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Going with the flow of love, life and work

cropped-1444856698794_14448563479521.jpgBY HEATHER ROBERTSON

WHEN  I was appointed editor of The Herald in Port Elizabeth in 2010, as  the first woman in the position, I felt pressured to prove that I could work as hard and smart as all my male predecessors (there were only male editors since The Herald was launched in 1845).

I ended up pulling long hours day and night, behaving like the female version of the Man from La Mancha frenetically fighting the windmills of the global decline of   newspaper circulation, sighing a breath of relief when the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) figures showed the copy sales were stable and blaming myself when there was a dip.

I was in the newsroom fighting the windmill at about 7pm at night on June 17, 2014 when my older brother Michael called me to say my parents had been in a car accident outside Johannesburg, over 1000km away from Port Elizabeth. Dad was bruised and dazed  and Mom’s ankles were broken and she had internal injuries. My younger brother Peter put his phone to my mother’s ear so I could speak to her, just before she was wheeled into theatre. That was the last time I heard my mother’s voice.

The thing about the absolute finality of death is  that it makes you acutely aware of how precious every moment of life is. Up till the point you lose someone close to you, you behave like an immortal.  I did. I was sucked into the social media and print media maelstrom. A mediated  world in cyberspace. I lived in front of a keyboard. Chasing likes and follows. Copy sales and unique browsers. I literally did not smell the coffee or see the beautiful wide open African sky outside the office window. The only time I inhaled fresh air was to smoke cigarette after cigarette as a form of stress relief on the shabby balcony on the top floor of Newspaper House. I did not eat supper with my partner and two sons every night. I arrived home when the boys were sleeping and collapsed in front of the television. Something had to give. First to go was my sponsorship of the tobacco industry’s damage to my lungs and heart. I quit smoking. Next was  my job as editor at the end of 2015.

I escaped the ritual of running to my bolt-hole of fixed employment. My days are now both exhilarating and terrifying. I started off

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Changes are inevitable

 spending much more time with my sons and partner, going on walks to the park, riding bicycles, playing lego, playing guitar, but when more work started streaming in from different clients, I threw myself head first into  it, pushing long hours into the night to meet deadlines. I verged on beating myself up about this, but on reflection maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Doing  one’s best to deliver the best possible service is a worthwhile pursuit as long as there are set boundaries and limits. I do enjoy spending  time with my family and friends and  I do love my work, specially now that I have the freedom of determining with whom, when, where and how I work.

I kicked off my first year of self-employment  working three days a week facilitating change in newsrooms for a client till November. I did  social media training with Social Weaver, speaking face to face with teachers and lecturers at King Hintsa Technical College in Butterworth and at Walter Sisulu University in East London, helping them use social media tools as an effective means of networking, curating content, researching, marketing and planning in their work. Facilitating these workshops has helped me  rediscover my passion for teaching.

My passion for learning has also been reignited by  studying for my masters in digital journalism at Rhodes University, learning with inspiring fellow students in the media industry and equally inspiring course leader Prof Harry Dugmore. I also rediscovered my love of interviewing, research and writing for a book chapter project on “Women in MK” I was commissioned to write by Ryland Fisher,  a former  colleague of mine who I met when I started as a journalist at the now defunct South newspaper,

I do sometimes slide  into old habits, I  get totally absorbed in a project and switch off to everything else around me like I did  when  developing this website  and blog while on holiday, which led my ten year old son to say “Mommy you are working more on your laptop now that you are home with us.” A bit rich from the guy who spends the whole night watching Dan TDM, Pewtie Pie and Think Noodle on his laptop, but I humbly accept he has a point.

The trick, I guess,  is to be flexible in one’s routine, to give and take. As life coach Lauren Laitin writes: “When you learn to set boundaries based on your various priorities and obligations, you’ll feel in control and at liberty to make decisions that work for you and the kind of life you want to lead—not the kind of life you’re supposed to lead.” If work is an integral part of your life as much as  eating healthily, going for a walk and  playing uno with your kids, then work-life balance is not what we seek, but the flexibility and common sense to prioritise what is important at a  specific moment in time, to basically “go with the flow” as my mother used to say.

CHANGE

Fear is galvanizing

Now here is a programme that South Africa needs. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway started Now Teach to encourage professionals at the height of their careers to make a difference by taking up teaching and she has paved the way by  quitting the FT to teach maths at a London inner city school. She was the final keynote speaker  at the IMD Orchestrating Winning Performance executive education course in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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FT columnist Lucy Kellaway encourages new starts

Celebrated for her bullseye wit, Lucy Kellaway spoke at the International Management Development Institute (IMD) before leaving the Financial Times after 32 years to become a teacher. The final keynote speaker of IMD’s 2017 Orchestrating Winning Performance shares what she has learned as a management satirist and why she put fear back into her life by making a new start.

Wisdom and wit

During her three decades as columnist at the FT, Lucy Kellaway has been a keen observer of the mores of business and management, and a brutal commentator. Her popularity is due to a combination of wisdom and wit, and light-hearted irreverence.lucy

The minute she takes to the stage at IMD, she reigns in the audience with the request for a show of hands. She wants to know how many people have been working for their company for < 5 years, 10 to 20 years, 20 to 30 years, more than 30 years.

“Did you feel proud, or ashamed, to say that you have been working for the same company for more than 20 years,” she challenged.

Two years ago, when Lucy reached her Pearl anniversary at the FT, she asked her colleagues what 30 years of uninterrupted service would mean to them. They answered:

“You’re risk adverse.”

“You don’t have any imagination.”

“No one else would have you.”

She fired back: “If I had said to them: What does it feel like to be married to the same person for 30 years, nobody would turn around and say you’re risk adverse, etc…”

A relationship with an employer is a relationship and if you make it work for such a long time, you should both feel good about it, she assures.

On the other hand, Lucy has no time for people who declare that they are passionate about their jobs. They can like what they do, and even love their jobs, but passion should be reserved for strong attraction, or for the suffering of Jesus on the cross. “I don’t know what all of you do for a living,” she teases.

The fact is that most people don’t feel passionate about their jobs, they feel bored.

The bigger picture 

When she asks OWP’s participants to name the aspects that have made working lives either better or worse, she observes, at the end of a long list, that although she is asking the question in a business school, no one has mentioned the quality of management.

“30 years ago, we didn’t have a clue,” and bosses, like hers, used to hide behind closed doors. “At least now, they’re trying.” But the working environment and relationships have changed and people don’t have the same laughs any more.

She attributes the change to the PC culture, to stress, a consequence of being connected 24/7 – not to working harder (“I don’t think we work harder, we just work less efficiently”) – and because expectations are too high: “They’ve gone through the roof.”

None of these trends are however nearly as significant to office workers as the minutiae that fill the day, the small sources of aggravation due to the behavior of the people that they work with. These became the mainstay of her additional role as an ‘agony aunt’ for the FT, problems that she would try to help solve, often with the assistance of the readers.

The ‘bullshit’ of corporate culture

The point she is making is that the culture of management has also changed. She sees herself as the FT’s ‘Editor-in-chief of Bullshit’ and is not afraid of the word (much to the chagrin of some of her US readers).

“The world has got sillier and sillier.”

To illustrate her point, she gives the examples of when PWC had the great idea to name its spun-off consulting arm ‘Monday’ (which was rescinded by Tuesday), or when JP Morgan directed its employees to call clients to tell them they loved them, or when Microsoft announced its new mission, “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

“To do more what? It’s utter drivel!” she explodes, adding that whenever a company starts talking about the planet, you know you’re in trouble.

KPMG also gets a swipe when its employees claim: “We champion democracy” or “We combat terrorism.” Not only is it a lie, claims Lucy, but it’s also the wrong way of looking at things. Instead of pretending to build cathedrals, why not take pride in our real skills as auditors or bricklayers, or whatever we do.

As for EY, they get the Lucy prize for euphemisms when they justified layoffs by saying: “We look forward to strengthening our alumni network.”

Denouncing hubris, jargon and nonsense

The soon-to-be former columnist admits that what she loved above all was to mock very senior individuals.

By poking fun, she knows that she has annoyed many people in the corporate world and mentions how, on occasion, it cost the FT dear in terms of advertising revenue. But she received steadfast support and was never censored or edited: “I don’t think there is any other media in the world that would allow a journalist to do that [she published the threat of the advertiser whose CEO had been offended and who ultimately did withdraw the advertising funds] and not only not get furious, but actually say: ‘Well done’.”

Lucy far prefers plain speak and she quotes Wang Long, the CEO of a meat company, who says, “What I do? I kill pigs and sell meat.”

“Wang Long, I want to marry you!” she exclaims.

Legacy

Will any of this make any difference, she muses, and concludes that she can measure how little impact she has had during her time as a columnist by dint of the observation that even Starbuck’s Howard Schultz has taken no heed of her repeated attacks. His latest is “a coffee forward experience.”

She is however encouraged by the positive response to her recent column on the life-changing power of no. “No, is the new Yes! It takes character, commitment and courage to say no.” Get up in the morning celebrating all the things you’ve refused to do so that you can do well the few things that you’ve agreed to do. It’s a more efficient use of resources and don’t give any reasons, she advises.

“Make me happy and say no to something on Monday!”

Getting fear back again

“I’ve loved my job, but enough is enough.” She realized that it was time to move on when she had reached a ‘post-fear plateau’ after turning 50, when all the fear that she had experienced since the beginning of her career had evaporated and her motivation was not the same.

“Status used to be massively important, now I don’t care. I want to do something that is directly useful, specifically, to help individual kids.”

By mid-July 2017 Lucy will have left the FT for good and by September she will be training to become a teacher of mathematics in a London inner-city school, where she will be leading by example for Now Teach, the charity she cofounded to encourage other high-flying professionals to do the same.

Of course, she is worried, she is also worried for the 45 people who have joined Now Teach to become teachers like her.

“But fear is very useful, it’s brilliant: it has galvanized me!”