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.

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 Viva – what happens next?

My Viva was a surprisingly joyous experience.  I am fully aware that not everybody is as lucky, even if their thesis is sound in the main.  I’ve had several friends who have had a truly rough ride.  One was nearly broken by their viva experience and it was an act of will for that person to continue to the end result.  I admire those who keep going under those circumstances and they will always have the support of CoomberSewell Enterprises if they want it.  There are other ways for showing collegiality, by the way.  We offer 10% discounts to students and alumnae of our Universities:  Canterbury Christ Church, Liverpool Hope and the University of York.

But I digress.  As I predicted, preparing for the Viva on the day became a much more practical task than any other exam I have sat before.  In addition to thinking about what clothes would not only make a good impression, but would put me in the right mindset, the room I was being examined in (our bedroom/office) had to be tidied to ensure that my Kermit Onesie was not visible and a cat couldn’t gate crash.  In the end, every member of the household was locked out – including the wife!  We probably had better hope the examiners never read this, as I have to admit to being beautifully presented from head to toe, but with a blanket wrapped round everything below camera level – it was cold!

So, when the opening remark of my viva was to the effect that the decision had already been made that I would be passing with minor corrections, did I feel a fool for being so thorough in all my preparations?  Heck, no!  The efforts I made put me in the right frame of mind for what would come next – an invigorating and largely enjoyable interrogation of a variety of issues, which led to my correction list.  I was (inevitably) asked a theory question.  Foucault is not an easy read, and apparently, neither was my interpretation of him.  I was also asked what I might research next and what was original about my work.  Honestly, if you don’t know these two are coming, shoot your supervisor!

I have 3 months to make my corrections.  On paper, there are five of them, and three have already largely been dealt with.  There is, however, another document I have been sent, the internal examiners annotated copy of my thesis.  While I don’t have to take these into account, I’d be daft if I didn’t.  In a way, this process of corrections is a good thing, not only for the standard of my finished and final thesis, but for the transition period I find myself in. This gives me three months to make my corrections, write up a couple of tangential research projects I have bubbling along.  This will help me ease myself out of the student mindset and back into the full time world of work, in whatever academic or alternative-academic form that might take.

What does this mean for CoomberSewell Enterprises?  Increasingly I will be looking at research work, archivism or museum projects, quality assurance of documents.  These all use and increase the skills I’ve gained and grown to love through my studies.  I was going to say that this is a new adventure, but increasingly I am aware that it is simply another chapter of the same adventure, one that I can shape and form, which is a rare thing in these COVID days.  It is a precious gift and I invite you all to kick me should I ever take it for granted.

Guest Blog – ‘Let me interrupt your experience with my confidence’ – Yvonne Bennett

I heard the above quote on the podcast Fortunately which is by the wonderful Radio 4 presenters Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. It was from an email a listener had written in and explained her ‘imposter syndrome’ when it came to her job and men. That these men may not have been as qualified as her didn’t matter as they would ‘interrupt her experience with their confidence’. She had been the first female bomb disposal officer during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was a lightbulb moment for me and could not have come at a more fortuitous time.

I am a final year PhD student, due to submit mid-December, and was tackling the Reflexive section of my thesis. I am researching conservative Presbyterian churches in the Outer Hebrides (very niche, I know) and looking at how women navigate between the patriarchal church and equality driven social spheres of their lives. I have discovered that not only do women comply to the codes of religious practice, they choose to do so and actually uphold the patriarchy. After listening to the podcast, I realised that I too was upholding the patriarchy when I was carrying out my fieldwork.

I am, and here I am appropriating Phillip Pullman’s phrase, a Christian atheist. I love a good sermon, love a church wedding and a baptism but have no faith. I am interested in religion from a sociological perspective and have spent the past 14 years studying it. When I am collecting data, I go to church in the community and take part in weekly Fellowship. On more than one occasion I have had men trying to direct the course of my research. During my MA, one went so far as to ‘hide’ all my questionnaires. He told me that researching the history of the community was better. I ended up writing about fundamentalism on that particular island and his actions formed the basis of the research. To this day he doesn’t know and thinks I gave up my studies. During my PhD, whenever men tried to tell me what to do, who to talk to and what to observe, I actually agreed with them, I agreed to let their confidence interrupt my experience. I then totally ignored their direction and continued on as planned. However, I am upholding the patriarchy in this church. I allow those in positions of authority to take control, albeit for a short period of time. I allow them to believe that they have directed my work.

A previous supervisor said to me ‘you are a product of your age and gender’. Before anyone starts jumping up and down in indignation, he was right, although I would also add class to his list. I was at school in the 1970s (yes, I am that old) and girls were not encouraged to have a voice or to go on to university. I attended a comprehensive school in a large industrial town west of Glasgow and girls of my academic ability became nurses or secretaries or bookkeepers. Of my peer group seven of us went into nursing. Girls did not speak up in class and those who did were seen as troublemakers or tomboys.

This is not a man bashing blog. I also allow women to talk me down. Recently I was in my local pub and was talking (from a distance of 2 metres and sitting down) to a couple I vaguely know. On two occasions the woman contradicted what I had said. On both occasions I was talking about events that had happened to members of my family. On both occasions I had the experience of the events, she, however, had the confidence to tell me I was wrong. One concerned the date my dad was diagnosed as having COVID-19, the second was concerning a university offer my daughter had been given. She continually spoke over me saying I was wrong on both accounts, COVID tests were not available then and the university in question did not offer that course. I assured her that COVID tests were being carried out at the end of March and that LSE did indeed offer Social Anthropology (to be honest I began to doubt myself on that one and googled it on the way home) but she refused to listen.

So, where does that leave me? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? What is this blog about? I am aware of what I do and why. I hate confrontation and know that I will continue to allow those with the confidence to believe they have the authority and power to direct my work. They do not. It has made for an interesting Reflexive section and being self-aware is no bad thing. The object of this blog is to say to all student:, be aware and do not doubt yourself. Stand tall and say, ‘Let me interrupt your confidence with my experience’.

Yvonne Bennett

THE VIVA!

I’m preparing for my Viva this week.  For those of you who may not know, the Viva is the culmination of the PhD.  Most people think it is the Thesis, but in terms of the stuff that will stop a PhD candidate in their tracks, frozen and blank, it is the Viva that strikes fear.  But it shouldn’t.

Now, ask me again in a couple of weeks, when I’ve actually done the thing, but with the right preparation, the Viva should and can be a rigorous but invigorating exploration of the Thesis, your ideas, and your brilliance.  After all, in this brief moment in time, in this tiny specialism you have carved out for yourself, you are the country’s, if not the world’s leading expert in your thing. You have helped to choose your viva panel and you have written the thesis, read the thesis, re-read the thesis and done some additional prep by this point.

The reality is that many Viva candidates have waited far more than the much-talked about 3 months since hand in to have their Viva, mainly due to COVID this year. (Viva Voce – a verbal, rather than written examination, lasting anywhere between 40 minutes and several hours in which examiners attempt to dissect your work for strengths, weaknesses and simply to test it is as well thought out as it seems or not).  This means that focus on preparation is hard.  For me, this has had to be fitted in around dealing with the pandemic, running the business, working one part time job, one casual job and all the usual detritus of grown up life in a house with grown up children.  Whether it is cleaning the chickens out, cooking the dinner or realising that I haven’t bought any parsnips, there is normally something far less interesting, but much more demanding of my attention going on.  So preparation is not as easy as you might think.  For me it includes thinking about what to wear, even though it will be on Zoom.  This is not for the examiner’s benefit but for mine as it helps me get my head in the game.

Now, if you have ever written a large document, by any standard, put it to one side for a while, and then come back to it for a re-fresh, there will almost always be a moment when you wonder what illicit substances you were imbibing while you were writing, as it all becomes very surreal.  For me this moment came about 5 weeks ago.  This is an important moment for checking in with your support network – other people who have been there before you, and those who are in the same place.  It is important to work out that this is natural, we all feel like it, and you almost certainly have not made a huge error.

It is also important to realise that very few of us get a straight pass, certainly in the UK.  It is a rite of passage to get a pass subject to minor corrections, or even majors.  Very few people get a straight fail either.  What makes you so different?  We have a short break planned immediately after my viva (pandemic dependent) and I fully intend to take my laptop and use that time to make my corrections.  Blast through them, resubmit and get to the silly robe bit.

Finally, remember to blow your own trumpet (not my strong suit).  Those of us who get this far are special, your twitter feed may be filled with Dr this and So-and-so PhD, but in the real world, there are not many of us to the pound.  Make sure you publicly celebrate every milestone, every publication, every blog and every move forward – and do me a favour, remind me to do the same!

Working with your new lecturers

In this Coronavirus world, things are even more unsettled than usual as we start the new term.  Let’s face it, you may have moved away from home, you may be commuting, or not yet even sure whether your lectures are going to be on campus or on the internet yet.  Despite all this, there is one thing above all that has not changed; if you want a good Uni experience, you need to give good Uni experience!  There are two things you need to understand in order to achieve this:

  • You are not at Uni to be taught; you are at Uni to learn
  • You are responsible for building good communication habits with your lecturers and seminar leaders, with course administration and with your cohort.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  I acknowledge, in a way it is, but these are things that most Universities won’t tell you, and they really should!

So, what do these two things really mean?  With all due respect to my many valued teaching colleagues and friends, school and college is about being taught.  Your teachers teach you the content of the syllabus, they teach you the exam techniques and they teach you, basically, how to get to the answers.  At Uni, lecturers will deliver, wait for it… lectures.  These will often be quite broad in their subject material, or even very specific (I once sat through 2 hours on the difference Augmented and Neapolitan Sixths with a music student).  These will often be backed up with seminars, where between you and your colleagues you will develop the skills to investigate further, around structured tasks and goals.  Note that – you will not necessarily be taught the skills, you will develop them.  The difference between being taught and learning is where the proactivity comes from – and now it needs to come from you, the student.  You lead the learning; yes, you need to answer the question, but you can start tailoring those answers to the things you are passionate about from day 1.

But how can I develop these skills, I hear you cry! (Well probably not, I’m not that exciting a writer!).  The answer lies in my second point – be honest with your lecturers and seminar leaders from day 1 (Be appropriate, they don’t need to know you wear Sponge Bob pyjamas!).  If you have a concern, or a question, or are particularly enthusiastic about something, let the session leader know!  Normally, you would be able to stop for a (short) chat at the end of the session, but there’s a good chance that this won’t be happening this year.  Use Private Chat on Teams, send an email, or book a virtual appointment.

All Uni teaching staff have to provide ‘Office Hours’ for students to consult them.  Some have these as first come, first served, others use a booking system, but there is nothing more tedious for a tutor to clear their desk for 2 hours when they are in the middle of research and have no company at all for that time.  You are NOT a nuisance, you do NOT look like an idiot – go see them (virtually or otherwise).  You will look like an idiot if you don’t ask.  While we are on the subject, if you have an additional need, such as handouts on blue paper, only an idiot will not tell their tutor.  Yes, they should have had a copy of your learning support plan, no, they won’t have had it.  No, they won’t want to know the inside of a duck’s bottom about your condition, they just want to give you what you need to achieve, so help them out – give them a heads up!

In my next blog – the finer points of making your communication clear

Have a lovely week

Jane

Introducing Jane

This may be the hardest blog I’ve ever written – because it’s about me, and that makes me feel a little bit cringy.  The Brits are not, as a rule, good at self-promotion, or indeed talking about themselves in a positive way, and from that respect I’m very British!

So, taking Joyce as my inspiration, I’m currently 46 (check the date when you read this) and I was brought up in a jolly nice part of Essex.  No, that is not a contradiction in terms.  One of 2 daughters, my sister and I went to what was then the best state school in the borough and we both did very well at GCSE, thank you very much.  At A level I stumbled and did re-sits on two of them, but did not manage to improve.  This was the best bit of bad luck of my life – I had not yet learned that the harshest examiner is yourself, and if you expect to succeed and work and live accordingly, you will succeed, but if you have little faith in yourself, however hard you work there is a good chance you will ambush yourself sooner or later.  That is why, even though I am the Study Skills specialist, and Joyce is the mentor, so much of what we both do is about building confidence as a foundation to skills.

Why was it a lucky bit of bad luck?  Well the A level results I had took me to Liverpool Hope, just shedding its LIHE name, where I ‘clicked’ and with the support of wonderful academics and pastoral staff, I blossomed (4 spring to mind – Helen King, Jeff Brache, Doreen Heraty and Peter Taylor, but I could easily name more). I left Liverpool Hope with a 2:1, lifelong friends and a great sense of duty, but still lacking personal confidence.  I worked on a hospital switchboard for nearly a year, then entered the Civil Service, having the goal of keeping my head down, not being bored and retiring at 60.  Small goals.

It wasn’t long before I realised that not being bored is not enough, you must be fulfilled and content.  It took me a long time to work out how that could happen, and along the way I worked in 2 different specialist roles, acted as a team leader, and persuaded the Civil Service to pay for my Master’s Degree at the University of York.  From there I became a more senior team leader for a local authority, and sadly, my lack of self esteem meant I allowed myself to be bullied by a woman who finally had a class action taken out against her.  I thought I was the only one, poor at my job and worthy of nothing better. In fact, looking back on it now, I see now that she was intimidated by my intelligence and potential capacity.  I feel sorry for her now, thinking about how the only way she could get people to do what she needed was through fear, rather than having the skills to gain their respect and affection.  However, it is easy to use position against people, and we must all be careful not to get complacent about how we treat others.

From there, in feeling like I was running away, I moved back to Kent, where I was born and it turned out I was running to my true self, which I found via a strange conversation with a 13/14 year old about how a boiler might work.  That boy was the eldest grandson of my now wife, Joyce.  It is through her faith in me that we have formed CoomberSewell Enterprises, through her inability to tolerate procrastination that I have nearly completed my PhD, that I have learned that actually, I am quite intelligent and can use that intellect to help others, to earn a living at what moves, touches and inspires me, and most importantly, to have fun!  Through this confidence, I try things I would have been too scared to do when I was in my 20s.  I have ridden horses, quad bikes, segways (don’t talk to Joyce about segways). We travel the world together (bar pandemics), she groans at my awful, obscure puns and I laugh at my own enjoyment of big words.

My true self is curious, funny, a little bit arrogant, and keen to explore more of this moving, touching, inspiring world we live in.  Come explore with me?

Introducing Me

I thought I would start with introducing myself to you all. I am 65 years old, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, grandmother-in-law, non-binary, home owner, car driver, home maker, cat, chicken and fish slave, dreamer, company owner, cake maker, organiser, gardener, carer, not an academic, autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, with ADHD, enabler, holder of a Bachelor’s degree, undertaker of a Masters by Research, Oh! and bossy. I am sure there are other things, but I would not want to overwhelm anyone 😊

I have held down many jobs, from working on a market stall whilst still at school, on leaving I worked for the Ladybird clothing company in Research and Development, with aspirations to go on to university to become a colourist, but baby number one came along and back in those distant days women were expected to stay at home once they had children. Whilst raising my three little darlings I had several part-time jobs, some in factories making hairdryers and mud flaps, in an office, Woolworths, to name just a few.

Being dyslexic I believed myself to be ‘thick and stupid’ so when I landed a job as a Dr’s receptionist, I thought I had reached the highest of the high. Four years later I was sacked for carrying out a Dr’s instructions to the letter. Only finding out later that I was supposed to interpret his demand to ‘sort out’ the mistake another, younger receptionist had made. ☹

I then went self-employed into the telecoms business and loved being my own boss, eventually being sponsored by two London based business men to set up a much bigger company. This I ran for nine years with a PA and staff before selling it on and starting CoomberSewell Enterprises LLP with my now wife.

When Jane and I first met I already had custody of my eldest grandson, who she was happy to take on not knowing that in years to come his husband would be joining our home along with his brother. These three young men are all on the autistic spectrum but all very different.

In my family, from my mum down, there are fifty-four descendants, and sixty-six percent of us are on the autistic spectrum. You would think that I would know just about everything there is to know about autism but the more I research this condition the more I discoverer that I have only scratched the surface. As the saying goes, ‘when you’ve met one autistic, you’ve only met one autistic’.