This blog reflects on life at work at comments on the latest news that shapes my 9-5 working day in a Corporate Communications consultancy.

About Me

I am a born and bred South African who has always loved to read and write. As a child my mother used to read to me and my siblings, from classics like the “Lord of the Rings” but later also from her own stories. She would write children’s stories and then use us as her test audience, but I loved to hear what she had written long after my siblings had tired of it. So I grew up in an environment of reading and writing, which inspired my love of these things. I hope to write a great book some day, and have learnt first hand the determination and will that it takes. My love of English inspired me to continue my study of it at university. I majored in Law and English in a BA degree at UCT where I found that I took to English much more than law. I enjoyed learning about South Africa’s history and the development of our liberal Constitution, which increasingly made me committed to the hope this country has for the future. Ideally, I’d like to find myself in a job where I am able to write; that allows a good mix of time spent with people and being able to work on my own.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

South African literature as a commercial success

Last weekend when I was at the movies and an on- screen advert got me thinking. It was for “Spud: The Madness Continues”- the second instalment of “Spud”, the South African book that has been on the Exclusive Books bestseller list since its release in 2005.

The first “Spud” has been an incredible success, selling 56 000 copies to date, when the definition of a South African best seller is 10 000 copies. Penguin has recorded that 30 000 copies of “Spud II” have been ordered since its release just over a month ago. It will be interesting to see how well the sequel fares, but this figure is already an indication of its anticipated success. South Africans are not known to be great readers, and there are even less who actually buy books. That one home-grown novel is doing so well is encouraging.

The advert for “Spud II” was the first time I have seen a South African book advertised at the cinema. It was part of a larger “Homebru” campaign to promote local literature, running in May- but “Spud II” is at its forefront. Nu Metro cinema and Exclusive Books are both owned by Johnnic, so the partnership probably meant that the cost of the advert was affordable.

“Spud” is a wickedly funny novel that is accessible to all ages- anyone who’s ever been to boarding school will identify with the boys’ antics. John van de Ruit, its author, was already a fairly well known South African personality because of his two plays, “Black Mamba” and “Green Mamba”, which he performs around the country. John ‘Spud’ Milton, the book’s main character, is likeable, and his dilemmas often evoke feelings of pathos in the reader. He has many awkward moments during his descent into manhood and is continually embarrassed by his less than orthodox family. The things Spud and his dormitory mates get up to provide endless fuel for entertainment.

John van de Ruit has his own theory about his book’s success. He thinks as a nation we are hungry for literature that moves away from traditional “South African genre”- stories about apartheid laden with white guilt. “Spud” doesn’t carry any baggage, despite being written by a white male. The young boy going to boarding school and learning to survive there is also a story that can come from our country. Our literature needs to diversify the narrative of the past and locate stories that step away from the nation’s suffering.

Seeing the advert at the movies prompted me to consider what “Spud” has done for South African literature. It is possibly the first fictional bestseller not written by one of our literary ‘heavyweights’, such as Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink. The story is currently being made into a movie, which indicates that South African writing is becoming a commercial success. And it’s also been adapted for an American market and has been given a huge release in Barnes and Noble bookstores. The novel will draw attention to our country in a positive light, and begin to break the association of our literature with apartheid and human rights issues. The roaring success of “Spud” indicates that there is hope for South African literature. Let’s hope the Americans agree.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Teamwork- lessons from the bush

This weekend I was privileged to be able to spend some time in the bush with my family. While we were there, we saw the extremely rare sighting of a leopard – and a leopard in action to boot. Our game ranger drove like a bat out of hell to get there in time once he’d heard about it on his radio. Two vehicles were already there, and it was just as well we’d raced as we only saw about five seconds of the big cat. The leopard was running across the plain towards a group of impala, and as it came for them, two males headed up the team and ran towards it. The leopard retreated back into the trees. The impala, obviously very distressed, continued to sound alarm calls and the air filled with their tension. They had escaped being a meal for a few seconds.

It was fascinating to watch the bucks’ behaviour and the way they functioned within their team. Two obvious leaders stepped forward and took charge, while the rest of the group made sure that the babies were protected. All the buck were alert and watching out for themselves and each other. Without the support of those behind them, the males would not have been able to challenge the leopard.

The impala taught me some important lessons about the value of teamwork:
In teams, the individuals look out for each other and warn one another of danger
The team ensures that they protect the weakest of their group
In a group, you are capable of doing much more than if you were just on your own
Many eyes see more than one pair is able to
There is safety in numbers
Times of crisis brings out the best in the group and the individual- the strength of a leader is proved when they are under stress

It turned out to be a lucky morning as, twenty minutes later; we came across two lions basking in the sun on a plane, eagerly watching some zebra and wildebeest some distance from them. The zebra were too far away, though, to make an easy meal, and the lions gave up on their half -hearted attempt at stalking them and decided to attend to their morning grooming. Our vehicle was about twenty metres from them, which was all right as they had their backs to us and seemed in no mood to take up a quick chase. That is until my cousin dropped his cap onto the grass and quickly lent over to retrieve it. The disturbed lion walked straight toward our (open) vehicle and we all held our breaths as he loped past.
Second and most important lesson for the morning: Respect nature!

These are two of the many sightings we had during the weekend. It was wonderful to spend some time away from the busy city and draw some inspiration from animals and nature.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Blog awards

With great fanfare, Roy tore the envelope and piece after piece of paper floated to the floor. The imaginary drum roll sounded and then came the announcement: “And the two best blogs of the WOW group 2007, as voted by their peers, are…. Ijeoma and Susan!”

Ijeoma and I beamed. We went up to shake Roy’s hand, and then we realised we needed to climb onto the table to receive our prizes. With some difficulty, we hoisted ourselves up, conquering the distance without the aid of a chair; we smiled for the camera and congratulated each other, before relinquishing our brief moment in the limelight and descending again.

It was a great honour to be voted one of the two best blogs in our group. It was even better to stand on the table to receive the award. It was fun and different, but more importantly, it was an extension of the blogging process. Standing up there, everyone in the room could see me, and for a moment, everyone was honouring me for who I was. Writing my blog was about standing up and saying, “Here I am” - a platform for self- expression and an opportunity to showcase what’s important to me. Sharing and reading each other’s blogs created a sense of community in the group, where we were able to bounce ideas of each other and receive useful feedback on our thoughts. Blogging about WOW has been a great way to think through what was most meaningful and useful for me. Having one also committed me to writing with some regularity.

Blogs have been very much in the news lately. It’s great to know that as a group we are part of that secret bloggers’ club, and part of the debate that rages on caused by well- known media personalities such as David Bullard.

Our Friday night graduation ceremony was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on WOW and to honour each other for the contribution we’ve each made to the group. Thanks to everyone who voted for my blog - I am proud that you chose to affirm me in this way.

The universe of YES!

Last night I went to watch the movie “Freedom Writers” with Hilary Swank. Hilary Swank plays Miss Gruwell, a young, idealistic teacher whose first job is at Woodrow Wilson High school in Long Beach, California, at a time when the area is racked by gang violence. She is assigned the “dumb” group- a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds who have all been directly affected by the violence around them, and many of them are members of gangs or have been to jail. Gruwell sets out to make a difference in their lives. From the first day her project is seen as na├»ve idealism and she is met with little support from all sides- her head of department, her principle, her husband and her father all criticise her. Despite these ‘no’s’, with time she gains the respect of her pupils and she continues to choose to see the best in each one of them. She buys them books with her own money, organises and personally pays for a trip for them- things which no one had thought to do because they didn’t choose to look at this group as ‘worth’ the effort- they were always branded the ‘delinquents’, the ‘losers’. “I couldn’t believe that Miss G would do all those things for us,” a touched student wrote in his diary.

Miss Gruwell’s vision for her class was always in the ‘YES’. Ignoring the resounding ‘no’s’, she looked for the endless possibilities in the people around her. Her attitude inspired a force of change in her students, who took her positive vision and ran with a project that sprang from their own initiative. The group took her belief in them to heart and were able to exceed her expectations.

Watching this movie, I learnt that to really make a difference requires getting into that universe of yes. During Roy’s creativity session, we used the concept of Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats of creativity, and had to ‘change hats’ during the day according to what we felt we needed to do. At one time, I chose white- the mode of yes: answering, “Why will it work? What’s right about this?” I realised that I have a tendency to knee-jerk into negative thoughts, automatically thinking why something won’t work. To inspire change, requires learning to quieten the little voice of my inner critic, to put it under the table, so that I can inhabit the universe of endless possibilities, the world of YES!

Sunday, 13 May 2007

The WOW experience

The World of Work programme is over, but, as Lesley emphasised in our final session, it’s not the end, but only the beginning. This weekend I’ve been thinking about what I’ve found to be the most valuable aspects for me.

In the first few days of the course, Ijeoma and I both agreed that we found it difficult to talk about ourselves, particularly to people who we (then) didn’t know so well. But the one thing we’ve all done a lot of in this course is talk about ourselves. Every time a guest lecturer arrived, we almost always had to say briefly who we were. Most wanted our names only; others wanted to know a bit more. And through the course I’ve learnt how important it is to be able to present ourselves to the world confidently and openly, especially to potential employers. If I’m not able to share with someone what I’m really interested in, they usually won’t spend too much time worrying about drawing the information from me.

The simple act of repeatedly introducing myself has really helped to build my confidence, and learning about the current trends in the work place has helped to provide a solid platform from which to launch into the “big bad world”.

As a group we’ve been really interactive, as one of our speakers commented. I particularly enjoyed Kuseni Dlamini’s session, where he encouraged us to participate in discussion with his provocative suggestions. The discussion he facilitated brought out each person’s particular strengths, as we all spoke with passion and insight into the questions at hand. We participated as intellectual equals, while each person was able to make a valuable contribution to the group, as we were all encouraged to speak.

It was a privilege to be part of a group of people who comes from all over Africa and other parts of the world. Previously, I hadn’t had the opportunity to mix with such a diverse group- everyone brought to the table a different perspective, yet will still managed to form a cohesive team and build some good friendships. Dlamini’s session showed me that our disagreements and differences of opinion were valuable because they stimulated debate, and that it is possible to challenge each other but still form a connected group.
The experience helped to prepare me for the variety of people I will no doubt interact and work with when I enter into the world of work.

These two things speak simply to the process of being part of this programme, without even beginning to touch on the lessons learnt on a content level. It’s difficult to place a value on these things in monetary terms, but the course was worth much more than the R1000 we all paid for it.

Sunday, 06 May 2007

Jacob Zuma: A great African Leader?

Fiona Macdonald’s session (Fiona Macdonald consulting) encouraged us to think more broadly about the concept of leadership and the need to develop a model that focuses on Africa. In our discussion, the topic of Jacob Zuma came up. There are many ideas about why he would or wouldn’t make a good president. Some think he is inadequate because of his lack of education. But there are many leaders who are not highly educated and still were successful. And in his time as a political prisoner on Robben Island, Zuma studied and learnt from his fellow prisoners, suggesting that he is self-motivated and disciplined. Another reason people site is that it will be bad news to have a president who has been involved in rape and corruption trails and who mobilised his supporters by singing, “Bring me my machine gun”. Many say that the day Zuma rules will be the day they leave the country.

Fiona’s theory is that Zuma’s presidency will be a bad idea, as he does not have a followership as a leader- he hasn’t earned the respect of a sufficient number of people who will stand behind him. We know from the thousands of people who gathered outside the courtroom during his rape trial last year that he does have a large following of supporters. But there are an equal number of people who do not support him. In the 21-22nd April edition, the Weekender carried an article on the possible candidates for presidency (www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=2658448). It said that the ANC was divided on the issue of Zuma, and where he to be voted into leadership the party may reach a deadlock. Similarly, South Africa would become a country split down the middle, rather than a unified rainbow nation. The article identified three “compromise candidates”, Kgamela Motlanthe, the ANC’s secretary-general, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Foreign affairs minister, and Joel Netshitenzhe, the “perhaps government policy chief”.

The issue of who our next president will be is an extremely contentious one, and I thought Fiona’s theory of followership provided an interesting new way to consider the increasing debate around what makes a good leader.

Thinking creatively about creativity

Roy’s seminar on creativity got me to think far more broadly about the subject than I had previously. In the game at the beginning when we had place names stuck to our back, I think we all learned that as a group our geography is very flawed. As a group of mostly foreigners, I wouldn’t have expected anyone to know where Howick was- the place Ijeoma had to work out. It is a small town, a ‘dorpie’, in Kwazulu-Natal that has become like a retirement community. It does have a tourist attraction: the Howick falls, where the Umgeni river drops 300 feet. So Ijeoma was getting very frustrated when she got conflicting answers as to where this place was- some in the group had told her it was in Europe! Eventually she worked out the answer by finding that the name sounded like “Horlicks”.

Playing this game taught us that we needed to find other strategies for arriving at a solution, particularly when we find one – such as relying on geography- isn’t working. I have played a similar game on long drives with my brother. He will think has of a celebrity’s name and I would guess what it is by asking ‘yes no’ questions, and then we would swap. I remember getting quite frustrated playing this, particularly at the end of a trip when I just can’t get the answer. Next time, I hope I’ll be able to think of more strategies, and beat my brother by asking the least questions!

As Roy defined it, creativity is applied problem solving. So now I think of creativity not just in the context of writing poetry or painting, but also as a vital skill that can be cultivated in life and particularly in business. For example, an advert for Investec Asset management says, “You’ll be expected to zig when others zag”. Part of their job is to bring a mixture of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking to the table.

What I most appreciated was the various tools he gave us to help us step- by- step through the creative process. The workshop reinforced that taking action is an essential part of this. An idea that is not acted on is a lost idea, just floating around in the air. Many times I’ve thought of things and not written them down. I think I’ll be keeping a notebook in my bed from now on! Thanks Roy for an informative, fun and very practical session.

Secrets of success

Some conflicting views have emerged from our speakers during the programme. Kuseni Dlamini challenged to see that there was nothing wrong with self -interest because it drives personal success. Others have emphasised the importance of having a heart for the community. Professor Lovemore Mbigi encouraged us to work harder than anyone else if we wanted to be successful, even if it meant working eighteen hours a day. Fiona Macdonald talked about the importance of a work-life balance and in our stress management workshop we discussed getting eight hours of sleep a night.

But despite these contradictions, all the speakers have agreed on two essential ingredients of success. The first is to know who we are. The second is to stand out from the crowd and be an exceptional person. There are many ways to impress- with our talent and our abilities, but most of all, with our attitudes. Fiona Macdonald told us that Celeste made an immediate impression because she made the effort to greet every single person she met on her first day at work. Celeste was prepared to do anything she was asked, including going to buy Berocca for a group of hung-over accountants who had partied the night away and had to spend the next day at a conference. Through her actions she showed that she was keen, enthusiastic and friendly, and her employers knew she was a person who would add value.

Aki Kalliatakis emphasised that the people we remember are those that make a personal effort and go out of their way to serve us. One of the secrets of success of the employees at the world famous Pike Fish Company is that they know that they choose their attitude at every moment of the day. Brad Arden spoke about ‘hot’ people as the ones who are really in demand. Kuseni Dlamini reminded us that in a globally competitive market, people who are sought after will be able to live and work wherever and for who ever they choose.
So I think the biggest challenge for us as we go into the world of work is to remember always that our attitude and our actions speak loudly about us, and that a commitment to be exceptional will carry us far down the ladder of success.

Linking your CV to your blog

We’ve all struggled to follow the complicated instructions to try and put our CVs as links on our blogs. On Thursday Roy suggested a much simpler way of doing this to put an end to our html woes!

We do this the same way that we linked everyone else’s blog addresses to our page. So, go to:
1. New Post
2. Click on ‘Template’.
3. Click on ‘Add a page element’.
4. Click on ‘Add link list’.
4. Copy and paste the url of your CV into the url address (You get this by right clicking on the time of your post and clicking on ‘copy shortcut’. Give it a name- eg ‘my online resume’.
5. Click on ‘Save changes’.
So this way you end up with a section where your links are that says ‘my online resume’. The CV is still a post on your blog (don’t delete the post like I did!) but at least this way it is easily accessible for anyone wanting to find it.

Saturday, 05 May 2007

Speak up or you won't be heard

One of the big challenges facing our group and me in particular over the course of the WOW programme has been learning to speak up. Speaking loudly is just one of the aspects of learning to present ourselves to the world. In the first session that Roy Blumenthal had with us, he challenged us all to make a commitment to speak up and project our voices so that everyone in the room could hear what we had to say. The room unfortunately seems to swallow the sound of our voices into the buzz of the fans and the projector, sometimes making it a strain to hear everything. Roy’s tips were to sit up straight and breathe from our diaphragms, reminding us that people in the world of work weren’t going to have much time for us if they couldn’t hear what we said.

I remember a time in high school when my soft voice gave a negative impression of me right from the beginning. I went to audition for the Kwazulu-Natal Youth choir. I was particularly nervous and when the conductor introduced himself, my voice came out in a tiny sqeak. “Oo, I hope you don’t sing like you speak!” was his first comment.
His first impression was of my nervousness. Roy emphasised that small voices suggest that we are small people. A potential boss, like the choir master, most likely will think that how we speak is an indication of how we are going to perform- dealing with people and tasks in the workplace.

Speaking clearly and loudly is just one of the ways of presenting ourselves to the world.From the very first day on the course, most speakers have asked us to introduce ourselves and talk briefly about where we come from. Andrew Hofmeyr told us that Graham Codrington, today a successful professional, knocked on his door when he was first beginning his career and gave a presentation on himself. Interviews are about presenting who we are and selling ourselves as a valuable product. This course has helped me particularly to see the value of being able to speak confidently about myself and my goals. I have learnt that, if I can’t speak up for myself, no one will know who I am or give me the benefit of the doubt. If I don’t speak clearly, I won’t be heard.

Thursday, 03 May 2007

My online resume

SUSAN ARTHUR

CAREER OBJECTIVE

I am interested in a position that involves reading, writing and editing, as well as dealing with people.


PERSONAL PROFILE

I am an English postgraduate with well- developed written and oral communication skills. I have experience in writing and editing work in a media and literary environment as well as in the academic world.


EDUCATION

2006-April 2007: MA in English at University of Witwatersrand (Wits)

2005: Honours in English at UCT

2002-2004: BA with Majors in English and Law at University of Cape Town (UCT)

2001: Matriculated from St Anne’s Diocesan College with an A aggregate (IEB exams). Distinctions in English and History


WORK EXPERIENCE

August-December 2006 Hope Home and School
Job Description: Researched and wrote brochure. Selected photographs for brochure

Skills acquired: Honed ability to write clear, simple and conscise prose
Practical skills- acquiring the information needed to produce a brochure


September- December 2006 Special Projects, Caxton Publishing
Job Description: Journalist Intern- researched and wrote articles for publication using internet and personal interviews. Selected photogrpahs for publication

Skills acquired: Practical organisational skills- helped arrange social function
Administration and people skills


August 2006- Creative Communication
Job Description: Assistant editor for manuscript of a novel

Skills acquired: Developing capacity to pay meticulous attention to detail
Effective communication of ideas
Fine- tuning writing skills


Feb-November 2005 University of Cape Town Libraries
Job Description: Student library assistant- helping library users at desk after hours

Skills acquired: Assisted students at the library desk with queries
Customer service skills
Communication and problem solving skills
Computer skills


December 2004 By Word of Mouth Catering Company
Job description: Waitress


OTHER SKILLS

Writing and editing skills
Ability to communicate effectively with others
Empathy and listening skills
Ability to read and process large quantities of information as well as skim-read
General computer skills
Own transport and valid drivers licence


References available on request

Tuesday, 01 May 2007

South Africans in a globally competitive market

Kuseni Dlamini from RBCT spoke to us about the increasing globalisation of the market place. Being successful means being able to compete on an international level, and the challenge for us is to build up our skills so that what we offer becomes a global commodity. Most of us know that countries are clamping down on immigration laws and it is more and more difficult to get visas, passports and work permits. But Dlamini’s view is that if we are really excellent, countries will be competing to attract us- any and every door will be open.

After Dlamini’s talk, an article in the Star workplace (25th April) caught my eye. “We have the skills to compete on a global stage”, announces the headline. The article is about Peter Hanwith-Horden, an IT specialist who spotted some errors in a textbook produced by an American publisher. He took the initiative to contact them after he found errors that had slipped through the cracks of their quality control. The publishers were so impressed that they asked him to edit their next book.

Hanwith-Horden’s specialist skills were good enough for the firm to take notice. He is an example of an individual achieving with excellence. It’s encouraging to know that there are South Africans who can compete on a global level.

Bridging the gap between education and the workplace

The difference between what is required of us in the workplace and in our education is vast. Fortunately, programmes like WOW and the Thusanani project are beginning to address this problem.

At university, we can get away with missing some lectures, sitting at the back of the class and never asking a question. The pervasive attitude on campus is that as long as you pass, it’s fine. My family jokes that, at university, everyone fails something- almost as a rite of passage. This is a culture of mediocrity rather than excellence, where we manage if we produce unremarkable assignments. But in the workplace, we need to stand out. Those who are mediocre, it is becoming increasingly apparent, simply will not make the grade, particularly in an environment that is becoming globally competitive.

Success in education does not guarantee a smooth ride into the workplace. Richard Branson never went to university; in fact he left school at fifteen and started his own business at sixteen.

Several speakers on the WOW programme have commented on the lack of ‘soft’ skills taught in our education system. To be successful in a work environment, we need to be able to work in teams and manage conflict effectively. We are expected to develop these kinds of skills elsewhere. At university, they are an added extra. In the world of work, they are a necessity. So is it important to try to find ways to teach everyone these skills?

Unfortunately it seems that we are not receptive to being taught soft skills. A few years ago, UCT introduced a course called “Becoming a Professional” into its first year medical curriculum. The course teaches students the basics of professional conduct, focusing strongly on teamwork and approaching clients and colleagues in a non-judgemental manner. These are all vital skills, and particularly important as someone working in the medical field. Yet on campus I would always find students who complained bitterly about having to do this course. Most found it a waste of time. Perhaps our education system needs to re-look at how it prepares students for life and for work, while in the meantime, we need to take personal responsibility for developing our own set of valuable skills.

The Value of a B.A Graduate

Andrew Hofmeyr mentioned that were he given the choice to hire a B.A or a B.Com graduate, he would definitely take the B.A. In his experience, business are increasingly searching for a different kind of skill, and coming to value the qualities that a social sciences student can bring with them.

A course recently launched by UCT has shown that Mr Hofmeyr’s view is increasingly shared. Their Graduate School of Business has introduced a course that harnesses the creative arts in the development of teamwork (http://www.bizcommunity.co.za/). The course, Creative Tools for Optimising Team Performance, will use music, storytelling and the dramatic arts to enhance teams and unlock their potential. In an increasingly competitive world, the traditional management tools of analytical thinking are no longer enough. Team leaders need to be able to approach management in much more innovative ways to stay ahead of the game. By focusing on the creative arts, the course will allow people to tap into the discipline, listening, observation, and problem solving skills that importantly are utilised in the environment of creative teamwork.

The participants in the World of Work programme mostly come from a social sciences background. It’s encouraging to know that the world at large is becoming more receptive to utilising a range of creative skills in a business environment. The challenge for us, as Mr Hofmeyr spoke about, is to be able to package our skills in a way that will be attractive to businesses.