Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Millennials and the Slightly Ageing Marketeer

So, it's all about millennials in FMCG nowadays. The silver surfers aren't quite sexy enough, and the male market is limited by stereotypes which appear to all purposes to be largely true. It's exciting to be talking to a new market.

Except they're not new. Just younger versions of us. A huge growth area in which you'll never play a part as a participating consumer.

Which makes me feel quite old. In a similar vein to having a doctor's appointment with someone who is clearly younger than your "baby" brother, and on a par with the day that you realise the only way you'll ever actually cut it on a reality talent show is as the quirky sympathy vote. The SuBo, or the John Sergeant of the marketing world.

Because, until this point you probably thought you were one of them. You had the superiority of youth, making insightful if slightly condescending comments about the fifties plus market. Believing that all "housewives" watched continuous TV, and read weekly gossip magazines, in between going to Tesco/Asda/Sainsburys for their weekly trip, whereupon they'd clearly buy all the things that you'd advertised to them.

But you're not one of them. You're not entirely sure that you fit the Generation X definition either (but that is a different story). And as they banter about the "older" members of the team, you grin wryly through [yellowing] teeth and glance through your smudged spectacles at the other token old gits in your department.
But, ageing marketeer, have no fear and keep that [turkey] chin up. The mark of a true marketeer is the ability to transcend stereotypes and understand what it is that makes people tick. A skill transferrable to all age groups, social types and persuasions.

So yes, you may not know your YOLOs from your SuBos, or your understand that Tinder is not something you use to light a campfire with (who knew?). Time is the greatest leveller of all. And karmic in its own way. Serves you right for bantering about the old gits in your department when you were a bright young thing.

How Millennial are you? I got 51% - not very ...

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Of boys and dogs

Slugs, snails, puppydog tails... yes we know how the rhyme ends. And as a young girl I would take great delight in my belief at the superiority of the sugar and spice version of things. Boys were yucky, messy, noisy things.
Fast forward three decades, and I'm a mother to two little boys. As their mother I don't think that they're particularly yucky, (no comment on noisy or messy), but I do increasingly recognise the truth in the little ditty that I enjoyed so much as a child. The truth is, that I can't help but notice more than a passing similarity between dogs and small boys.

For the sake of creative hyperbole, I'm going stick to the similarities. Clearly, there are differences (number of legs, amount of fur...) but please indulge me for two short minutes.

Toilet time
You know the saying about trying to make a horse drink? Well, how about trying to get a boy or dog to wee? Take them to an "official" toilet location, and you'll more than likely get nothing. If you are lucky you will get a tiddle, but it'll be so minute that you'll debate the need to flush the toilet. Then leave the house. 5 minutes after joining the motorway, or 15 minutes into your shopping trip and they will be desperate. And fresh air seems only to increases the urge further. A tree, a river, a carpark, a beach, and they will be confronted with a desperate urge to wee.

Number one rule; make sure there is lots of it. Their overwhelming preference is for biscuit based food, and they will quickly learn the location and sound of the biscuit tin. You can't tuck into a sneaky custard cream without having a small soul looking up at you begging for one too. And don't think that you need to be conventional about using plates & bowls. Food from the floor is just fine. In fact it must taste better, my kids will willingly eat things from the floor in the middle of the morning that they spurned at breakfast. Please note, I do not live in a cesspit, and do normally sweep up after mealtimes.

Fresh air and Exercise
If you want to avoid general naughtiness you MUST take them outside. If you are still inside at 10am, you can expect all manner of bad behaviour. Fighting, whining, drawing on the walls. And don't use bad weather as an excuse, as you will be the one that loses; you must take them out somewhere. I remember one particular occasion in a local park, the January wind blowing us sideways and mud sticking to our boots. The boys running on ahead. We met only dog-walkers, and parents with boys varying in age from 2 to 12. Everyone else was smugly snugly at home, still lazing in pyjamas, drawing, playing with dolls, watching Sunday morning TV. Lucky sods.

Why spend money on toys? Just give them a stick - the bigger the better. If you give a dog a stick and he will bound after it, chew it and hassle you with it. He'll be so happy. If you give a lad a stick and he will hit things with it, and pretend he is a ninja/tractor/Luke sky walker. He'll be so happy. Note that gravel, stones, and grass cuttings create a similar response.

My boys loved the bath when they were babies. Now it is a battle of cunning and guile. Whether it is a dog or a boy, they sit / stand there patiently, with a look of resigned misery while you wash them, making multiple attempts to leave the tub of doom. Eventually the time to get out comes around, and they're happier than Mo Farah winning the 5000m at 2012. The mundane inevitability of the situation has no impact on them - they are overjoyed at their release from their watery shackles.

OK, there's a terrible amount of stereotyping going on in those few hundred words. And for every boy that doesn't play with sticks, there is a girl who will happily survive on chocolate bourbons and Cheerios from the kitchen floor.
Perhaps it's just my boys ... but maybe not. I'd love to hear other stories from other families.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Is There a Mama in the Office?

I've twice returned to work since having children, and it has become clear that my role within the teams I operate in has changed. My job description is identical (a legal requirement after all), but my team role [and I mean this in a quasi-Belbin manner] has altered.

Reports and statistics abound to tell us of the value that working mothers can bring to an organisation. We may be tarred with the brush of routinely legging it out of the office at 4.59 pm, and dialling into the office with spurious childcare issues, but we do have something to offer the office environment beyond the outside art that our children have created & that we pin to our cubicle walls. We're more efficient, more decisive and better negotiators than the pre-child versions of ourselves. And I believe that there are other more tangible ways that a "mama in the workplace" can contribute to her 9-4.59 environment. We may not set the world on fire with our stylish dressing, or enlightening conversation about recent yoga retreats, or even be able to recommend a decent restaurant (i.e. one without placemats that you can draw on), but we do offer something. Actually, three things:

We Have a Sense of Perspective
This sounds preachy I know, but parenthood entirely regrounds your perspective of what and what isn't important. And in the nicest way possible, important isn't about sales performance, the way a powerpoint presentation looks, or even whether your stock list is too high or too low. There have been occasions upon returning to the office when I've momentarily thought that I've accidentally stumbled into an immersive theatre that's showing a stage version of The Office. These are of course momentary; the good outweighs the bad, cringemaking moments, otherwise I'd have left.
But a true sense of perspective - the type that only comes from appreciating what actually is important; is important in an organisation. Especially when you work with young, ambitious people who will do anything for the company, and who get so upset when things don't go to plan, and who work so hard they make themselves ill. We know, we were once there too. Setting a positive, balanced example, and reminding the team, that yes, this is important - it pays our mortgage after all, but let's get it in perspective. It's only bloody cheese/shoes/animal food (delete or amend as appropriate).*

We are Super-Organised

We're like SUPER-organised
Image courtesy of snapcreativity.com
If you want a job done well, do it yourself. If you want a job done very well, give it to a mother. We do honestly come to work for a rest sometimes. A day to the beach involves more organisation and planning than a 2 week holiday used to, and don't even talk about the unpacking afterwards. So, give a project to a mama, and we'll lick it into shape in a flash. You WILL have to do what you are told, otherwise you may risk getting the scary stare, but this is a small price to pay for having something basically look after itself. You will consider this a miracle, given the woman who is managing this project looks on occasion as if she can barely manage to dress herself, but multi-tasking and prioritisation is what this lady does. Watch and Learn.

We are Almost Medically Qualified
This is used the most loose sense of course, but having spent inordinate amounts of times in hospitals, pharmacies, health centres and doctors surgeries, we have essentially absorbed 7 years of medical training by a strange form of mummy-osmosis. And in our spare time we read up on childhood illnesses and first aid so that we are super-prepared (see point above).
So, should you feel unwell in the office, come & see a mama. She'll tell you straight whether you need to pull yourself together (we've given birth you know, so don't weep about having a sore throat to us), or whether you need to go straight to hospital. As a young & frankly inept twenty-something, I was myself driven to the local A&E by our team mummy - I had glass in my foot, and thought it would sort itself out. She said not, and she was right. It took an x-ray and 2 doctors to remove the shard of glass. Lesson learnt.
We carry plasters, paracetamol, bandages, wet-wipes, calpol, teething powder and antihistamine cream in our bulging handbags whereever we go. You will be OK when there is a mama around. And even if she can't help you, she'll make you a cup of tea, and pass you a nice soft tissue for you to blow your bunged up nose onto.

I couldn't be sure how Belbin would classify this position within a team. It isn't about managing or facilitating. Sure, there's a lot of doing, but that's not unique to parenthood. It's a proof that a working mother has a true niche within the workplace - and that these hardworking, caring and on occasion chaotic workplace figures truly are an asset to any organisation. I'm sure that there are more examples of how having a mama in the workplace can enrich an organisation - share them with me, I'd love to hear your views!

*ok, this is more relevant to industry and consumer goods vs public service & healthcare roles, but a real world sense of perspective is important in every workplace.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

An Untold Story

This is a story that I haven't told many people. And it would seem that I'm not alone. According to a recent survey by Mumsnet, only 23% of women that suffer a miscarriage tell their friends.
Whyever not?

My story isn't recent. I have two boisterous little boys with more vim & vigour than I care to mention. And I'm more lucky than I care to mention.
My first pregnancy was a complete surprise. I discovered I was pregnant on my 30th birthday; traditionally a day of champagne & celebration. Initially I wasn't too impressed if I am honest. I had plans ... I'd intended to travel to South America, climb another rung of the career ladder, live abroad, build up my collection of shoes a little more. And here I was with an unplanned pregnancy. My husband was less taken aback than I was - delighted in fact, and before we knew it, we'd put our little flat on the market in anticipation of a 3 bed semi, had stocked up on pregnancy books, and I had started furtively flicking through babycentre.co.uk on my lunchbreak. Baby was due on the 8th May; a month heavy with family birthdays already. We told our parents, but kept it quiet from everyone else ... just in case. Our mothers were excited beyond belief and started talking about the cardigans they were going to knit. But, I wasn't going to let this pregnancy hold me back. I kept up my gym sessions, went on a cycling holiday; I didn't want to be one of "those" pregnant women who were too frightened to do anything, to precious to put themselves out.

Then one Friday afternoon at work, I found that I was bleeding a little. I convinced myself it was nothing. A slight ache started in my lower abdomen. "Nothing" I told myself. This went on & off all weekend, the ache increasing, the bleeding getting heavier. My husband convinced me to go to the doctors, by now, I was upset. This wasn't part of the plan, this baby had surprised us, but he/she was part of the family now. The doctor was sympathetic, but could do no more than refer me to hospital for a scan - which I eventually had 2 days later. I had 2 days of limbo at work; an aching stomach,  hormonal turmoil, and the agony of just not knowing.
My eventual scan came, doctors were unable to detect a heartbeat, but couldn't be sure I wasn't having an ectopic pregnancy, and so referred me for blood tests & a further scan. I had very little information about what to expect, and bleakly filled my head with chatroom horror stories from the internet. A full 10 days after I first started bleeding, it was confirmed that I had lost my pregnancy.

But it didn't stop there. In my head, a miscarriage was a dramatic affair. Much like my perceptions of birth before having children, my perception of miscarriage was created only by what I had seen in the movies. Screaming, fainting women, blood gushing in biblical quantities. Not so. This was a slow and agonising loss - taking 8 weeks in all.

I lost weight, my body returned to "normal", and I was able to take part in the high-impact aerobics that I resented missing out on so much at the start of my pregnancy.  The 8th May came & went, my husband & I shedding a private tear at the sad insignificance of the date in our lives.

And I told very few people. Those that I did tell didn't really know what to say. I didn't know anyone that had had a miscarriage, and neither it seemed did anyone else. I felt isolated and empty.
Then, my step-mother in law asked how I was doing, one weekend when she was visiting.
"It's shit isn't it?" she said. "I had several and it's terrible".
It wasn't a lot, but those few words broke through my isolation, and helped me realise that I wasn't the only person to go through this.

So why do we keep so quiet? Is it because of the western culture of keeping an early pregnancy under wraps "in case something happens"? or because we're too sad to tell of something that to us seems so private?  But to keep our tales of miscarriage silent somehow invalidates the loss that we go through.
I'm fortunate. I had only one miscarriage, and I now have two healthy sons. But there wasn't a day that I didn't go through during either of my pregnancies thinking that everything would be fine.

We need to normalise miscarriages. If we have food poisoning, the flu, mental illness, we tell people. I'm not suggesting we flaunt them. Not by any means. The loss of a pregnancy should be a dignified and private affair. But we need to be open and frank. And this can only help to contribute to the likely success of initiatives such as the Mumsnet Miscarriage Care Bill.

The Mumsnet Miscarriage Care Bill is requesting 5 things
1. Supportive Staff
2. Access to Scanning
3. Appropriate Treatment Spaces
4. Good Information & Effective Treatment
5. Joined up Care

You can learn much more here, as well as tweet the politicians that can do something about implementing this bill.

Thanks x

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Grumpy Person's Guide to Better Emails

Image courtesy of Ambro, www.freedigitalphotos.net

A blessing? Or a curse? Somewhere in-between I'm sure, but emails are an unavoidable part of business life. They speed things up, make communicating to multiple parties simple, save massive paper trails, and mean that we don't have to to rely upon royal mail and (shock horror) actually talking to each other.
But was ever a communication more misused? And ever likely to cause more misunderstanding and internal rage as the email? Well, possibly - but let's not go into instant messaging, that's another subject altogether.

So how to make this medium less irritating, and more helpful? There are business guides galore that tell us how to do this, but here are my top five suggestions for low irritation emails

1. Quit the Informality. Smiley faces, kisses, street talk - come on. If I wouldn't give you a kiss when I see you, then I certainly don't want a kiss from you at the bottom of your email. And smilies do not make a message more friendly, they make it more annoying. And especially don't use them when trying to make light of bad news, it will not do you any favours. None, whatsoever. And as for "amazeballs", "coolio", "my bad" - this is an office, not the green room for a BBC 3 gameshow. Not acceptable!

2. But Don't be Mean. Manners cost nothing. I worked with someone once who would send one line emails "Sales results for product X - tell me what is driving this". He was far too senior for me to do anything other than respond, but I don't ever recall feeling much fondness for him. A "please", a "thank you", a "could you..." all go a long way to oiling the wheels of office relationships, so don't scrimp on the niceties.

3. Use the Enter Button. Paragraphs help to chunk down information & make it easier to read. A block of sold text just causes snowblindness and will slow your reader down. Careful punctuation, spacing and paragraphing will help you make your point, "manage" your reader, and get your point across. Surely worth a few additional keystrokes.

4. If it's Worth Saying ... then don't abbreviate. Thx, Pls, BR (best regards), comms, obvs (see point one), sure, some abbreviations are standard within business - three letter acronyms abound, but others are just needless. I get that some of this is cultural - I worked with lots of Aussies for a while, who routinely refer to each other by initials only, but otherwise make the effort to use the full word. In any case, you can just end up confusing the poor soul that is reading your email. Which leads nicely onto the next point ...

5. Use the Phone or your legs. The personal touch will nearly always result in a better outcome. An email may seem like the faster/clearer/less controversial route, but who hasn't been involved in a hugely confusing email chain that goes on and on? Frustration rises, time drags, everyone is in utter confusion. And then you finally pick up the phone to the other party in this email saga, and everything is made clear in about 30 seconds. I'm a shocker at this, I'll admit. I'm conflict-averse to the core, and this coupled with a packed schedule contrives to always make the email seem like the easier option. Suffice to say, it's not.

Re-reading this, I recognise that I sound like a grumpy old woman. Which I probably am. But what do you think? What are your email bugbears or suggestions for a simple cyber life? Please let me know, I'm sure I could improve ...

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Towers, tunnels and ...

The weather report for the weekend was bad. Very bad. So when we awoke to shining sun, hubby & I were overtaken by a Blyton-esque urge to seize the day and take the children on an adventure. He plotted a location & directions, and I packed a wicker hamper (true) with sandwiches, cream buns and lashings of ginger ale (not quite true).

After a drive through beautiful english countryside; glowing verdantly through spring's showers and sunshine, we arrived at our destination - Arundel Castle. And what a beautiful location for a beautiful day. It is actually a smashing place for a day out with kids. With baby was in the backpack, and big lad running ahead we climbed stairs a-plenty, explored tunnels & turrets and oohed and aahed at the views and distant shoreline. The heads of much revered cows (not a mistype) lowed down on us and caught the eye of the baby, whilst mannequins of medievel prisoners in the dungeons intrigued the big lad.

A regal highchair

We stopped for a mid-tour cuppa and some delicious cake, with baby looking particularly regal in his throne-style high chair.

Then onwards to the gardens. We were welcomed by crowds of jewel-coloured tulips in full bloom, clustered in giant terracota pots. Spectacular fountains and pools brought to mind the formal gardens of Italy. Both boys peered into the fountains, amazed at the water shooting forth from the mouths of stone dogs and exotic looking fish. They ran / toddled around the grass maze and pelted through the vegetable garden where gardeners were at work planting out the summer's produce for use in the restaurant. We then picked our way through the dramatic landscape of the stumpery - an almost prehistoric landscape of upturned tree-stumps, and across to the spectacle of Oberon's Palace - shells  painstakingly laid out on the inner walls of the small wooden structure, with a golden crown spinning magically on a jet of sparkling water. Magical to us as adults, mindblowing for the smaller people.

A picnic later, we climb into the car & head off home.
"That was nice", says big lad.
"Yes" we say. "It was, wasn't it? What did you like the best? The castle? The cake? The fountains?". He thinks. His little eyes starting to look heavy with sleep - the amount of climbing & running he did has knocked him for six.
"Ummm ..."
"I liked climbing all the steps", I say encouragingly.
"Ummmm. The toilets. I liked the toilets the best"
"???". I look at hubby in confusion & amazement.
"Well, they were quite nice" he says.

So, there you have it. Castles, cake and fairytale gardens are all very nice. But if you really want to impress a three year old boy, then take him to a toilet somewhere other than home. A very nice toilet for sure. But a toilet nonetheless.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Job for Life. Interested?

I've recently been involved in a few assessment centres - as an assessor I hasten to add. For the uninitiated, these are a series of tests that organisations put candidates through in order to assess their suitability for employment. More than just an interview, these tests assess a range on interpersonal and technical skills, such as ability to negotiate, to analyse data and how well one presents.
This got me thinking; I certainly wasn't interviewed or assessed before becoming a parent, and yet parenthood demands (in business-speak) "performance against a broad range of competencies", some of which I'm fairly sure I would have failed at if tested prior to birth. So. for fun, and reflection, here is a rundown on some of the top parenting requirements.

Ability to plan & prioritise.
This goes without saying, especially when multiple children (and a husband?) are involved. Leaving the house to go to the park, nursery, shops, in fact going anywhere is a planning feat compared only to going on holiday or a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award expedition prior to having children. Check kids are clean. Coats on. Shoes on. Keys? Damn it's raining. Pull out wellies & waterproofs. Check water for baby, emergency raisins & breadsticks. Where are the nappies? Grrr; no wet-wipes - find wet-wipes. Mobile phone. Handbag. Keys?  Triple check keys? Get into car. Bugger; I still have my slippers on.
I am not the most organised person, I admit. But I know far worse. It is a miracle we ever get anywhere at all, let alone turn up on time.
But let's consider the following as a serious prioritisation exercise. Take one child crying for food/TV/the iPad, the other needs the potty NOW or has done a mega nappy filler and the cat is miaowing to go outside. Then add a ringing phone, or someone at the door. Oh, and you desperately need the loo too. It makes a crammed inbox seem like a (pre-kids) walk in the park.

Innovation / Creative Thinking.
I'd always thought that I would be able to pull this one out of the bag. I enjoy creative pursuits, and envisaged rainy afternoons creating charming objets d'art from egg boxes and pipe cleaners. But it seems not. My kids are never impressed with my adaptations of boxes into police cars ("but the wheels don't go round" they lament) and my drawings are dismissed with "no, that's not the right one. I want it like that". 
But, creativity has many outlets. My fussy eating 3 year old won't touch cauliflower, but will happily eat "snowy trees", and getting into the bath is almost an endurance event, unless "mummy alligator" is on the loose, in which case they jump into the bath in a jiffy. Parents 1, kids nil *high five*.

Pre-kids, I took the view that I would NOT negotiate. It was the NATO stance on terrorism, and I looked down on those parents I heard pleading with their offspring to do x, y, or z.
Oh, the naievity. The number of stories at bedtime, number of stickers for good behaviour, even the how many shoes to wear when we leave the house(?). Everything, it seems is up for negotiation. I'd assumed that this would start at the age of about 15, with the expected "be back at 10" , "no, 11.00" "no, 10.15" and the eventual return at 10.55. I'm not even sure how to play this. I don't want to be a walkover for sure, but also want allow a certain spirit to develop. But maybe not that much ...

Quick to learn & adapt to new information.
I hadn't realised just how well I'd delivered against this one, until I had some (child-free) girlfriends visit. Big lad was desperate to play with them, and so we settled down to play a Thomas the Tank Engine version of Snakes & Ladders. (Rock and Roll eh?). The kids were amazed at the fact that here were some grown-ups who did not know who Percy, James and Edward were. My friends were amazed at the fact that I did. So we had a very confused 15 minutes of moving coloured trains around a board. And it's not just tank engines. I now appreciate that "diggers" is a generic term for large construction vehicles. There are excavators, bulldozers (with & without caterpillars), Bobcats ... and that is only digging at the surface.

Communication Skills.
"Plain" english? Presentation writing? Presenting skills? Email etiquette? How about teaching a language? Understanding toddler-ese? Clearly (and calmly) informing basic requirements in the face of heightened emotion (i.e. a tantrum)? Or getting someone to actually listen to what you are saying (I find the sporadic use of the word "cake" helps quite a lot).
I now consider myself something of a polyglot - and that's more than my rusty German, holiday Italian and very basic Latin. Work-speak, soothing/shouty/calm mummy-speak and everything in between. No wonder there are days when I completely forget the names of people I have known for years ...

But more than all of the above, and heaven knows I could have gone on with many many more examples - there are things that no employer ever seeks, but just happen.
Patience, selflessness and love. These just happen, and only in the most serious and unusual cases do they not.
This is what defines us as parents, what softens the hard edges and makes you a different person to the person you were pre-babies. So even if you can't leave the house on time, and remember to pack spare clothes & wetwipes or if you are incapable of creating a fort out of cereal boxes who cares? Your most important employer won't fire you - this is a job for life.