Monday, 14 September 2015

Chopped liver and the meaning of life

At our granddaughter’s recent Bat Mitzvah the rabbi passed the Torah from grandparent to grandparent and then to her parents and then to her to symbolise the passing of this knowledge and heritage through the generations for centuries and now to her.

We all have our religious rituals and family traditions. One of ours is chopped liver (this is not as trivial as it first sounds). My mother died over thirty years ago after a long and difficult illness.  She lived with us the last few years of her life and I greeted her death with very mixed emotions: sadness at our loss but relief that she was no longer in pain.

No matter how ill she was she always insisted on making the chopped liver for Passover and New Year and to break the Fast on the Day of Atonement.  There was no recipe – and although I helped her I never consciously took much notice. Even when we all knew that her life was limited I didn’t take notice – perhaps it was my form of denial. 

There are strange moments when grief strikes you unexpectedly.  The first Jewish holiday after her death was Passover. There is no thought that has to go into the menu planning– it is the same year after year and of course there is chopped liver. I suddenly realised that this now fell to me to make - would I be able to take over this minor task but somehow central role that my mother had played over many years? It is part of handing down traditions through the generations. I sat down and wept. 

Of course it isn’t difficult, especially with modern kitchen gadgets to do the chopping.  It is chicken or goose fat, chicken livers, onions and hard-boiled eggs.  Then decorated with more chopped hard boiled eggs, whites and yolks separated and put in stripes and garnished with parsley.

There is still no fixed recipe but the magic has been passed on.  My daughter made it for their New Year in Switzerland and here it is. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Charisma, passion and dedication don’t trump good governance

Charisma – that indefinable something that draws people to you, that influences them, that makes them want to be on your team.  Passion and dedication are other qualities that are often found in the charitable sector and individuals with just these qualities founded many great charities. I would argue that many others have fallen by the wayside because of poor governance and a lack of foresight (no competent people around you to challenge and no succession planning).

This is simplistic but prompted by the collapse of “Kids Company”.  No one knows everything that went wrong but I suspect that the charisma of the chief executive is central. Much is being made of how she was trumpeted by celebrities and politicians – everyone wanted to be on her team and perhaps the proper challenge was missing, as was the scrutiny?

It seems extraordinary that a charity of nearly 20 years standing was still leading a hand to mouth existence. Additionally, in a charity of that size and complexity, if her presence was so critical after all this time that it could not operate without her – that is a failure and she should take the responsibility. I hope that supporters will divert their funds to the other organisations that will be left to pick up the pieces.

Good governance is boring, it doesn’t grab the headlines and it won’t raise money, cure diseases or help vulnerable children but it needs to infuse everything that you do and it trumps charisma.

One anecdote from my own experience: some years ago, when I was chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign (recently merged into Breast Cancer Now)    I was contacted by a very high profile individual who was supporting the charity. They had been introduced to a very impressive (and charismatic) clinician who had apparently cured a friend’s skin cancer with a “revolutionary” new treatment. He was sure that it would work for breast cancer.

Now the boring bit: we, like all respected medical research charities, had a process called “peer review”.  This is where a research proposal is scrutinised by independent, highly qualified individuals who then mark it according to various criteria. Those marks and comments are collated and then debated by a scientific committee and the application sinks or swims.  Is it tedious and laborious? does it rely on hours of unpaid work by scientist? - yes to all of those – is it perfect?  No – but it is the best and fairest system.

Our supporter went back to the clinician who said that he was far too busy treating patients to fill in lengthy application forms. Our supporter contacted me again and insisted that this clinician was so talented (and supported by several celebrities who would then apparently support us) that these rules shouldn’t apply to him.

Of course we wanted to play on his team and be sprinkled with that stardust and it was tempting to break the rules “just this once” but the consequences could have damaged the charity’s reputation and drawn funding away from worthwhile research.

Needless to say we never received an application, the research didn’t receive funding and after the supporter accused me of condemning women to die of breast cancer we lost his support too.

I was fortunate to have a board and staff who were never hesitant about challenging me. Occasionally it was unfair and unjustified and they were proved to be wrong and I was right – but hey – that’s life! It’s also good governance.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Presence and authenticity

I have spoken at several events in recent months to women climbing up the career tree and some of what I, and others, have said is resonating a bit with me in relation to the general election results.

It’s really tough: while you are working your socks off you also need to plan your career progression, make sure you network with appropriate people, find sponsors or mentors, be ahead of the game,  develop your skills – the list is endless.  Then there are the other behaviours you need to exhibit – we have moved on from “think out of the box” and “walk the walk” to “fake it until you make it” through to the latest – “be authentic” I am sure you can come up with clich├ęs by the dozen.

Unquestioningly you need to develop presence: something that ensures that people notice you, look at you and listen to you.  That is where the technique lies but after that is authenticity.  For the former – take acting classes!  I am finding that more and more of the successful women I meet took acting classes (me too!) perhaps at school or college or even amateur dramatics. You learn how to develop presence and how to think yourself into a part and project it even though you are so nervous you could be sick!

So now you have the tools – what about authenticity. I didn’t want to headline this article “Did a lack of authenticity lose Labour the election” as we are a bit electioned out - but I am wondering if that was the case. 

Today’s press is full of post election analysis but one article in particular rang a chord. It is a superb article about Ed Miliband’s leadership by Philip Collins in The Times today Conviction politician lacked self-awareness right to the very end. It is more than that – Collins comments, “To the end he seemed detached and unknowable.” 

The persona that he was projecting was not authentic.

Whatever your political views David Cameron seems comfortable in his own skin. Yes, it may be a posh Tory-boy skin and rolling up his sleeves or taking off his tie doesn’t change that – but he is comfortable. So you think you know what you are getting. Perhaps that’s why some people who felt embarrassed to admit to voting Tory did in the end – at least you felt that what you saw was what you would get - he just felt the most authentic.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Brave or foolish – the recipe file is being culled!

Last year I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying”.  I am not a tidy person and while this book did not change my life completely it did inspire a clear out of “stuff”, especially clothes. (One jacket I bought on sale about six years ago I have never worn – every time I put it on I don’t like it – but it’s new so how can I get rid of it? Marie says that objects must “spark joy” so perhaps it will do that for a customer in the charity shop.)

My parents loved food and creative cooking. South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s had a wealth of fresh produce but if you wanted pasta you got spaghetti or macaroni – lasagne was unheard of as were many other things you can find in even the smallest corner store today.  So my mother made lasagne and filo pastry, ground her own spices and produced all the chutneys, jams and the other preserves and pickles that were the norm. We had three freezers and a large pantry. She collected recipe books too. My mother-in-law was a wonderful baker and I have many of her recipes although her famous recipe book disappeared and every family member is sure that someone else has it!

For years I have also been collecting recipes from magazines, newspapers etc. Some are transferred to index cards and others put in a box.  Some I have made successfully and others not, and many I haven't ever tried but keep in case..... I have a huge box of index cards and another full box of cuttings.

I am in the process of typing up all my well-used recipes and converting them to metric – some are in American measures (South Africa pre-metric), some are in Imperial so at least they will be consistent. I can then put them on my iPad or a memory stick and take them with me. (I used to say if the house caught fire, once the people were out my recipe box was next to be saved.)

As I go through the recipe cards, my new resolution is that I either need to make it or throw it away (apart from family recipes).  If I suddenly need to make something and don't have a recipe - there's the internet or my friend and chef, Paul Wenham!


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Rich List and the rest of us

In 2013 I wrote a blog "Goodbye to weekend magazines". about how my love for magazines had waned and that they had little relevance and less interest to me. 

I glanced at two last weekend - the Sunday Times published its Rich List 2015.  Last year you needed only £85 million to be included but this year there are so many billionaires that you need £100 million.  Gosh – that lets me out then. In the same newspaper there is a magazine called Style. There are quite a few garments from the high street but the jumpsuit at £3,600 and white silk top at £1,235 never mind the lace dress at £3,065 take the breath away.

Now I am sure that there is a link between the people in the Rich List and these clothes but together they illustrate a disconnect from the rest of us. Coming during an election campaign, (while I think that the mansion tax proposed by Labour is simply a spiteful London tax), I am not sure that the many mega-rich people who live in London contribute much to society. Most of them don't actually live here all year round like us plebs, they have homes in London.

Does the fact that we have more billionaires here than in China or more per head than any other G20 country benefit anyone other than a small handful of estate agents, interior designers, designer stores, accountants, lawyers, bankers etc? I don’t see a trickle down. I don’t see them supporting local businesses (excluding the ones I just mentioned); the sports stars and celebrities do not create wealth or employment. Those who created wealth in the past through industry (say the Sainsbury’s and Weston’s) created employment and if we go back to the Cadbury’s and the Fry’s - through their philanthropy and philosophy had a positive impact on society. Regrettably for many on that list today - their charitable giving is not necessarily in proportion to their wealth.

There is one shining exception - someone called Richard Ross.  He has given away so much that he doesn’t qualify for the Rich List this year.  That is really something to be proud of.

Monday, 20 April 2015

I am an immigrant.....

If you have been on the London Underground recently you may have seen posters with this title. The individuals featured are not actors or models but immigrants stating simply how they have contributed to our society.

This poster campaign has been launched by a campaign called No Xenophobia as an antidote to the hype and hysteria being generated during the current election campaign.  We are not alone – people are being murdered in South Africa because they are from outside South Africa (black not white) with riots in the streets, refugee camps being set up and even the Prime Minister finally saying something.

There is a natural tendency for “us” and “them” and it extends through nationality, skin colour, religion to football teams!  It is when this tendency becomes xenophobia – an unreasonable fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of that which is foreign or strange – that the trouble starts.

Firstly here is my personal experience over the past couple of weeks. The following people were not born here – not all immigrants some are EU citizens working here: GP, nurse, the audiologist, person who took my blood at the hospital; dentist, dental nurse, waiting staff in every restaurant/coffee bar I have eaten in; mini-cab driver; cleaner, gardener, window cleaner, postman; post office counter staff – the list goes on – just too boring to list any more.

Secondly, I am an immigrant. I didn’t grow up or receive my education here.  I have worked almost my entire adult life (and still some) paid taxes, National Insurance, created jobs, with wonderful colleagues raised and invested millions of pounds into breast cancer research; raised two children who are now paying taxes ....  that’s what immigrants do. I have never drawn benefits for unemployment but I have benefited from the NHS, the public library, I draw a state pension into which I paid, I received child benefit when my children were small and many other “benefits” available to all.

So the next time you moan about immigrants – I am an immigrant! 

PS  This is what an immigrant looks like - yes, I snaffled one of those as well.