Engaging with the Gatekeeper

There are lots of ways to build the profile of your business, your academic expertise, your passion.  Joyce talked about networking groups the other week, and I’ve attended many networking opportunities, including exhibitions and conferences.  It is when we go to follow up these initial links that many of us fail. We forget to follow up, or find it awkward and therefore avoid it.  Often we become so intent on building rapport with a CEO or other figurehead, we forget to build rapport with the de facto key person: The Gatekeeper.

Who is the Gatekeeper?

Even in the 21st century, in this world of online meetings and directors managing their own emails, there is still a large percentage of gatekeepers and they are mainly female!  I am of course talking about the army of mainly women who hold the title of PA, receptionist, occasionally Private Secretary, Chief Administrator and so forth.  There are some really good blokes doing this role and I am sure some would identify as non-binary and trans, but that is not my rabbit hole for today.  I’m talking about relationships, power, and how we can wield it with integrity.

Photo by Laura Davidson on Unsplash

In 1952 Betty Marsden debuted the Joyce Grenfell sketch ‘Private Secretary’ which, in addition to revealing a secret, explores many of the contradictions of these roles.  By their nature, they are often unseen and undervalued, yet they hold the key to information, action and attention.  Rather than asking ‘Who watches the watchman?’, perhaps we should be asking ‘Who gatekeeps the gatekeeper?’. I’ve met some shocking ones in my life, including the school secretary who on the first occasion I ever asked to speak to the head exclaimed “Why do you keep bothering him, you’re useless to him?’.  As I was offering training and support for parents and staff, that school lost out.  Embarrassing!

Gatekeeping with integrity

There are two gatekeepers I’ve encountered in my life however, who have operated with integrity, kindness, communication and skill, both professionally and personally.  It is to these two women I’d like to pay tribute today, now that they are both exiting my life.  Sheila Wraight, one of the Graduate College Administrators at CCCU retires at the end of this week.  It’s jokingly said that one of the other Administrators ushers you into the Grad College and Sheila looks after you through the last 6 months and ushers you out.  This is so true.  Sheila has been the focus of many a frustrated email from students over issues that are nothing to do with her. Every time, she has steered us with calm, clarity and kindness to the right answer, person or process.  It was a real moment of sadness for me when we went digital because of COVID and I could not therefore place my three bound copies into Sheila’s devoted hands.

The other is my Godmother Gloria (Goy) Fuller.  Rather like the Private Secretary in the sketch, Goy professed no real ambition, but ended up in a range of rather senior positions in the Civilian support staff for Kent Police. These included gatekeeping for a Chief Inspector who was notoriously almost never at his desk.  She was Assistant Secretary and Treasurer to the Police Social Club, a role which probably led to more decision making and action taking than the actual treasurer, and she continued this post long after her retirement from her day job. Goy died this month, and I did not realise how much I would hear her voice in my head. Though neither of us knew it at the time, from an early age Goy taught me about a different kind of ambition – an ambition to have integrity, build relationship at work and outside work, to enable the young ones even when they are infuriating (I was a very gabby child), and to simply be kind.  The rising through the ranks to a position of trust often comes quite accidentally from there.

So, what are my concluding thoughts today?  Whenever you want to make a lead, make a friend first, or at least a friendly acquaintance.  Don’t just ask to speak to the boss.  Make sure you know the name of the person who picks up the phone and who checks their emails for them. Ask after them, pass a few friendly comments.  At worst, these are the gatekeepers, who can shut the gate in your face as well as open it. At best, they will be people who will enable that business relationship, so make sure you genuinely appreciate them.  They are your de facto key person.

Different Experiences, Different Times

In this blog I want to talk about the different experience of two people with autism, myself and a 21 year old.

Let me start with my own journey from school to my present day university.

I remember my first day at infant school, standing amongst a large crowd of adults and small children like myself. I remember a little boy clinging to his mother and sobbing his heart out, this boy later became the school bully.

When I started school there was no mention of dyslexia or autism, if you couldn’t keep up you were known as slow, or inattentive or even thick and stupid. Somehow, I always managed to stay up in one of the top classes, by this I mean I was not put in the class for the ‘less able’.

My overriding memory of school both primary and secondary was the people I was at school with. In the first few years of primary school I had one friend, we spent every playtime together, just the two of us. That was until her dad, who was in the army, got posted overseas. My then friend went to a group of girls and asked them if I could join their group and they said yes.

I spent the remaining years of my primary and secondary school life being on the outside of that group, never feeling like I quite belonged. The girls were never mean or nasty to me, I joined in the games that they played, but I never felt like I quite belonged. As we all grew older together, I discovered that they were meeting up at the evenings and weekends, going swimming or to the pictures together, but I was never invited.

In my secondary school years, I felt like the teachers removed me to stand outside the classroom door more often than being in the class. My school reports said things like, “if she spent less time helping others and did own work she would do better”.

Later in life I went to college to study English GCSE, but again I never made any lasting friendships. However, I did learn to hand in unusual possibly obscure subject matter for all my assignments. For instance, my story was on ‘Christmas through the eyes of the donkey’. This got published in the college’s Christmas magazine.

And on turning 60 I went to university to study for my Bachelor’s degree in Counselling, Coaching and Mentoring. I spent three years of my life, two full days a week, with the same cohort of people, with the same outcome as when I was at school. No one was unkind to me, we chatted together if the moment called for it, but I was never invited to go to lunch with them or join in social activities after the lectures.

I am now taking my Masters by Research where there are no lectures to attend or any cohort to be on the outside of. I have wonderful supervisors who help me, support me and direct me along the path to succeed.

Now let me talk about a young 21-year-old and their journey through education. They too started school around the age of five. Throughout their entire primary school experience, they felt they were treated differently than the non-autistics in their class.

In the morning they attended a normal class with everybody else, but always felt like they were treated differently both by the teachers and their classmates. At lunchtime instead of going into the dining room, those who were deemed ’different’ had their lunch separately. In the afternoon these children were again segregated into a separate class to learn more about social skills than reading, writing and arithmetic.

At the age of 11 this young person started in a special educational needs (SEN) School to continue their education. Though in this school they felt more accepted and treated more equally and were able to make friends with like-minded people, they were not allowed to take any meaningful qualifications.

Next this person progressed into college to take GCSE English and Maths and a BTEC qualification. Again, they experienced feelings of being treated differently, and though the BTEC course they had chosen had aspects that did not sit comfortably with them they continued to the end, finishing with a successful BTEC qualification.

This gave them enough points to continue on to university to take a Foundation qualification in computing. This is when they and I met, I became this young person’s mentor, and what a privilege that has been.

They have now completed their Foundation degree with a very high score and progressed onto the first year of their Bachelor’s degree in gaming.

During all of their experience of university they have not felt any of the stigma that they felt through their schooling and college life. They have made friends and been treated equally with the whole of their cohort by their lecturers.

So, what does this say about the 20th and 21st century experience of an autistic in education?

We both experienced prejudice from teachers and other pupils, we both experienced rejection and isolation during our school and college lives. But here is where the paths differ, I as a 60+ year old still felt on the outside during my Bachelor’s degree experience, whereas this 20+ year old found acceptance, friendship, and path into their future life.

Could this just be because of different personalities, different backgrounds, or is it be the difference between how older people and the younger generation view autistics?

Can study be good for business?

I think we all know that as a PhD candidate, of course I think the answer to the question is yes!  There’s a lot more to my views on this and how they were formed though.  I’ve made some mistakes in balancing work and study over the years, but here are some of the reasons why I think study and business support each other, and some tips and tricks to make it work.

Reasons

  1. If you work in another field, learning theory will improve your practice and vice versa.

I was fortunate enough to have my Masters paid for by me then employer, the Civil Service.  As a front line worker in JobcentrePlus, it was not until I started examining policy formation and strategy that I began to comprehend:

  • how my tiny cog fitted in to the machine which is public service,
  • how that related to the political party in power at the time,
  • how the Civil Service keeps its political neutral role while advising its party political masters, and so much more.

Nobody is saying that the only study you should do is work related, but it can help with your relationship with the office.

2. If you work in education, continuing to study, and being open about it, helps your students trust you.

As a study skills tutor, I hold some teaching qualifications, of course, but I find that talking about my own challenges and how I have overcome them builds a sense of trust with my students.  Got a deadline?  So do I?  How can we both meet them?  Don’t understand the brief?  This is how I analyse mine – are these techniques useful to you? Got a bogie module?  Have I ever told you about my relationship with Economics and Governance?  (No, really, somebody ask me – I’ll happily tell you how I slew that dragon).  Being a student yourself creates a sense of rapport with your students that nothing else can forge, and you will both reap the rewards.

Tips

  1.  If you are studying something relevant to your job, make sure your colleagues know about it.

I learned this one the hard way.  I initially kept my Masters studies to myself and was accused by several colleagues of being both lazy and privileged.  How dare I, as a single white woman under 40 be working part time?  What gave me the right to laze around the rest of the time?  They had made a wrong assumption that I was a lady what lunched, who played at work to remove the boredom.  They had missed the part that when I wasn’t in the office I was studying, in lectures, or travelling the four hours each way to get to Uni. One stand up row later, a now educated colleague became the first to volunteer to take part in the research for my dissertation.  My point is, you may inspire respect, a new reputation for yourself or even somebody else to go and learn a new skill.

  1. (A tip) Organisation is key, as is a touch of ruthlessness.

In the 21st Century, time is a precious commodity. Taking on study is only going to make it more precious.  This is a key example of working smarter, not harder.  You will need to get your family on board.

If you are already studying and your family are not supportive, now is the time to sit down and have a full and frank discussion with them.  What are the benefits to them of you getting this qualification?  What practical skills can your other half/young ones/house mates learn or take over that will help free up your time?  Batch cooking, putting their own washing away, dusting and hoovering, these are all gender neutral tasks. It is important that you carve out time for your study then guard it with your life! If work is a more conducive environment for study than home, go in early, or stay late (clear this with your employer first). Make sure that you don’t suffer from study guilt – you do matter and the more you prioritise your study and empowerment, the more positive role model you become for those around you.

In conclusion, then, if you’re thinking about studying while you work, get on and do it, but make sure you have your loved ones on board before you start.  If you’re already studying and have got a bit stuck in the mire, I understand, why not give me a ring and see if I can help?

The Effects of Covid-19 Lockdown on one Autistic

When we first went into lockdown, I thought how wonderful that would be;

no social interaction, no face-to-face business interactions, just sitting quietly in my house all day with my furry cats, Kevin and Woof.

This could not have been further from the truth!!!

Zoom and more Zoom and even more Zoom. The wife even Zoomed me today to help me wrestle a website into submission. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Zoom, it’s a brilliant piece of technology and we couldn’t keep our business going without it.

We see all our clients over Zoom, along with our business networking, which is proving to be quite profitable. We joined the Federation of Small Businesses this week thanks to a lovely gentleman, Lee Harrington, that we met through the Twilight networking group.

I think a lot of people who have no personal experience of autism believe that autistics don’t particularly like social interaction or eye contact, but for some of us that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though I don’t particularly like large social gatherings, and wouldn’t dream of going to a nightclub, I do like to be around people especially if I have a role to play. In the past when I used to go to church, I was always in charge of serving the tea and coffee. And when I used to do face-to-face business networking, I normally had a role, collecting the money, leading the group or the whole area, sometimes even all three.

During lockdown I have really missed people, and even though I enjoy Zoom it’s not quite the same as sitting in the same room with other human beings. I am not looking forward to not being able to have my friends come over for coffee or a meal for the next month.

Luckily my hairdresser managed to squeeze the family in last night for home haircuts, so we don’t all end up looking like hairy monsters like we did last lockdown.

Sadly, we’ve had to cancel a five-day holiday to Camber Sands for the second time. We’ve also postponed visits to both mine and Jane’s parents until hopefully we can travel to see them before Christmas.

But this post isn’t all doom and gloom, all of our clients have agreed to go on to, yes, Zoom, making our income secure. Today Jane finished her corrections for her PhD. One of our young men is still able to go to work and the other two are still studying. We have each other, we have our family and friends, to Zoom with. We can still go shopping and go out walking for exercise. At the time of writing, we all have good health with no Covid-19 symptoms, nor do any of our family and friends.

So, within our own little bubble life is continuing, with love and ma be the odd disagreement, but overall, we will survive, no, more than survive, this epidemic.

As you read this, we send you love, kindness and the hope of good health. Follow the rules, stay safe, be kind to one another. These days will pass, and things will return to normal; we don’t know when, but they will.