Thinking Out Loud

Reimagining School Holidays

School holidays hit New Zealand next week. For working parents everywhere, the weeks leading up to the school holidays tick along like a time bomb. You know it’s coming and you know it’s not going to be pretty. It’s definitely not going to be a holiday! Frantic dashes across town dropping children at different locations all before you turn on your laptop at 9am. Budgeting for holiday programmes that can range from $50 a day to $290 a day. The endless negotiations, debates and circular conversations on what your children do and do not want to do. Co-ordinating schedules, pick-ups and drop-offs with friends. Juggling your leave allowances even though it is never going to be enough for the 10 to 12 weeks a year where you need a solution for how your children will be cared for. It is exhausting. It is another thing on the heap in your mind that is the mental load that working parents carry.

It got me thinking. How might we reimagine the school holidays for a society that supported working parents? What would they look like? Would it still feel like a ticking time bomb every 10 weeks? What positive difference could it make to their and their family’s lives?  Lets reimagine the role your employer could play and lets change the conversations happening at home about who takes the lead in solutioning for school holidays.

There are a few ways an employer could demonstrate that they support working parents. School holiday programmes could be provided on-site at your employer’s offices. You bring your children with you to work every day and they then go into an on-site programme. Easy and effortless. IAG in Australia already run something similar. This would be one of the biggest talent retention and acquisition tools you could have. If I had primary school aged children again and my employer provided this, I don’t think I would ever leave!  Term Time Contracts are another innovative way of supporting working parents. These are employment contracts that only operate during term time during the year and your salary is pro-rated to account for this. These are becoming more common in the UK and it would be good to see them take off in NZ. The key thing here is to ensure that role outcomes are re-scoped so that they can be delivered in the reduced days available. But they can and they do work. They are another fabulous way of keeping working parents in the leadership pipeline.

Reimagining school holiday programmes is easy. They need to be better value, be in more convenient locations, and provide fun learning experiences. I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I used to have to drag my children kicking and screaming to some week programmes. And I did feel guilty leaving them in a large, cold, gymnasium with a lunchbox and drink bottle. The cost associated can also be crippling as I have written about before. While reimagining these programmes is easy, fixing them is complicated. We do not value caregiving in our society and because of this, these roles are not well paid and the organisations not well funded. Rock and hard place.

As the time bomb ticks on, are you the only parent who is thinking about what the solution is? If you are co-parenting, this is a good time to start the conversation on who will take the lead in planning, researching, booking and the daily logistics for your children during the school holidays. Each one of those tasks are significant in themselves. Divide up who is going to take the lead on these tasks and own them from that time forward. The load of the school holidays needs to be equally shared between parents. Note for beginners: don’t under estimate how challenging it is to get agreement between a 7 year old, a 9 year old and an 11 year old on what school holiday programme they want to do. You might want to block out an afternoon for it.

One of the biggest barriers I often hear from parents who are either thinking of going back to paid work or who want to progress their career is that they cannot see how they can do it when they think about school holidays. The pain point of finding quality, affordable solutions for childcare for 10-12 weeks of the year is real. Until we do re-imagine school holidays, are we ever going to see real gains in gender equality at work?

Working 9 to 5?

When it comes to working from home when you have young children at home, the famous Dolly Parton song doesn’t really cut it. It is more like 9 to 9.15am, 9.25 to 9.50am, 10am to 10.35am through to the late evening. Not as catchy is it?

Remind yourself that being a stay at home parent is hard work just by itself. There are never enough hours in the day, it is relentless, important but mostly invisible work. Add into the mix your paid job that now needs to be completed at home, home schooling and the caring responsibilities you may have for older parents. If you feel exhausted and stretched – it is not surprising!

It sucks that we have gone into Level 3 again. It is ok to feel your feelings. That is how you will move through them. When we push down our feelings, we start to lose our inner voice. Our truth. So if you are feeling like this whole situation sucks, feel free to turn up the volume on the “A Star Is Born” soundtrack and have a good old singalong to the Lady Gaga song “Shallow”. These tips that I have collected through my online workshops and clients might also give you some inspiration:

From “Working from Home” to “Working With Children”

  • Talk about how you are feeling to your people leader and be realistic with them on what you are able to deliver. Full stop silence. This is not a statement on your capability, it is the reality on the additional responsibilities you have as a working parent.
  • Set expectations in advance in your meetings – eg: “I might be walking outside during this meeting but I am still engaged. (And just admiring my 2 year old’s sandpit play at the same time)”
  • Normalise the times that your pre-teen bursts in demanding to know why there is no food in the house or the noise that your 18 month old makes as she stands outside your spare bedroom (now an office) door and thumps on it continuously until you let her in. This is life now.

Share The Load

  • If you are solo parenting during this lockdown, then I take my hat off to you. Doing this by  yourself is next level. This is a hard time in your life but you can do hard things. If you can, carve time out for yourself to re-charge and take it one day at a time.
  • If both you and your partner are at home, then take your lead from the word “partner”. A partner by definition, shares things equally so ensure you are sharing equally the load that comes from being at home –  caring, cooking, cleaning and planning each day. For your children, seeing both parents take an equal role at home (regardless of how more “important” one parent’s job might be compared to the other) will feed their normal for how they will parent.

What Has Been Helpful For Families With Under Fives

  1. Involve Them. If you can set up a table with an old keyboard, colouring in and toys near your workspace so they can see you working. If you have school children, talk to them about how days are going to work and when you will be in meetings.
  2. Plan In Quality Time. Small humans can get frustrated if they do not get good quality time, so if you can, plan things throughout the day like some Wiggles TV in the morning, puzzles, play dough, baking, online music sessions, walks etc
  3. Relax Digital (or all!) Rules. It is ok that they are watching more TV and using apps on the iPad. And what is not to love about Emma the Wiggle?  Remember that your number one job as a parent it to keep your children calm and settled.
  4. Forget What The House Looks Like. Just focus on getting through this. If that means you set up a blanket and cushion fort in the kitchen, then so be it. If that means your hallway is turned into a permanent “the floor is lava” game, then so be it. Your kids will remember this forever.

These are strange times we are living through, and to paraphrase Nigel Latta, It is like flying an plane, you know you need to land but you have to plan for the landing.  And just like we do with cabin crew, your children will look to you for reassurance that it is going to be alright. Sometime we can’t always land at the time we think we will or at the airport we think we will, but we will land this plane!

There is so much that is outside of your control right now but you can remain in control of how your days work in your family. And keep connected with others who get you – we will get through this together.

Books That Help You Play Bigger

In the lead up to International Womens Day on March 8th, here are the two books that I keep on my desk at all times. They have equally inspired me to lift my game and boosted my confidence.

Winging It

by Emma Issacs

“Stop Thinking, Start Doing: Why Action Beats Planning Every Time”.  

Emma Issacs is the Founder and Global CEO of Business Chicks – a global enterprise operating in two continents and eleven cities as well as being Australia’s largest community for women. This is a book for everyone that is restless and thinks there is something more out there for them. It draws on her life and the lessons she has learnt by not waiting until she is ready but instead taking action now and figuring out the rest as you go along.  In other words – you’ve got to learn to ‘wing it’.  The energy that Emma has for inspiring others just jumps off the pages as you read it. The book is action packed with practical ideas on running a business, cultivating relationships, managing people and turning your dreams into plans. She also talks about the career/family juggle with great pragmatism and humour which resonates even more when you learn that she has five kids and another one on the way! If you are ready for your next step – read this.

The Coaching Habit. Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever

by Michael Bungay Stanier

“Harlan Howard said every great country song has three chords and the truth. This book gives you seven questions and the tools to make them an everyday way to work less hard and have more impact”.

Without wanting to repeat the book title, I’m going to do it anyway. If you buy one book that will change the way you lead forever, then this is it.  Without a doubt, the biggest pain point I hear from leaders that I coach is managing people. In this book, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a staggeringly simple proposition – it is the act of asking questions that is critical rather than having all the answers. For some leaders, it is a relief to know that they don’t need to know the answers all the time and they can tame the “advice monster” that lives inside us all. Through real life examples and a workbook format, you will become the expert in the seven questions that will help you build a coaching habit. And it will all make so much sense. With recommendations from Brenè Brown, Daniel H. Pink and now me, this book will ensure you’re in good company.  😊

What Taylor Swift has in common with me.

Miss Americana

As a female, I don’t think it is an unusual experience to grow up with a sense that you need to be a good girl. Do what you are told. Fit in with everyone. Look after other people. Don’t stand out. So while watching “Miss Americana” this week, the Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, I was strangely reassured to discover that even this global superstar feels the same pressure. The pressure to be a good girl. To not speak out. She has felt this in a way that has paralysed her and left someone with millions of fans, feeling isolated and alone.

The pressure to be good can squash you into living a smaller life. It can stop you speaking up when you have an idea or when you see something that is wrong. Scarily, it can become second nature despite your best intentions. At one point in Miss Americana, Taylor sees herself saying sorry to the camera for speaking her mind and then gets angry at herself for saying sorry. Lana Wilson, the Director, can be heard off camera recognising the contradiction “It’s because we are trained to say sorry”. “Yeah, we legitimately are” acknowledges Taylor.

Being a parent makes me even more aware of this and I actively look for other words to use to praise or encourage my daughter. I remember that when she was at primary school I used to send her off with the words “Be brave, be kind and learn lots”. I had to work hard to re-wire my brain on this as “Be good” was kind of the default phrase that just rolled off my tongue. But I actively worked on it and still do today.

The good news from “Miss Americana” is that I feel like this is the beginning of a new era for Taylor as she has found her voice and the confidence to be true to it. Bring it on! Being a good girl is over rated.  We can seek inspiration in the words of Taylor herself – “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. Shake It off, Shake It off”

Full Disclosure. I am a Taylor Swift fan (we call ourselves “Swifties” 😊) from way back. Miss Americana provides a unique perspective on Taylor and is a must watch for especially those who want to find and use their voice. Plus you get to see how epic her concerts are, how loyal her fans are and how many photographers wait outside her door every day. Thank you Taylor Swift for being my guiding light, rocking my kitchen with your poems and bringing me so much joy.

When Work Doesn’t Work.

Day one of the school holidays and I have already had a text from the school holiday programme that my children are reluctantly attending. It appears that there was a handstand gone wrong and a small injury has occurred. Luckily, nothing an ice block won’t fix when I pick them up later today. But it was a reminder to me that as a working parent, school holidays and working really don’t work that well together.

In the lead up to the school holidays, there are a number of loads that working parents carry. First the mental load of “what am I going to do during the holidays with the kids?”. This starts processing in my mind well before the start of the holidays and sits there like a stubborn gorilla refusing to move along. And with an average of 12 weeks of holidays a year compared to the 4 or 5 weeks of annual leave, that is a lot of gorilla time. 

The financial load of school holidays can add up quickly when you consider that the cheapest programmes are around $50 per day but do range up to $150 per day for Robotics & 3D Design. For three children, it could add up to $9,000 annually out of your post-tax salary. A significant amount and not a surprise that the WEF reports that NZ currently has the most expensive childcare costs in the world. 

Then there is the logistics load. How do I get to the holiday programme location for drop-off and then to work for the 9am team meeting? How much time do I need to factor in for realising that they needed spending money for an excursion that day and then locate a ATM with parking en-route to the programme?

Finally the most painful of them all, the load you carry when your children complain about having to attend these costly, logistically complex programmes. The protests of why they can’t just stay home during the holidays and how no one else needs to go to school holiday programmes. These complaints can start well in advance of the holidays but only for parents that give their children advance notice. These days, mine usually only find out the night before. Tip for young players.

The lack of quality, accessible and affordable school holiday solutions adds another layer of pressure into the lives of working parents. Pressure that is often invisible to others but very real to them.  

If you are able to get some time off with your family these holidays, I do hope you enjoy it. As my friend Gretchen Rubin says – “The days are long but the years are short.”

Customer Love Letters

I used to think that wanting your customers to love you was an unrealistic goal. But I was proved wrong last week.


On Instagram, Nadia Lim, one of the founders of My Food Bag posted a love letter she had received from one of her customers (who was aircrew on a flight she was taking). In the letter, the customer professed her love of My Food Bag and how it has changed her life. It seemed to me that receiving a customer love letter must be the ultimate in customer loyalty. When a customer feels so strongly about your company and the positive impact it has in their life, that they write you a letter (on a sick bag no less!) then pretty much you have reached loyalty nirvana.





Which is a quite funny really because I’ve never actually worked for a company that uses customers love letters as a metric for how successful they are being in building customer loyalty. Most often they use measures like Net Promoter Score (NPS), active members, points issued & redeemed or customer retention. I know those measures make logical sense, look good on a lean canvas and take up a table in the monthly report. But I think adding in a more emotional metric would be a useful addition. Not only would it paint a colourful picture for employees on what is resonating for customers (and the difference they are making) but it is just good for business. How we feel about a company will determine how likely we are to use them again, use them more or tell people about them.

If you’re not convinced that customer love should be one of your goals, that’s cool. I just think it invites so much more creativity from your employees than a goal of “Increase NPS to 14”. But maybe that’s just me.

Keep serving the freaking peanuts

I have always thought that leaders at work are a bit like cabin crew on an airline. When it gets bumpy or I hear a random noise on take-off, I always look straight at the cabin crew. If they look calm, then I’m calm. I figure that they have done this flying thing way more than I have so if they’re not worried, then I’m not worried. It is the same at work. If I see my leader walking around with their head in their hands or come out of a meeting looking anxious, then I start worrying. And when you think your company is in trouble, it impacts negatively on productivity, becomes the water cooler conversation and just generally makes work not a very nice place to be. When companies go through tough times, how a leader behaves and interacts with their team can make all the difference on how they come through it. People want to be led by someone who they feel has “got this”.

This thinking is why I loved this piece from Glennon Doyle. Her friend shared this advice for what kids need when parents are going through a divorce. But I think it works just as well for what employees need from their leaders in uncertain times.
Image result for keep serving the freaking peanuts glennon doyle

Our job as leaders is not to pretend that there will never be tough times. But that when they do happen we remember to keep serving the freaking peanuts.

Helping others. No microphone needed

Those who know me will tell you that I only have one volume. Loud. I’ve tried to fight it but it is just part of who I am. Corporate pod dwellers (unknown to me) have opened meeting room doors that I am in and told me to be quiet. I have even been “shushed” by a fellow (again unknown to me) passenger (sitting two rows ahead I might add!) on a flight to Wellington. So it was a delight to hear Stacey Shortall speak at a Mother’s Day event last week. Even though she was speaking to 300+ people in a school hall, she declined a microphone. I liked her immediately.

Stacey is one of those speakers that make you wonder what you have been doing with your life. I was already aware of her work as the founder of the “Who Did You Help Today” social movement but that only scratches the surface on the impact she has had and is having on the greater good. The thing that most impressed me was her clarity of purpose.  She has a belief that we all have crossroads in our life and that it is vital we have people who care about our success at these crossroads. Some are lucky enough to have lots of people at their crossroads but some have very little.

Stacey’s projects have been all about loading up people into the life’s crossroads of those who really need someone in their corner. More people at crossroads for children through the Homework Help Club. More people at the crossroads for mothers in prison through the Mothers Project. And more volunteers being matched with not for profits so they can show up at someone’s crossroads through Help Tank. If you get a chance, check out these projects and sign up for one.

Upon reflection, it was this bold and simple articulation of her purpose that was so inspirational to me. It is rare to meet someone who is so crystal clear about her “why” (as Simon Sinek puts it). and many (including me!) would be envious of this clarity.  So it was a pretty cool morning all in all last week. Well, that and the fact that she owned her loud voice. Like a boss!

A place where everybody knows your name

A couple of weeks ago I read that they are inventing smartphones that can read your mind. While this kind of freaks me out, it made me wish that more humans could do this. Specifically those responsible for designing and delivering customer experiences.

This was driven home to me last month on a trip to Singapore. The hotel I stayed at was first class at reading my mind or put another way – anticipating my needs, meeting and even exceeding those needs. Every member of staff seem to know my name (just like the Cheers bar without Norm) and were genuinely interested in making my stay memorable. So memorable that I would tell stories about it on my return.

One example of their fabulous mind reading was when I was wading out to a sun lounger that was located in their swimming pool. The loungers were surrounded by water and as I was wading, I was also thinking “what am I going to do with my books and clothes – I don’t want them getting wet?”. I plonked myself down on the lounger but I was still clutching my books and clothes. Next minute, someone appears and says “Ms Mclean, here is a table for your books and clothes”. Genius. Someone had seen me, thought about what I needed and given it to me. Being observant, anticipating what a customer needs based on what you have noticed about them is fundamental in delivering experiences that become stories you tell to your friends.

Contrast this with my plane trip home where I had paid extra to upgrade to Business Class. I was super excited and arrived in my seat carrying two bags. There was no room in any of the overhead lockers that I opened so I sat down with the bags in the aisle and figured that someone would come and help me. Meanwhile all the other Business Class customers were giving me that look that said “don’t squash your bag on top of my more superior one”. Awkward. A little girl waited but no one came. The cabin crew all seemed busy doing their “champagne or orange juice” process and couldn’t deviate from this. They were actually stepping over my bags as they did their “champagne or orange juice” gig. So I just sat there feeling weird.

I felt like the cabin crew did not see me. Did not see that I could not find an overhead locker. Did not see that I was an excited bunny to be in Business Class. Did not see that my excitement was turning to awkwardness. I felt like they were too focused on executing the “this is what we always do at the start of a flight” process which meant they missed the opportunity to observe what I actually needed.

Rest assured that I did manage to find a place for my bags and hopefully I did not offend any of my cheerful fellow passengers. Of course, I would have needed a mind reading smartphone to ascertain this for sure.

Helping not selling

apple1I think most people who read Angela’s quote will nod their head in agreement with the statement. From a brand’s point of view it is common sense; you need to establish a rapport with a customer before they are really going to be listening to what you are saying. But I wish more people would get that this thinking applies just as much to email interactions as well.

I don’t want to be sold to when opening my email either, I want to be helped.  If you have an email address for your customer you probably have some kind of a relationship with them but this does not mean that they spend their day waiting around to buy more from you. I tell my clients to think about email as bait that leaves customers wanting to know more, gets them clicking on links to find out more and ultimately predisposes them towards your brand so that when they are in the market – they will think of you. Email is perfect for enabling your customers to unlock more of what your brand has to offer. Whether it be reminding them about your after sales service, handy tips on getting the most from your new phone or invitations to exclusive customer events.  You’ll stand out from the crowd if your emails are not about selling, but about helping.

BTW – I found this quote in Fast Company – if you have not liked it on Facebook, you should!

PS – Angela starts at Apple in early 2014 so expect her to shake things up!  🙂

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