Women do business differently – perhaps

When I became a teacher 40 years ago I thought it would be my life’s work. I loved it. But after 12 years I entered the world of business. I would never had done this had my friend, whose business it was, not seen something in me that I didn’t see myself. For this I am eternally grateful and I have tried in my own life to do the same for both women and men. The ministry of encouragement is under-rated. At the start my friend, also then my boss, could not afford to pay me much so I starting learning my new trade as a training designer, alongside work as a supply teacher. I hated the latter. I’d come from a comprehensive school in a working class suburb of Manchester, where the children were friendly, receptive and respectful. I went to a community school where staff were addressed by their first names, there was no school uniform and bad behaviour was tolerated. I had every incentive to make a success of my new career.

My friend and I worked on the premise that ‘women in business do things differently’ and in most respects we did. We started from a kitchen table and grew, in staff and revenue, very fast. We had to, to be successful at a time when business was still largely ‘a man’s world’. At the start we sold to men but employed women. This was our attempt to redress the balance. Our employment practices were quirky, innovative and mainly worked well. We were the first UK company to employ a company nanny. Staff received generous pay and benefits. Many worked from home. We were understanding and flexible employers. As this was the era when employers were encouraging mothers to go back to work we were able to translate some our own policies into training and innovative working practices for large organisations. We wrote management books together, our reputation grew. Working to ridiculous deadlines to maintain our market edge, we would be in the office weekends and holidays, five small daughters in tow, generating more ideas than we could realise, but it was fun, fun, fun. We thrived in an atmosphere of creative chaos.

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Then it started to go wrong. For me. I began to feel trapped. I wanted to make changes but it wasn’t my company. We employed senior people on high salaries who didn’t deliver. Large company people can’t always function in a small company where there is nowhere to hide. And where you have to do your own admin, make your own lunches and photocopy your own stuff. We had a male non executive director, successful in his own field, who referred to me and my team as ‘the factory’. We were churning out the work to meet high revenue targets. It was relentless, just too much. I started to feel undervalued and found it difficult to make my voice heard. Hard to imagine now as I was working with my best friend. So I took the decision to leave and we drifted apart. This caused a rift between our families who had always spent weekends, holidays and many days together.

Ten years later I met my friend at the local railway station, both on our way to London. Wary at first, we rebuilt the relationship, realising how much we had missed one another. We have had various discussions about working together again. So far it hasn’t happened. Twenty five years on things would be different. I think.

Making do and mending my ways

Power dressing in the 1980s

On New Years Day I decided not to buy any more clothes for a year. For many reasons. I have too many clothes, spilling out into four wardrobes, most of them not worn for at least a year. I still have some of my mother’s and she died 21 years ago. Including a black glittery crocheted dress she made for herself. I remember her working on it and can’t bear to part with it. Particularly as I don’t think she ever wore it. I have spent too much money on clothes over the years. When I had a break between business appointments in London I would cross the road from ‘that well-known retailers’ and walk along Chiltern Street, Marylebone High Street or Selfridges and buy something to reward myself for how hard I was working. A quick fix when I most needed it. I made quick decisions which I regretted at leisure. Business dress had changed over the years. When I started you were expected to dress formally. Suits and dark colours. Latterly I could have worn casual, although I never did. I alway regard dress as an element of my professionalism.

The exception is the Canary Wharf banks where everyone, male and female, wear dark suits and pinstripes. They look similar, except the women wear high heels. Although they may travel to work wearing trainers. Getting the dress protocol correct is important and an element of how you are judged. When I worked with government or local authorities I dressed down. But with banks, retailers and most companies you were expected to be smart. Consequently I have all these suits hanging in wardrobes that I’ll probably never wear again.

When you work from home nobody sees your dress – thank goodness! I’ve often taken an important call in my dressing gown. Good thing videophones never took on, and Skype is not used in business. I opt for comfort and never wear make-up nor jewellery if I don’t go out. Why bother if only the person you live with sees you? And they see beneath the exterior.

Fashions are largely irrelevant as you get older. The clothes you bought years ago don’t date. And are often better quality than their modern equivalents. I have a lot of evening dresses that I never wear. Gone are the days of police balls and company dinner dances. Who wears long dresses these days? If you sell them on eBay you get a pittance so they stand in the wardrobe, unworn and unloved.

When I went through my wardrobes recently I discovered clothes I’d forgotten about. An audit revealed a stripey jumper I’d knitted, the jacket Stewart bought me one birthday. A I being too ambitious in saying I won’t buy anything? I’m hoping that no clothes shopping will free up time and money. I’ve already given some garments to charity shops and clothes banks. The rest I will review. If I haven’t worn any by this time next year they will be jettisoned. I hope this will prove to be a liberating experience.

Vintage buying and selling

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I have just made my first purchases on eBay. You’ve guessed it: a vintage pattern and wool. Bargains all of them. Can’t tell you what the pattern is as the worthy recipient may read this. Then a Christmas tablecloth with embroidered Santas. I love it and reckon I got a bargain. I could get used to buying like this. I hadn’t thought of doing it until my friend Ann told me how easy it is and how she gets rid of unwanted and unworn clothes in this way. Even the most humble M&S item can fetch pounds she says. Perhaps it’s the fun of the bidding that gets people going rather than the desire for the item.

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Feeling confident that I could do the same I have just put 10 items on for sale. I learned some of the tricks. Like get your blonde and slim daughter to wear the garments. She could make a sack-cloth look good. I photo’d them on a mannequin but they looked too stiff. And wearing them myself was out of the question. Susie hides her face but still looks good. Another trick is to try to make sure that the bidding finishes Sunday evening when people have time. Most of the activity happens at the end. Susie said to use words like ‘vintage’ and ‘indie’ to attract people. I would have thought of the former but not the latter.

So every morning I check on the action and answer seller questions. Three of garments are mink furs that belonged to my mother in law. They were purchased in the US over 30 years ago and precious to her. We have photos of her wearing them at our daughters’ significant baby events. We have the bill for the coat – one thousand dollars! Wow, fancy spending that on a coat. I wonder who might be politically incorrect enough to buy them. Perhaps Russians or Italians who don’t seem to care what people think. Most items have been worn once or twice: a silk skirt worn at a wedding; velvet and sequinned jackets bought for Christmas celebrations. Sorry to see them go in a way but they clutter up the wardrobe.

Now as I consider Christmas gifts I think of eBay first. Listening to the news about people not shopping leaves me unsurprised. I’ll do anything to avoid it. It’s cheaper, better and more fun online. Got any more tips for eBay or favourite websites?

We hate PowerPoint, don’t we?

Apparently there’s a political party in Switzerland that, if elected, wants to ban PowerPoint.  Hurrah! So it can’t just be me that feels like this, then.  How many times have you sat through interminable slides that end up being issued post or even pre talk that would have saved you precious time if you’d just read them and not bothered to turn up. Bad graphics, illegible charts and tables, whizzy animations (that aren’t!).  Poor speakers use it as a crutch, some business types and academics to show off. It’s dire.  Poorly constructed and instantly forgettable.  And then there’s clip art… don’t get me going… I’m trying to design training without using it – not for the faint-hearted but you have to try.

Alternatives to PowerPoint

  1. Speak from the heart and keep it short.
  2. Use index cards or an iPad on a stand
  3. Use a flipchart – pre-prepared.  Get an artist friend to do it for you.
  4. Employ a graphic artist to draw as you speak.  Plenty of talented young people can do this and you can help advance their professional skills.
  5. Use props to bring your topic to life.
  6. Use video or music.
  7. Include interactive exercises.
  8. If you must … use Slide Master, keep it simple, be bold.
  9. Ask anybody under the age of 30 (OK, Johnathan, 33)  what they think of your efforts.

Any other tips?

Reasons to be cheerful… when still working at 60+

(With apologies to Ian Dury!)

I’m always being asked when I will ‘retire’. Well, to be honest, the word fills me with ‘dread’. In the sense of ‘drawing back’ or even ‘standing still’ I never will. Most people I know at my age are now retired – and happy with it. Stewart ‘retired’ in a sense at 40 and loves it. He spends a lot of time in the garden, plants, weeds and potters. He goes to the library and meets friends for coffee.

Loughborough market

But I am not really ‘a potterer’. I have a low boredom threshold and like to have 20 things on the go at once. Once I had to; now I like to. Sometimes I go to the market on Thursdays, carry a pink basket and buy cheap stuff (that invariably goes rotten before we have chance to eat it). If it’s a sunny day I think ‘Oh wouldn’t it be lovely to do this every week’. On a grim day I think ‘Oh the poor souls who have nothing else to do!’. I find it depressing. And in a small town you see the same folk. Summer-time is the worst when the students have left. Although I did see some foreign students who were taking photos. Maybe tourists or new students. I wonder what they think, there’s not much to see (see previous blog).

One of the best things about still working is the people I meet. Every new client and project exposes me to really interesting people. I have ‘friends’, old and new. Some you just click with; others you get to know. Some I have worked with once; others for 15 years. I am fortunate in only ever having a couple of unpleasant people to work with. One was a guy from a (low-level) supermarket chain who played football in his office – yes, really – as I tried to talk to him. The other was a snooty woman buyer who said to me ‘So you’re really an administrator, then?’. But these are the exception which is why I remember them.

I have made at least 3 new ‘friends’ at work in the last year. One in Hong Kong, she looked after me when I was working there. One when we did a project together over a few months last year. She is so lovely, caring, interesting … Both these friends look at least 10 years younger than their age – we don’t have that in common! And another is a man who makes me laugh a lot – always a winning feature. If I ‘retired’ I may meet new people but I’d have to think carefully how I would do this in Loughborough. Groups I have joined have included a knitting circle (all-night knitting with wine!), Italian class (couldn’t bear the slow pace and dumb questions!) and ‘remedial’ sewing class with Emma (neither of us got to make anything we could wear and spent most of the time unpicking what we’d sewn). These things tend to attract older folks and I like a mix of young and old.

Another reason I enjoy working is that I get to learn about new things. At the moment it’s nurseries (kids not plants), ship-building, food and fitness. Other people’s jobs are endlessly fascinating. I don’t care which industry, skills or level, I am genuinely curious. I am lucky to get paid to ask questions and probe. My first job was with civil engineers on the topic of resurfacing roads. I used to be able to describe the constituents of tarmac (popular at parties!) but now forgotten(Geraldine, bet you remember!). I worked with roadside services men. They told great stories about the hazards of picking people up after road accidents and how you decide whether to speak (they need comfort) or remain silent (they are traumatised). It’s the hidden skills that are often over-looked.

I once interviewed a bishop. And had tea with a Jesuit in the Ritz. But that’s another story. I’ll write that book when I stop working – at some point.

A consultant by any other name


Telling people I was a teacher was easy. They understood I was qualified and had an understanding of what I did. After all we’ve all been to school. Calling myself ‘a consultant’ was more problematic. Particularly after someone told me the word is made up of ‘con’ and ‘insult’. Mmmhhh. Anyone can call themself a consultant. It covers fields as diverse as beauty advice and brain surgery. Being referred to as a consultant makes me feel uncomfortable and I change my job title to achieve greater trust and credibility. To my bank, accountant and officialdom I’m ‘managing director’. To retail clients I’m ‘a training supplier’. To others I’m ‘a trainer’. In the world of education I’m a still ‘a teacher’. That’s my preferred job title.

Being a consultant assumes an area of technical expertise. That’s my technical skill. It embraces personal qualities and interpersonal skills. After all someone has to seek advice and trust the person who provides it. I’ve learned to become a professional consultant by doing the job, observing how others operate and doing the opposite and always learning, practising what I preach.

Here are some tips for would-be consultants under any name:

  1. Be authentic. Be ‘yourself on a good day’.
  2. Hone your skills. It’s a huge market. Be as good as you can be.
  3. Pass over your skills and never allow a person or organisation to become dependent upon you.
  4. Work hard to get feedback. Know yourself and ask specific questions to help you make improvements.
  5. Make your primary motivation to do a good job; secondary to be liked. If not the second will compromise the first.
  6. Make integrity your byword. If you can’t do a job then say so. Or find a woman or man that can (note the order!).
  7. Value your expertise and know your market value. It’s not just the time a job takes you that matters. Expertise and experience make you faster. Should that make you cheaper?
  8. Know your markets. It may not be that you are too expensive for some but that these people are not your market.
  9. Read two invaluable books: The consultant’s calling by Geoffrey Bellman and Flawless consulting by Peter Block.
  10. Get a young mentor. Invaluable for IT and design skills and prices.
  11. Question the ways that organisations work. This applies to your own company and your client’s. Just because it’s always been like that doesn’t mean it has to carry on like that.
  12. Make speed matter. Nobody wants to wait for anything. Despite what they may say.
  13. Ask a lot of questions. Why should you know anything better than the employees?
  14. Avoid pretending to be a magician. If the organisation has struggled with an issue how can you pull it out of a hat?
  15. Work for companies of whom you are a customer, industries in which you are interested and products for which you are passionate.
  16. Be the consummate professional. And enhance the status of ‘consultant’.
  17. Remember that most customers will ask themselves: Do I like you? Do I trust you? Can I work with you?
  18. The usual objection to using you is cost; this is rarely the real or only reason.
  19. Work out the value of your time. For things you hate to do or can be donecheaper – find someone else to do it.
  20. Be careful with whom you choose to form alliances.