in Farnham, but didn't get into the Halls of Residence. So, singlehandedly (with a bit of prompting & support from Mandy and me), he used facebook to hook up with some other 'Freshers' in the same boat, took on the responsibility of finding a student house to let, organised the legals and (more importantly?) the broadband and wifi, and even delegated some of the other moving in tasks to the other boys who were going to be sharing with him.

Yesterday, I took him and his 'stuff' to Farnham and helped him move in.  So now starts the next phase of my "Husband, Dad..." journey. Mandy and I are now 'empty-nesters'. Indeed, as I write this blog, I am sitting at the strangely-empty desk in Sam's room, able to see the carpet and with the windows wide open (if you got older teenagers, you'll understand those comments).

And I am sad. 

Joyful, but sad. Joyful for Sam, starting his new adventure and the next stage of his life; and sad, 'cos now our role has changed, as have the dynamics in our home. I will miss Sam's apropos-of-nothing conversations about random film stuff, the smell of over-cooked pizza and garlic bread, the hugs when I get home from work, the 'hey' from the hallway as he comes home and goes straight upstairs to his room... the general 'presence' of this charming, articulate, loving and funny young man in our shared living space. I hope his new house mates and university colleagues appreciate him as much as we do!

Mandy and I look forward to continuing to be part of Sam and Tash's lives for as long as we can, as they both grow and develop further; we'll just be a bit more hands-off.  But equally, we'll never be more than an email, text, tweet, facebook, Instagram or Skype away.

They can run, but they can't hide...

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Who goes there... Friend or Colleague?

I spent a very pleasant 15 minutes chatting to a colleague on the telephone this morning, entirely about business, but both sharing our feelings about some of the challenges we share and some of those that we are dealing with within our own 'specialist' functions. We concluded our conversation saying how much we were looking forward to spending some 'social' and business time together next week.

Having had a rotten commute into work (train broke down, delayed my arrival by an hour), and not being especially enthused by my task list for the day, I came off the 'phone smiling and energised to get on with my day. And that got me thinking. What was it about that conversation that 'gee'd' me up for the day? Why did that feel so unusual? And I concluded that it was because I viewed that individual as more than just a colleague, but as a friend. And then I started wondering what it is that turns a colleague into a friend, followed immediately by questioning how many 'friends' I actually have at work. 

Time is an element of course. We have worked together for several years now. But it's more than that. We recognise in each other a 'kindred spirit', an emotional exchange (intelligence?) that allows us to share our thoughts and feelings about our work, without fear that we will be judged or rated on what is said. We also have a deep respect for, and rely on, each other's knowledge and professionalism. 

Hence this tweet which I was then inspired to post and which got a lot of 'faves' and retweets...

Another tweeter, Ade Adtukasi (@ohcsolutions), commented "Maybe we need to rethink the traditional definition of work-life balance", whilst Michael Osborne (@MikeOzzy) reported "...I have a combination of both. :)" - the smiley face being a big clue here, I think. 
Believe me when I say I'm not looking for new friends here; I've got plenty, thanks. But, having friends at work, people that you can collaborate with, offer help to and ask for help from, seek counsel from and - critically, in my view - have a laugh with, should be cherished.

Now, in no way do I mean to 'diss' any of my other colleagues, with whom I have many very amiable and productive relationships, just as I have in the outside world; social media being one (several?) of them). But on how many fingers of how many hands can I count these people as my friends?

And if you were to do the same, what sort of numbers would you come up with? What value would you place on them? And does it matter?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Chains, Chiefs, Checks and Chokepoints

Recent events in both my personal and my work life have led me to some realisations and determination to do things differently in the future.

First the personal. Some of you will be aware that we are attempting to move house. In April, we found a new-build and paid our holding deposit, then took some time to confirm a new, smaller mortgage - ironically, with our existing provider - but were then further frustrated by our chain behind us collapsing when our buyers lost their buyer and had to go back onto the market. With a new, longer, chain in place just awaiting their mortgage offers, our developers have now pulled the plug on us and have put our intended purchase back onto the market, despite several attempts by our solicitor to get a stay of execution whilst our chain catches up.  All to no avail, and on Friday we lost our new house. So back onto the house hunt, starting this afternoon!

So what have I learned from this experience? In a complex legal environment, I made the mistake of assuming that the various players in our drama actually cared about us and were working for our personal best interests. Having made that assumption, I sat back and let them get on with it, assuming that all was progressing as it should. It wasn't until we were advised two weeks ago that the developers were intending to 'pull our papers' and put our purchase back on the market, that I was finally in the picture (e.g: we didn't even know that our chain behind us now had four players as opposed to the original three!). So, as we head off into the unknown house-hunting again, and our chain now has to wait for us, I am determined to keep on everyone's back and demand information and service from all; just as I will make sure that I keep everyone else informed of our progress. In other words, I have to actively manage the players and the process just as much as I have to manage things at work.

Which brings me to recent work realisations. I have recently been involved in some activities which required working in the middle of a mixed bag of internal and external stakeholders - line management, external consultant, external design teams, IT, peers, hotels and professional bodies - a dynamic and fluid grouping of co-dependency, tasks, deadlines, checks and outputs. Communication between those parties and critically, as an output to other stakeholders via assorted media, was/is the key here.

The need for clear, concise, well-written and accurate copy, supported by a robust underpinning infrastructure and delivery process, is critical. But how many people are needed to create, check, amend, finalise and publish this information - and how many iterations should it go through before the 'go' button gets pushed? Everyone involved is busy with their day job and/or other commitments. Attention is not always available when required. Things get forgotten. Proof-reading gets sloppy. A critical piece of information is not available because one individual in the chain is unexpectedly sidelined to other priorities, etc... Too many chiefs, checks and chokepoints for my liking...

A project plan might have been a good idea here, but as this work is emerging organically, it's been difficult to a) agree the tasks and outputs, and b) the milestones and delivery dates. It may well be the way forward, but for now, it's up to me to make sure I am fully integrated with the action, with all the stakeholders and can add value to the outcomes by assuming nothing, staying connected and demanding the same of others.

And as I await the feedback from my recent 360 degree assessment (line manager, four direct reports and nine peers across the organisation), I will be looking to apply the above personal and professional learnings to my development plan.

As always, I'd appreciate any thoughts, challenges or suggestions. Thanks.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

On the House

Not such big news - House-hunting's emotionally and aesthetically challenging! 
In the words of Sinead O'Connor, "Nothing Compares..." to our home of 23 years (but which we have now put on the market to get rid of our mortgage and move somewhere cheaper, for reasons already mentioned in a previous blog 'Not Moving On'), except, to our surprise, the new-build that fits our requirements very nicely, but which we can't reserve until we have a confirmed offer and chain on our place...! 

What's extraordinary is the difference in quality between homes other people are selling at the same price, or more, as the new build and the new-build itself - i.e. there is no comparison! All need work, some are mis-represented in their estate agents' details, some are in naff areas or are too far from public transport (railway stations) or amenities and some, frankly, look like the people who live there just got up and ran out of the house five minutes before we arrived!

That said, our house has never looked better! All the little jobs I was never getting round to have been done; Saturday mornings now, we blitz the place - clean, tidy, declutter (hide), vacuum, etc - so it looks as much as possible just like the photos in our estate agent's blurb (real photo shown - make us an offer!)

What is it that's said about house buyers and
sellers? "Every  seller's a liar and every buyer's a thief" (something like that). 
I couldn't possibly comment...

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Milestone or Millstone?

I have written before about how my understanding of and participation in social media is 'not a numbers game', not about counting followers or retweets or favourites, but should be about showing up, sharing, interacting, learning and having some fun along the way.  

On Thursday, I came across the #myfirsttweet meme and was surprised to be reminded that my first tweet was in June 2010 and that I had wanted to explore Twitter's micro-blogging potential to support learning. 
Coincidentally, I realised yesterday evening that I had passed the 10,000 tweet mark earlier in the day.  That seems like a lot of twitter time!

So has it been a good use of my time? Has it been worth the effort and the risk? Have I indeed, showed up, shared, interacted, learned and had some fun?

I joined Twitter in 2010 to try and get an understanding of this new medium in relation to my professional practice, but what I discovered along the way was quite unexpected. I discovered a number of communities, professional and interest-based - who generously welcomed me in, shared their knowledge and experience with me and - astonishingly - wanted to know what I thought, engaged me in conversation and sought my opinions. And I was immediately and irrevocably entranced and engaged.

Not only that, but by the simple use of the magic trick called 'hashtags' and the ability to embed links to Internet sites, I could focus in on topics of interest, conversations (tweetchats) and resources in support thereof. 

My #PLN (Personal Learning Community) has grown digitally and has been enhanced by being able to cut through the 'Loneliness of the Disconnected Conference Attendee' and has enriched my conference (and un-conference) experiences. I've enjoyed not attending many such events, by following the twitter stream, via #hashtag, that others have shared live from the floor. And I've learned to do the same myself.

I now share photos via Instagram and Flickr. And I have learned to, if not, love facebook, at least to appreciate it and connect with friends and family in a more considered and adult fashion, even if I do think some of them need to get out more... I've also finally started to get my head around Pinterest, which has been a complete mystery to me up until just recently.

More work still to do: I could spend more time interacting with my LinkedIn communities, and I really must get to grips with Google+, particularly as so many PLN have kindly added me to their circles and, quite frankly, it's getting embarrassing that I have not afforded them at least the courtesy of acknowledging and reciprocating their validation.

To put all of the above in perspective, yesterday evening someone accused me - in a loving way, of course - of having 'twittertourettes', because I tweeted something just before we left a local restaurant. They may be right.
It's now part of my DNA. It's given me a voice that I had forgotten I had and enabled me to grow, develop and 'show up' personally and professionally. Indeed, as this tweet yesterday, nearly four years later shows, even my boss has expressed a view on it.

But has it become an unhealthy obsession? Do I feel the irresistible need to tweet/blog/post/pin/comment every day? Has social media become a millstone round my neck, a distraction from the real work and the real world, a demanding child requiring constant attention?  

Not so far. Not as long as I keep remembering that it's not a broadcasting channel; it's a walkie-talkie, a two-way street. Dialogue and authenticity are my watchwords here.

And on that note, here endeth a blog that's been a long time coming. Thanks for reading; thanks for being in my PLN (whether you knew you were or not), and thanks in anticipation for any comments/thoughts/challenges that you would like to add.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Lifted Up

I was invited to host a table at the Speed Learning event, part of the Workplace Learning stream at the Bett Conference in London yesterday. The theme, as articulated in the programme - was "...developing cost-effective, exciting and engaging new learning resources". This was new territory for me - as I effectively only had three minutes to share my 'story' and another seven minutes for discussion and questions, before the participants moved on to the next table and off we go again. No slides, no visual aids, no microphones, no co-speaker, no chairperson... Just me and 8-10 people, up close and personal for ten minutes - five times in one hour!

So, now that that hour has been and gone - and what an intense hour it was - what did I learn from the experience?

Well, anyone who has read any of my blogs or participated in any of my conference sessions previously will be aware that being stuck for words is not one of my areas for development! If anything, it's the opposite and I am constantly challenging myself to be more succinct in both my verbal and my written delivery. (You can take the boy out of acting, but you can't take the actor out of the boy. Someone once said that if the fridge door light came on, I would do twenty minutes!)

I wanted to share our story at FirstGroup of deploying Webex, coupled with our existing voice conference provider, as both a learning and a business communication tool, and to illustrate some examples of the challenges, mistakes and successes. Now, I have touched on this before at a couple of conferences, as a 'work in progress' and as part of a wider usually 20-30 minute talk. I have never had to compact four years' worth of work into three minutes! 

Serendipitously, I had been involved in a conversation at work last week, where the concept of the 'elevator pitch' came up. It's one of those phrases one hears and kind of assumes that one knows what it means, until one is challenged to explain it. I couldn't, but someone else did and we discussed how one would use the time between floors in a hypothetical lift with the Chief Executive, to 'make your pitch', tell your story, etc. and how one would have to focus on clarity and impact.

So that's what I did. On the run, I trimmed my story down to the bare essentials. I focused on a very brief history of how we got to where we are, some mistakes made along the way, why we decided to take the route we took, some examples of success in L&D (Data Protection Training, if you want to know) and one or two 'words to the wise' for anyone considering that approach. I was really challenged by the three minute deadline, but relaxed into the seven minute conversation with the rest of the table, which allowed expansion.

Great timekeeping and framing by Marc Powell ensured that everyone stuck to the timings and some really fruitful conversations seemed to be occurring across the room.  My only regret is that I didn't get the chance to hear my fellow hosts' stories at their own tables.
I realised afterwards, on the train home, that I had had a unique opportunity to put theory into practise. I had an understanding of the concept of the elevator pitch beforehand, but had now had a real chance to walk the talk in the session, learn from each of the five conversations, and refine both the technique and my story, for real. Invaluable.  So what will I do differently in the future? As I articulated in my tweet last night, I'll be aiming for focus, clarity and impact in my communications in the future.

My final learning point - if there's ever another Speed Learning hosting opportunity, I'll make sure I've got a bottle of water with me. I was parched by the end of the hour! Still talking tho'...