Saturday, 31 May 2014

Street Smart

When did you last make meaningful time for yourself?  How often do you take time to get things straight, set time aside to do some important personal thinking, create space to contemplate the things that really matter in your life? I would be the first to admit that all too often I allow myself to be sucked into the maelstrom of modern, urban existence. I work long hours, I juggle tasks and don’t always give the people that matter to me the time that they deserve.

I appreciate that I am blessed in so many ways – people tell me I am creative, intuitive, commercial, compassionate, smart, numerate, articulate, in a senior role in a prestigious organisation with wonderful friends and family. However, I am a slower learner than I care to admit – for years I have worked long hours to afford the life and provide the foundations that I want for my family, and to establish a meaningful career. I have loved watching people around me grow and have gone out of my way to help others succeed, sometimes even when they claim my work and ideas as their own. However, the life I live is demanding and takes its toll and my parents cursed me with a deep sense of duty - I will persevere long after most people have given up and gone home. I will think and think about things, trying to devise solutions and create opportunities for those whom I care about. Regardless of the toll it takes on me, I keep ploughing on.
Ploughing the hard way, 1910
It took me two hours last Friday to realise the error of my ways and also to figure out a better route going forward. That’s not to say that everything I have been doing is wrong or bad, far from it, indeed some things I will be doing much more of – all I have done is realise what’s important to me and how I can better prioritise.

I have come to appreciate that if you can’t care for you and make yourself the best you can be, how can you assume that you can care for or help others? Over this Friday lunchtime I watched two wonderful people give themselves a bit of time and serious thought to help sort out a few things they were troubled by. Last Friday I had a similar experience myself.

Let me explain…

I was told of an event happening in central London, being hosted by a group called Street Wisdom and thought that it sounded interesting. Unsure of quite what to expect, I arrived at Trafalgar Square shortly before noon to meet up with my designated host – an engaging fellow called Matt. I had been told to come armed with an important question that I needed to resolve.  I struggled with this – there are so many things I need to resolve, including, but not limited to how to: 
  • see more of my mother, who is seriously ill and lives a three hour journey from my home;
  • care for my autistic sister when my mother can no longer do so;
  • better support my own children who are at important stages in their lives;
  • stop working round the clock;
  • start being a more effective mentor for the wonderful orphan I support in Kenya;
  • ensure that I give more of my time to being a conscientious Governor at Guy’s & St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust - I really care about the health, wellbeing and future of the community in which I live and the wider global issues concern me;
  • keep earning sufficient money to support my family;
  • have more fun;
  • do more creative stuff;
  • start seeing more of my father, who was once my best friend;
  • learn to relax more;
  • gain deeper appreciation for my team and their contribution at work;
  • spend more time with the birds and the bees (no innuendo intended);
  • enable my employer to achieve, and ideally exceed, the next stage of its envisaged strategy;
  • enjoy time doing things I love with people who inspire me or for whom I can make a difference; and
  • make the world a better place.

All pretty big stuff – well they seem so to me.  How to choose just one, or to narrow the above into a single meaningful question that would help me going forward… It was David who made the obvious comment that what I need to do is to ask how to prioritise, rather than trying to select a single question from my list.  I appreciate that prioritisation is a problem for most of us. I am not proud of the fact that I suddenly found myself trying to juggle so many important things that I felt overwhelmed. But I am only human.

I am not going to explain what happened at Street Wisdom, but I will share the images and thoughts that had an impact on me.  All of the photos were taken in and around the Trafalgar Square area and represent my interpretation of what I saw and how it helped me figure out what I have been doing wrong and how I need to change.

This ship is just inside the entrance of the South African Embassy – for me it symbolised the fact that I am on a journey, full of hope

When considering my life I began to realise that it is dominated by Fortitude



and Humanity 

(I suppose it has to be really, given that I am an HR Director and Governor for one of the UK’s leading NHS Foundation Trusts) – clearly I am not in Edith Cavell’s league – she was a British nurse who aided Allied soldiers trapped in German-occupied Belgium, was caught, tried and executed by firing squad in 1915. All of the above photos come from her memorial, which also states her last words said at dawn to the chaplain before her execution: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.” A further lesson for me – the only person to sort things out for me is myself, I cannot blame or dislike others for my discomfort or turmoil.

Only I can release myself from the issues that feel to be binding me

I have time (sorry – thyme), but, for change to work, it needs my personal commitment.

On my travels I chatted with the stagehands unloading props for the English National Opera at the Coliseum Stage Door – they told me that they loved their lives, and were too busy to worry about prioritising, they “just got on with what needed to be done”.

I began to appreciate that I over complicate things for myself. I over-intellectualise and think too much. I should learn to go where my path takes me without agonising so much about the destination.

I need to let go, to get rid of undesirable thoughts and stop participating in unpleasant aspects of my life. 

Although I have felt trapped (just like the ball impaled on this pub sign),

Life could be so much worse, 

in fact there is a cornucopia of fun, reward and enjoyment 

if I would just stop worrying and go with the flow

It is possible to change and rebuild

I know that I need strong personal foundations, otherwise I will be unfit to support others.


I simply need to peel off the layers of distraction

I am strong and have great people around me whom I love, especially my family – indeed, with hindsight I am surprised that my priorities were not obvious to me

The key to success lies inside me

The only barriers to a happier and easier future are those I have made for myself – what appeared solid was no more than shadows

To celebrate my newfound clarity of thought I treated myself to an artisan ice cream – Rosemary for remembrance, honey for a sweeter future, full of zest (orange in this instance!)

I found my time with Street Wisdom a powerful and positive experience, so much so that I spontaneously created a mini Street Wisdom session on Friday for two employees at work, whom I do not know well. I was aware that they both were struggling with different issues in their lives.  I felt that they might benefit from time to give themselves space to think things out. It worked brilliantly, all three of us were glowing when we returned to the office and I was delighted to have been able to facilitate the experience for them.

I am committed to doing it again, both in London (once with some of the original team I met on the steps of St Martin’s and once with an open group who want to answer questions and learn about the approach) and in Edinburgh, other locations are also being considered. David and Simon, who attended the first session at the same time as me, will be facilitating the open sessions with me – they too found Street Wisdom a valuable and powerful experience.

Let me know if you are interested in taking part.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Time to Grow

I live in Stockwell – an unprepossessing area of South London, which most people pass through en route to somewhere else, but to me it is home. As I suspect you already know, I am passionate about nature and our environment…perhaps partially inspired through osmosis from my parents and via the soil in my garden, whilst I tend my bees and plants.  I love my small patch of ground – an oasis away from the pollution, pace and pettiness out in the streets and office. I am sitting in the garden now, listening to a blackbird, perched on our neighbour’s chimney pot singing about its place in the world (as indeed am I in this blog). One of my mother’s lasting memories after my birth (she had a particularly gruelling time bringing me into the world, even though I only weighed 2.8lbs) is of a blackbird singing its heart out from a chimney pot, whilst she lay exhausted in bed, in what is now a defunct maternity hospital, less than 5 minutes walk from my current home. Perhaps this blackbird is a descendent of the one she listened to.  The connection and continuity appeals to me.

Part of the reason for my comment about osmosis is that my house is on land close to the original site of John Tradescant the Elder’s botanical garden. Tradescant, an English naturalist, gardener, collector and traveller, was an amazing man and can be credited as the father of modern English gardening, specialising in the garnering and nurturing of unusual plants.  He commenced his career as Head Gardener to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, and created the celebrated garden at Hatfield House (the place where Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood) and eventually was retained by the King as “Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms”.
Hatfield House, Knot Garden
In 1610/11 Cecil sent Tradescant to the Low Countries to select fruit trees and Tradescant returned with trees, plants and bulbs never before seen in England. This was the start of his life as a botanical pioneer. He and his son (John Tradescant the Younger) travelled abroad, as well as requesting others to collect specimens, to add to his collection.  Tradescant assembled a miscellany of curiosities (of natural history and ethnography), which he housed in “The Ark” – his home in Lambeth.  This amalgamation of rare and unusual natural and man-made objects established what was the first English museum to be open to the public, the Musaeum Tradescantianum and demonstrates Tradescant’s passion for learning and his altruism towards his fellow men and the world around him. After Tradescant’s death, the collection was acquired by Elias Ashmole and he bequeathed it to Oxford University as the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first university museum. I love seats of learning.

John Tradescant the Elder
(portrait attributed to Cornelis de Neve) 
Although I honeymooned in Oxford, I studied at “The Other Place” and it was a real treat earlier this month to share my alma mater, Cambridge, with some of my colleagues and exceptional professionals and friends during a pioneering leadership development event, designed and run in conjunction with the Judge Business School. We took advantage of the amazing locations around the University to run some inspirational sessions covering a range of key topics including self-awareness, leadership styles, coaching cultures, communication, team dynamics and the traits of high performing teams. On our final night we had the privilege of dining in Cambridge’s equivalent of the Ashmolean – The Fitzwilliam Museum. The former Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, stated that, “Like the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam addresses the history of culture in terms of the visual forms it has assumed, but does so from the highly selective point of view of the collector connoisseur. Works of art have been taken into the collection not only for the historical information they reveal, but for their beauty, excellent quality, and rarity…It is a widely held opinion that the Fitzwilliam is the finest small museum in Europe.” Standing, conversing with colleagues surrounded by exquisite works of art, it was impossible not to agree.
Entrance Hall and stairs leading to galleries
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
How fortunate am I to be able to learn from, share and enjoy such treasures and memories, and also to be able to select my own dream team with whom to make the event such a success? I don’t often get given flowers, like a prima ballerina, for putting on a great show, but I did this time and they are still gracing my kitchen table. They make me smile whenever I look at them. It’s funny how impactful a meaningful “Thank you” can be. The personal notes from attendees have been heart-warming and inspiring. Hardened corporate cynics have emailed and written by hand to say that it was the best learning event that they have ever attended, some called it life-changing. Younger members of the group stated that they now appreciate where we, as a business, are going and what they need to do to enable success both for themselves and for the firm.  I am indebted to the wonderful professionals who, far more than I, made such an impact – especially:

  • Tim Bellis, and Mark de Rond – both inspirational speakers and men I am humbled to call my friends;
  • Stacey Clifford and Hannah Winchester of Judge – without whom the seamless coordination of the event could not have happened;
  • Des Woods of the Moeller PSF Group (who can bring case studies to life like no other I know);
  • David Goddin and David D’Souza who really brought home the power of coaching, encouraged all to participate, and who demonstrated the need to be adaptive to become a great leader, as well as bringing together the key messages from the event:
  • Ben Hardy – an engaging and authoritative communicator who is also a dab hand with Lego;
  • Lord Wilson of Dinton – whose knowledge, wisdom and ability to engage with a diverse audience is a lesson to all would-be-leaders; and finally
  • Simon Heath – who can capture the essence of an experience, through a few simple lines, so that people see things in a different way and the learning sticks. 
You are truly a group of high-flying professionals who are a joy to work with. Our shortlisting for this year’s HR Excellence Awards is due in part to you and your influence.

Thank you!
Drawing by Simon Heath
Summarising achievements at Cambridge
It is a genuine pleasure watching and helping people learn and grow – that is one of the reasons why I love being in HR.  There are similarities between HR and designing and tending a garden.  Good HR takes time, it is often hard work and a thankless task, but the fruits of your labours can be fantastic. Frequently the most apparently uninspiring bulbs or roots, with some care and support, suddenly sprout and blossom. Productivity can be found in unlikely places. Last week I had the felicity of attending the RHS’s Chelsea Flower Show – certainly the most famous UK show and probably the best known floral event in the world. It was delightful to wander amongst the different gardens and displays.  I am in awe at the skill true horticulturalists display in bringing together textures, colours, vistas, scents and contrasts, with an incredible eye for detail, to create exceptional spaces that evoke emotions as well as being visually stunning. Each exhibit had its own style and personality and, as many of my friends on Twitter now know, certain gardens and plants reminded me of friends. I find that having a connection to nature makes me feel more alive and helps me grow, so that I want to sing like a blackbird.

Beatles Blackbird, 1968 
(lyrics were inspired by the civil rights movement in America)

Gardens inspire many people, this poem, Lines Written in Kensington Gardens – was composed by Matthew Arnold in 1852:

In this lone, open glade I lie,
Screen’d by deep boughs on either hand;
And at its end, to stay the eye,
Those black-crown’d, red-boled pine-trees stand!

Birds here make song, each bird has his,
Across the girdling city’s hum.
How green under the boughs it is!
How thick the tremulous sheep-cries come!

Sometimes a child will cross the glade
To take his nurse his broken toy;
Sometimes a thrush flit overhead
Deep in her unknown day’s employ.

Here at my feet what wonders pass,
What endless, active life is here!
What blowing daisies, fragrant grass!
An air-stirr’d forest, fresh and clear.

Scarce fresher is the mountain-sod
Where the tired angler lies, stretch’d out,
And, eased of basket and of rod,
Counts his day’s spoil, the spotted trout.

In the huge world, which roars hard by,
Be others happy if they can!
But in my helpless cradle I
Was breathed on by the rural Pan.

I, on men’s impious uproar hurl’d,
Think often, as I hear them rave,
That peace has left the upper world
And now keeps only in the grave.

Yet here is peace for ever new!
When I who watch them am away,
Still all things in this glade go through
The changes of their quiet day.

Then to their happy rest they pass!
The flowers upclose, the birds are fed,
The night comes down upon the grass,
The child sleeps warmly in his bed.

Calm soul of all things! make it mine
To feel, amid the city’s jar,
That there abides a peace of thine,
Man did not make, and cannot mar.

The will to neither strive nor cry,
The power to feel with others give!
Calm, calm me more! nor let me die
Before I have begun to live.
Luciano Giubbilei's garden for Laurent-Perrier
Best in Show, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014

Be inspired and live life to the full - Don't waste time; we are surrounded by such wonderful things.

A dandelion clock
found in my garden

Alexander Rybak – Song from a Secret Garden

A perfect rose
seen at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014

A single flow’r he sent me,
since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
“My fragile leaves,” it said,
“his heart enclose.”
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

(Dorothy Parker, of course)