Sunday, October 31, 2010

The courage of a gentle man.

Writing a previous blog on change got me thinking about all the wonderful, inspiring, creative, thoughtful, ethical, warm hearted and above all courageous people I've had the privilege of working with over the years.

There were the street kids, with drug and alcohol issues, the kids with learning difficulties, the adults with learning difficulties, the adults who'd been kicked out of school as soon as schools could get rid of them and who were returning to study absolutely terrified of suffering in 'the system' again, the mums returning to study or preparing to enter the workforce, the teenage mums unsure about how they'd be accepted, the mature blokes confessing that they hated their jobs and who were desperate for a new direction.

Hmm, on re-reading the above paragraphs, I'd have to admit that some of my clients haven't been quite so ethical, and perhaps warm hearted is a bit of a stretch too, but courageous? Yes absolutely!

I'm going to share the story about my involvement with Ricky, and he's given me permission to use his real name. I wish I had a 'before' and 'after' picture of him to share. You'll see why soon.

Ricky consulted me in my role as study skills teacher at a post secondary college. He'd been advised to seek help as he was really struggling with the written aspects of the course he'd enrolled in. You can't really tell from my photo, but I'm not exactly a large person, in fact the phrase "suffering from ducks disease" has been applied to me all too often *sigh*.

I also like to think that I'm not a particularly threatening looking person. But Ricky was terrified. Terrified of me, terrified of the situation he'd got himself into, terrified I'd laugh at him and his difficulties. But he came along anyway. Courage? You bet!

I've never seen anyone shaking with fear before. And shake Ricky did. It was visible from a distance. I'm sure if he'd been a bony kind of person I'd have heard them clattering.

Why was Ricky in such a state? Here was a mature man, lovingly married, deeply involved in his church, steadily employed, kind and compassionate. Over quite a few months he shared some of his story.

He was "a failure", "hopeless", "useless", "a loser". He'd been told from a very young age that he'd "never make anything of himself". These words were used on a little kid by parents AND teachers. Who says "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?" Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I asked him when he'd begun losing his way at school. "Grade one". It's a question I often ask now, and regularly the answer is grade one or two. Can you imagine what that's like? Not understanding what's going on in class, seeing your mates doing things you can't, being bewildered, confused, perplexed. My heart breaks for these kids.

So there I was with Ricky in that first session. His first 'confession' - "I've never been in a library" (apart from walking through one to meet with me). "Easy peasy" I say, "lets discover this one now!" And so it went from there, exploring discovering, celebrating. It was great!

And as happens when working with an enthusiastic student, the learning went both ways. I was humbled by his tenacity, in awe of his dedication to learning, and grateful that we'd been assigned to each other. In short I was privileged to have met and worked with such a student.

Oh, and you may ask: if Ricky was such a good student, why hadn't he managed at school?

Ricky had an undiagnosed learning difficulty. He has an unusual hearing loss, he's not deaf as such, but hears sounds differently (auditory processing disorder or APD). In addition, he is dyslexic. He wasn't (and isn't) dumb. He just couldn't follow what was happening in class the same way as other kids - he needed a different teaching style.

And the before and after picture? From a quivering mess on that first meeting to our final session; confident, assured and walking tall.

There was a man with courage to really face his worst fears and overcome them.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I like Melbourne

I like Melbourne. It might be unfashionable, but it's a really lovely city. The drought seems to have broken, the dams are filling, there's an air of anticipation with Cup Day almost upon us. The trees are green again, (did we lose as many through drought as they expected?) and the city seems genuinely welcoming, and dare I say, during the day at least, it's a good place to visit.

There are more coffee shops and cafes than you could shake the proverbial stick at. The serviceable chains are well represented: Hudson's, Gloria Jeans, Starbucks, but more interesting are the smaller owner operators. And they offer good coffee. You want it organic? no problems. Fair Trade? just down the lane. A richer brew? over the road. You only drink soylatte? fine, that's there too. You'd like to sit outside and watch the passing parade? you'll certainly join a vibrant throng doing just the same. Yes, we're certainly well served by fabulous cafes, with some interesting graffiti to ponder when you tire of the cafe scene.

The First Tuesday in November. A date we know and love! After the lack of public holidays through winter, this one is very welcome. The boutiques are pulling out all stops to outdo their competitors, and entice the cashed up, glamorous young ladies in. But this is the first time I've seen golden rose petals complete with glitter strewn outside; surprisingly, no one had stomped on them during the frenetic lunch hour.

But alongside this commentary on coffee lover's heaven, I suppose I should mention in passing that yesterday there was a small downside.

It's spring, there was a gentle breeze, and the Plane (?) trees are showering the city in confetti seeds. It looked delightfully pretty, fluttering down in a persistent shower, sneaking under table legs, settling on the car windscreen, sneaking into underground carparks. But the citizens are suffering. Pharmacies and corner stores are stocking up on tissues and anti-allergy medications - spring fever seems to have hit big time. People are red eyed, snuffling, sneezing violently and wetly; soggy tissues abound.

It's safer to seek safe haven in the airconditioned food halls than risk a shower of sneezed droplets at an outdoor cafe on a day like yesterday, perfect as it - almost - was.

And why does Melbourne get such bad press? Because after the (almost) perfection of yesterday, today it's raining, and the forecast for tomorrow? Heavier rain. I haven't checked what they're predicting for Tuesday, but my recollection is of painful sunburn one year, and paddling in floodwater later the same day. Keep's you on your toes though don't you think?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interview preparation - speak up!

I want to follow up from yesterday's comment about interviews. If you don't like talking about yourself or your skills and talents at interviews, try the following suggestions, and let me know how it goes.

To get some idea of the more tricky questions, you could Google 100 most difficult job interview questions or 20 most challenging interview questions. No matter how bizarre they seem, they will have been asked at sometime in an interview, and it’s a good idea to be prepared! I guarantee it’ll help you when you get a really curly one thrown your way. Your brain will kick in with “ah, yes, I know how to handle this kind of question”, it's prepared and is less likely to freeze with fear. 

Take a deep breath, pause (this is a very important step) and slowly and calmly begin. You’ll appear more confident and assured if you don’t rush, even though you may be quaking inside.

The importance of pets!
The next step in interview preparation is to answer the questions aloudIdeally you’d have an honest, yet tactful adult to assist, but for many people, that isn’t possible. In this case I often suggest to my clients that they practise in front of their pet if they have one; failing that, a compliant child or baby will do. 
I’m not being flippant. It really does help.

A respectful adult can, however, give valuable feedback, not only about the content of your answers, but also about your body language, which as you know is incredibly important in the whole process. It’s often stated that the interviewers opinion about a candidate is made within the first 30 seconds of an interview. That’s pretty scary stuff, particularly when you’re nervous already. So any constructive and supportive steps you can take are worth working on, well before you arrive.

Acknowledge your strengths 
It feels awkward for many of us to tell someone that we’re good at things, particularly those of us from cultures where we’re encouraged not to brag or gloat about how competent we are. This is a definite negative in an interview and you can lose your dream job if you don’t overcome that childhood training.

If you’re good at something, you need to share this at interview. If you think of it as sharing and informing, it might be more comfortable than if you think of it as ‘selling’ yourself. ("Selling" has a lot of negative overtones, more suited to a product, and it’s no wonder we feel uncomfortable with it, after all few of us want to be seen as a commodity).

There are a couple of things going on in the ‘talk it aloud’ practise, not least hearing your own voice stating your positive qualities in a confident, unapologetic tone. It helps you hear the um’s and ah’s, and to practice until these are, if not eliminated, then at least less frequent. If you sound like you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect the interviewer to?

Sometimes it’s easier to say to your pet: 
“One of the things I’m really good at is ….”, 
“I want to work at (insert name of company here) because ….” 
“How would my friends describe me? My best friends describe me as loyal …. "

It’s ok to repeat a question occasionally if you go blank, it lets your brain catch up.

When you hear yourself speaking, you’ll detect if you’re convincing or not. The benefit of pets is that they don’t bore quickly and you can rehearse frequently. And if you think you’ll become stale, remember the fantastic actors in long running shows who can move us to tears even though they may have preformed the same show for weeks or months. It can be done!

Your interview questions
Remember to think of some questions you want to ask the interviewer/s. Again, Google is a great resource.This invitation usually comes at the end of the interview just as you’re breathing a sigh of relief that it’s almost over. If you haven’t thought it out, (and asked it aloud in the privacy of your home to your cat) you’re likely to blurt out the most inane thing like I did some years ago - my stomach still sinks at the memory.

In summary:

  • prepare
  • educate the interviewer/s about your skills and strengths
  • practise, practise, practise - aloud!
  • arrive early, breathe deeply and give it your best

Good luck!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

job applications - got to love them

Resumes; they’re not one of the more fun aspects of the whole job hunting saga are they. On the whole people seem to be confounded by the process, to the extent that some stay at home mums put it off entirely, throw their hands in the air and give up.

Teenagers often aren’t much better.

A number of my colleagues say they don’t get much satisfaction from working on resumes for their clients either. Maybe I’m a bit weird, but I enjoy sleuthing out your transferable skills (and stay at home mums have heaps of these! As do students, and of course those who’ve been employed “yes, even as a teacher” – although the last group are often the most disbelieving).

I find it a challenge, as I said, to sleuth out your transferable skills (these are often called the ‘soft skills’), and then to find the right words to present you in the most favourable light. Not lying of course, that’s not where I’m at. But to show that you have talents and skills that are of value in the workplace.

I love the look of disbelief when we begin. “Nope, not me, I’ve got nothing to offer”

“Oh really? Well, let’s give it a go anyway will we?”

It’s great! Sometimes, people will just sit back at the end of even half an hour and say, “wow”.

And I’ll ask “Is it all true?” and because I’m such a stickler for honesty in the process, all they can answer is a proud “Yes”.

Love it!

As to the typing, and formatting - not my strongest point. I prefer the interactive aspect best, but of course I can and will assist when needed; with pretty good results too. But generally I encourage my clients to give it a go for themselves. I believe it’s much better to be self sufficient and independent so you can go it alone next time. But I won't leave you high and dry, so if you want this support, just ask.

And now, because my posts are generally somewhat serious, I'm going to suggest you have a look at this brilliant application.

Now, there’s someone who’s enjoyed the process!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

burnt fingers, but ok now

Now, I don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box here about poor hotel accommodation, I’ll leave that to Darren at - a blog I wish I’d found months ago, as it would have prevented a lot of stress.

London Olympics
I really want to warn readers that with the Olympics coming up, to be very wary about booking accommodation in and around London, even if it is though your usually reliable travel agent - particularly if they haven’t visited the hotel personally. They’re relying on information given to them by their suppliers, and we international guests trust that this will be accurate. I’ve just had my fingers burnt, and as a result am significantly out of pocket after finding alternative accommodation at the last minute. But at least we were able to find somewhere else to stay - I doubt this will be possible during the Olympics.

The hotel room
On arrival last month at a ‘Two Star’ hotel in London, (booked weeks ahead through our usually trusty Travel Agent in Australia) we were horrified to find that the hotel room was smelly and dirty, with one broken window latch and the other missing entirely, split wood on the internal very dirty toilet door. It had toothpaste dribbles down almost the entire length.

A grubby tiny bathmat doubled as a fragment of carpet squeezed between the foot of the bed and the shower cubicle.

The ensuite: This area could have been a module, possibly designed for a trailer-home and seemed to have been added as an afterthought to the room. It was raised about 10 centimetres above the original floor, so you had to step up into the cubicle to use it.

The toilet roll was balanced on the miniscule sink, which abutted the toilet, and the shower curtain draped over you when you sat down.

The toilet: There wasn't enough room for your knees between the toilet and the door for it to close comfortably.

I suspect a man would need to have straddled the toilet if he wanted privacy to urinate. The toilet roll was balanced on the miniscule sink, which abutted the toilet, and the shower curtain draped over you when you sat on the toilet seat.

The shower: My suspicion is that you would have to have stepped outside of the cubicle to dry off after showering as there was so little room inside. I was unable to spread my arms out from side to side of the ensuite as it was so tiny, the shower recess was approx 15 inches wide.

On either side of this module were small alcoves, one with a short exposed metal rod (the wardrobe) underneath which was a chair. The other had a compact TV high on a shelf. (A short person like me couldn't have safely manouvered it to a more suitable viewing position).

Next to this was a grubby window looking out on to the street with a venetian blind covering the window with the one missing and one broken latch.

Presumably because the ensuite had (apparently) been added as an afterthought, it made what appeared to have originally been the central lightshade balance against the module door.

The desk

The bed appeared to be an old steel camp style that squeaked when you sat on it. It was pushed into a corner of the tiny room, so that the person on the wall side of the bed had to climb over it to get to their side.
I have never left a hotel in disgust before, but apart from the dilapidated, dirty presentation of the room I felt very unsafe as the room was on the ground floor and as I’ve mentioned the window didn’t latch securely.
The young man at the front office area said we could change rooms, “but they’re all the same, I’m sorry”.
My rationale in booking accommodation through a travel agent was to ensure that we had a relaxing start to our holiday and for reassurance that things would go more smoothly than if I'd tackled the complexities myself. I expect them to take the stress out of travel bookings. London was a new city for me, and I was relying on their expertise (and that of their professional partners in the UK).
Star Ratings: how useful?
My expectation of two star accommodation is much the same as appears on the website:

"If you are looking for a unique holiday experience, 2 star hotels are just perfect. 2 star hotels in London can be found in most areas and always offer the same high standard of hospitality. If you ever stayed in a 2 star accommodation before you know what you can expect. 2 star London hotels won’t disappoint and their outstanding charm never fails to impress". ([]Accessed 24 October 2010)

So, it seems that both my expectation and a published industry expectation of a two star hotel is very similar: clean, no frills and well run. Sounds good to me!
Other 2 star hotels we stayed in later in our holiday in Paris, Vienna and Milan were good, perfectly suitable for our needs and even better than described. I booked these through a hotel booking website recommended by a colleague in Germany. It was easy to use and hotel descriptions and customer ratings were reliable and clearly presented.
Pam Foden the Operations and Industry Engagement Manager at VisitEngland says in a comment on that“ Having an official star rating helps potential guests know what to expect.” [] As a consumer I expect the rating to be reasonably accurate.
Google search
Since arriving home, I’ve had time to look at information from a few sources regarding a hotel, and I certainly wish I’d done this prior to booking, but even so the information seems inconsistent and isn't always easy to find. (But isn't that why I consulted a travel agent in the first place?)

The following 3 sites make for interesting reading.

I've discovered that makes it easy to assess if the hotel is what you're after.

But look at this one from a United Kingdom website. The words under the TripAdvisor logo read: "Sorry, no reviews are available for this property". No TripAdvisor Reviews? Really? We consumers really have to be vigilant and on the ball

And a comparison with an Australian web site - same hotel. There are 2 green dots next to the TripAdvisor rating, and you can click to get to the reviews and customer photos.

Confusing isn’t it.
But at least from the Australian I can easily click through to TripAdvisor’s most recent reviews and photos and find information that would have influenced my booking. But I notice that no information is given about the rooms under "Information".
But what if I'd only looked at the UK site? There is some inconsistency in the amount of information offered.
What do TripAdvisors' travellers actually report?
By now, thoroughly intrigued and wondering what else I'd find, I went directly to TripAdvisor. I hadn't used TripAdvisor prior to this as I'd assumed hotels would post positive comments about their own establishments and scathing ones about their competitors. I also figured that there could be grumpy people who could post malicious unsubstantiated comments. I was skeptical.
But here’s a shot of what I found for the hotel in question, and when I started reading those 59 reviews it made me angry.

The consistently negative reviews go back to July 3rd 2005 – that’s 5 years with 76% of customers not recommending the hotel. This isn’t an isolated grumpy person, but a pattern of scathing/shocked/horrified/distressed/disbelieving comments - whatever word you choose to use, there are many, many unhappy guests.
How is it possible that with 5 years of consistently negative comments many relating to the issues we confronted, that this accommodation was referred to my travel agent as an option? I don't object to the hotel's existence, it no doubt serves a purpose. I do object to the (dare I use the word misleading?) description passed on to me, and the fact that the 2 star rating description quoted above is so woefully inappropriate in this instance. It's not that the hotel has had a sudden change of fate, and recent sad things have happened, this is ongoing history. Off the top of my head I can't think of any industry where this kind of "service" would be tolerated and apparently condoned.
5 years of consistently negative comments is a fair amount of time by anyone's assessment. I thought there was a code of conduct amongst professional travel agents? What is going on in the hotel industry in London?
It seems we need to do a lot of independent research to find ... what? How do we know what's true, and what isn't? who's being open, and who's withholding information? and how far do we need to search? Which country's websites should we use? If you're moving to a new city every 3 or 4 days, this level of research would eat up a huge amount of time,and that's not why you're travelling is it?
Every cloud has a sliver lining J The young man at the hutch-like reception area kindly found the phone number of a major hotel chain and allowed us to use the phone to book through them. There was ONE room available within cooee – and what a room.

Chalk and cheese Just thinking about Hotel Indigo in Paddington is relaxing. Have you heard of the Golden Mean? The hotel is designed along those principles. It’s amazing!
Thank goodness we hadn’t yet maxed out the credit card as this put a serious dent in it. Sadly, it’s not the sort of place we usually stay in. Our budgeting is tightly controlled, and living simply is second nature. But as a salve to soothe the jetlagged, frazzled, frayed and jangled nerves, this was just the medicine!

The welcome was warm (I wonder if I exuded distress and the concierge took pity on me or if all guests are treated so kindly?) the room small and space was used well. the towels were huge and deeply fluffy.
Although the rate was 'room-only', we were given a breakfast voucher (the breakfast was lovely, generous helpings, and GOOD coffee!), and a discount voucher for a main meal. The staff were courteous and welcoming and so we naturally returned for the discounted meal later in the week.
(We then found a significantly cheaper chain for the remaining days – a long way out, but still just barely affordable - there was little choice available for an on the spot booking. An Ibis Hotel, we've stayed in them before: reliable, consistent clones, predictable, and an ok place to spend a night or 2.)
I’ve been known to get on my soapbox about different things from time to time, and a recurring theme is the ethical behaviour of companies as well as values and integrity. Many of my clients confront these issues at work - and I'm thinking a lot about them too right now.
I wonder what it would be like working in these two different establishments? I know all workplaces have their ups and downs, but ...
Back to the theme:
Do your research (whether for a career or hotel)
choose carefully and appropriately for your current needs
enjoy the journey!

photos were all taken by the author: September 13th 2010
websites were accessed and screen shots taken: October 24th 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

random thoughts about jobs, work, pride and happiness

I’ve been thinking of so many people I’ve worked with who are employed in jobs they don’t enjoy. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to work at something you’d prefer not to. Young people who are earning money to pay their uni fees, or who are saving to travel and young couples paying off a mortgage. Many of these people are able to remain positive and enthusiastic as their goal more than makes up for what they see as a short term discomfort. They are able to maintain a positive attitude and the sense of purpose ensures their mental wellbeing.

But how about those whose circumstances aren’t quite so privileged? I was watching a street vendor the other day. His tray of goods was about 40 cm square, and he was taking great pride in displaying his meagre range of goods to be most enticing to passers-by. He constantly buffed and polished each item, arranging and rearranging as goods were sold. The goods were displayed with the largest chunky bangles at the back, through in descending order of size down to the tiny toe rings at the front of the tray. Everything was neat, and good use was made of empty space – the “less is more” artistic mode of expression.

In dramatic contrast was a vendor not far away. He had a similar range of goods, but they were jumbled all higgledy piggledy, tarnished and unenticing. It was an interesting insight into what could be seen as ‘making the most of your circumstances’. One of those men will possibly go home at night having had a disappointing day of sales, his apparent grumpiness wasn’t drawing tourists to buy; the other was experiencing positive interactions with customers, and earning some money as well, his cheerful welcoming smile drew tourists, and even though not all of them bought goods, they all interacted positively.

Another event I was most bemused to observe was a small group of Roma women (gypsies) ranging in age from approximately mid 20’s to mid 50’s. They walked as a cheerful group into a tourist precinct laughing and chattering happily amongst themselves. It was early, and there weren’t many tourists about. But as soon as a busload of tourists was disgorged from a bus, it was all action stations. Clothing was tweaked, faces became sad and mournful, plastic cups were produced from capes and shawls and rattled in front of the new arrivals. Then when the tourists moved on, they regrouped, faces became animated and smiling again and they appeared to brag about their success. I couldn’t help but wonder if they go home at night and compare notes “tough day at the office today” or variations on the theme, depending on whether the tourists have been generous or lean.

These women appeared to be taking a certain pride in their work, apparently supporting each other and they appeared to be celebrating their successes as well. Were they proud not only of their ability to badger tourists into giving money, but of their acting abilities as well? It was an interesting observation, made all the more entertaining when I realized I’d been watched watching them. (One of the more senior women had been watching me - thankfully without malice as they can be somewhat intimidating when they are ‘in your face’).

But, I’ve been wondering: What would happen if someone from this group wanted to break with the norm and do something completely different. How would they fare? Is the group expectation too strong to challenge? Would they be supported or ridiculed?