Sunday, 11 September 2016


Months of planning, fund raising and preparations are now over. I have a very heavy suitcase packed with toys, clothes, medical kit and educational aids – all donated by friends, family and contacts. 

I am particularly indebted to the reception team of Charles Stanley - I have never seen so many glittery little girls’ sandals being donated to a great cause. Myself, I have a small handbag with a few clothes and some mosquito lotion. Over the next nearly fortnight I am to be part of a group of HR professionals referred to en masse as “Connecting HR Africa” and we will be based in Uganda working with street children, trying to give them better childhoods and futures.

We also have an evening schedule arranged for us that will see us linking into the local HR and business community in Kampala. We will be working alongside professionals from the specialist charity Retrak, for whom I have been raising funds. People have been hugely generous and every penny has gone straight to Retrak. It’s not too late to donate, if you would like to, I have a JustGiving site that would love to hear from you.

Our journey began on Friday, with six setting out from Manchester (Ian – the brains behind the expedition, Alice, Amy, Helena, Lisa and Sophie, and the remaining three of us departing from London. We are to be joined by the tenth member of the group, a photographer, in a day’s time. Two others had been signed up to join us, but have had to pull out for family reasons – I hope that their lives calm and they get the opportunity to attend next year. So much thought and planning has been done by all.

However, sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the past 36 hours fit into that category. After a four-hour delay at Gatwick (due to the plane needing to refuel at Heathrow – what’s that all about?), we finally arrived at Dubai when it was too late to make our connecting flight to Entebbe. After a lot of queuing and questions, we discovered that there is only one Emirates flight per day to Uganda and that the flight to Nairobi, from where we might have been able to make the short hop across Lake Victoria to Uganda, was fully booked, hence three of us (Katrina, Donna and myself) found ourselves stranded in the UAE.

Katrina, Donna and I originally met via social media, before being selected for Connecting HR Africa. Donna, a leisure industry HR expert who now runs an excellent consultancy, has written for the Advent Blogs series that I host annually - she is a well known voice on various social media and traditional HR channels - and Katrina is a globally recognised social media expert, teaching individuals and organisations on how best to source and successfully recruit highly desirable candidates.

There are some silver linings – spending over four hours together at Gatwick, waiting for a quenched plane to arrive, allowed us, the London trio, to start forging stronger bonds – we persuaded the staff of Lounge One to print off an email attachment to enable one of us to have the complete set of hardcopy paperwork required to get past Ugandan entry officials; we held an impromptu Meantime lager 

and gin and tonic tasting, once we became aware that we had at least another two hours to wait – for the record, Edinburgh gin (served with juniper berries in the glass) has delicate quite sophisticated notes that were enhanced by the juniper, Portobello Road (served with pink grapefruit) packs a punch, as does Broker’s (served with a wedge of lime), Caorunn is surprisingly subtle, as is Bombay Sapphire, both slip down with ease when served with a slice of orange.  Our time together certainly helped the three of us to start getting to know each other, finding areas of shared experience, humour and interest. A week of connections had begun…

By the time we were called to board it was looking increasingly probable that we would miss the connecting flight, and also that, as a result, we would need to spend time in Dubai. I have worked in the Middle East, indeed I nearly relocated to Dubai a few years ago, and I have friends in the region. It seemed sense to make positive use of the time, even if we were unable to be part of Connecting HR Africa on the first planned day in Uganda. Before the plane had started taxiing along the runway, I had sent messages to various contacts in the UAE. The prospect of being trapped in a soul-less hotel close to the airport was not appealing and we had a golden opportunity to form a new Connecting HR chapter – Connecting HR Middle East.

View from my hotel room window
I am indebted to the wonderful Craig Austin, recently appointed Group Head of Talent Management and Learning and Development (L&D) for Rakbank, for being the first person to respond to my message. Despite having not seen me face-to-face for over a decade (we used to work together in London), he welcomed all three of us into his home and gave us a taste of Dubai life. It was a pleasure meeting his wife, Amanda, having heard so much about her over the years, and watching an astounding gymnastic display by his youngest daughter. As you can see from the below photo, a tough time was had by the “London ladies” sitting round the pool. 

As the afternoon progressed into night, we spoke about HR and L&D and the most effective methods of enabling change across the region and at home; we pondered the cultural differences between the UK and the Middle East; and looked into ways in which we can support and learn from each other going forwards. Craig really liked the Connecting HR approach – Connecting events enable networking and the cross-pollination of ideas in an informal and friendly environment. I regularly attend Connecting HR tweet-ups and meetings in London – they are broadcast on social media platforms such as Twitter, and the Manchester group is enviably active. So now Connecting HR Middle East has been born, 

Craig is committed to expanding the group and it will be fairly easy for him because he has already been building up a network of HR and L&D professionals, who discuss issues as an informal group (it is a shame that, although well known HR professional bodies have a presence in the Middle East, and their qualifications are well regarded, the region seems to get little direct support or encouragement to justify expensive annual membership fees – although I believe that the CIPD is working to address this).

HR, because its focus is on how to get the best out of people and create optimum workplaces, is one of the few professional disciplines that is capable of crossing sectors - it is perfectly possible to have a meaningful discussion between HR professionals from pharmaceutical or engineering businesses and a person based in financial services. In fact, one can often gain great new ideas and insights by speaking to a wide circle of connections.

By the end of our night in Dubai, Donna and Katrina had made new friends and I had renewed a valued relationship with a man I have always liked and respected. The discussion flowed with ease and vigour and it was amazing to find how many connections and experiences we had in common. The drive back to our hotel, under a shining moon, initially past sand dunes and then into the dramatic urban landscape with twisting roadways and the sparkling lights in the spectacular modern buildings, shining like festive ornaments, will be memorable for the three of us and provided a perfect end to our day.

As well as having an excellent time in Dubai, we missed the earthquake that hit Tanzania, killing at least 11 people, and which was felt by our colleagues in Uganda.

In our own ways we are trying to move the world and through connections enable positive outcomes.

It has been a great Day 1.

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