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Feedback and Farewell

Up early again. There are red kites wheeling above the ditch. I splash out and have jam and toast with yet more black tea – then off with a Save the Children driver to the Jupiter Hotel to take part on a panel for the management programme.

I meet the Save The Children regional director and country director in the hotel foyer – we all have slightly different pieces of paper or in my case none. This makes for a difficult start as I feel wrong footed about what or who (we role play on the panel) I am meant to be. We quickly sort it out – I am the CEO of Save Sweden; Yolanda is Jasmine; David is Charlie McCormack, CEO of Save US and Dennis is CEO of Denmark. We share a joke or two about our roles.

The presentations are great – funny, sad and informative. I am struck by the fact that these people from our offices all over the world have had to somehow find a way to work together to come up with a shared presentation and, for the most part, have been successful. The group dynamics are interesting – we are watching for behaviours mainly rather than content and there are inevitably significant cultural differences between nationalities.

But what is most interesting is that all the groups have focused on convincing us – role playing as their CEOs – of the importance of our campaign EveryOne. Hardly anyone has thought about what they want from us or tells us the purpose of the meeting. I repeatedly ask in my role ‘what can we do to help? What do you want from us?’ but only one participant picks up on the question. I feed back that they need to think of the purpose of the meeting and be clear about the outcomes. To me the biggest piece of work right now is the work around the Alliance. That is unifying (merging) country offices, reconciling our spend across the world; and having one programme unit.

But the biggest threat is also internal. If all our best people are focused on getting our structures right there is a short term threat that our work for children will not get the attention it requires. We talk about this as Directors all the time and we are all aware of the issue but here it is again written large in these presentations.

Stijn, Regional Programme Manager appears as a rock star in a vox pop showing the future. There is a heated debate about Coca Cola, Luis, Programme Implementation Director makes us lift a chair with one finger to show teamwork. We ask questions and make notes for later feedback.

Most affecting of all is John’s story. As part of his introduction to the group presentation John stands up and tells us the story of his family. He shows us a picture of his beautiful wife and his family. But two of John’s daughters died as babies. He tells a heartrending story of how he was told everything was all right with one baby and how he couldn’t be there at the birth; and how he raced to the hospital in a taxi only to be told soon after that his beautiful daughter had died.

He had another daughter who lived but then another birth that ended in disaster – he told of the baby struggling to breathe, being put on a respirator at the hospital and then all the power failing. During the power failure his baby daughter died.

This is why he believes the EveryOne campaign, which fights to help babies stop dying from preventable causes, is so critical to the future of Ethiopia. This is why he is here.

His story makes me want to cry. I feel a shiver down my spine. So many of our staff and donors have been personally affected by loss or near loss. It is thanks to their hope and passion that it is even possible to hope for improvement.

At the end of his group presentation when we are asked for questions I break with convention. I say I do have questions but before I ask them I have something I must do ‘I cross the room and shake John by the hand. I say ‘I thank you for being so brave and for sharing his personal story with us. I am sorry for your loss’. Everybody claps in appreciation of him. I feel a physical need to hug my children.

But of course we press on professionally and stay in role and ask questions – but John’s story has affected everyone.

One of the things that struck me about his story was that he could not be at the birth of his daughter as he was at work (at World Vision) and was looking after some US visitors. I find this shocking and yet have made similar choices myself. How mad it is that we work so hard to help other families but don’t put enough time into our own. Save the Children, Jasmine and me personally are very committed to making work and family life work together but it is hard to find a perfect solution.

There must be a way of giving my own young children enough input and stimuli without keeping both lives completely separate. We are not, I think, good at this in the west and I think about how many roles I have where one doesn’t even let on that you have children as it might be perceived to detract from professionalism. I think this is mainly a Thatcherite hangover for professional women but I am not at all convinced we have cracked it. So much well trained talent is lost to so many industries because we haven’t found a good way of balancing work and home. Something I feel strongly about but there is no ideal solution. I remember the work and training I have run before about building management confidence for women and whether it is applicable for Save the Children too. Rant over!

We have a quick lunch and work up our comments on each group before a feedback session. We are quite a tough panel and there are some challenging issues of responding to the question, knowing your audience and some group and gender dynamics. These are the last hours of an intensive week for the participants and emotions are running quite high.

I say goodbye and head back to the hotel for a long meeting with Douglas. In spite of spending so much time together this week it has either been in transit or impossible to cover some of the work we need to do. We take the chance of being out of the office to cover an enormous agenda of points to do with staffing up his new team and some of our key corporate supporters.

Sam, ever conscientious, texts from the plane in Rome saying that security and check in at Addis was interminable and to leave more time. We are grateful to her as – after standing in line for a long time at the airport – some of our colleagues are told they cannot get on the plane. I remember my 5 hour check in, in Freetown (Sierra Leone) and how each bag was hand searched and you were constantly hassled to buy things. Then I had attached myself to an ex-Army man who was advising the Sierra Leone government on security. This time I find myself sitting on the plane next to a member of CTF – crime task force in the navy. He has spent 5 months on a ship patrolling the east coast of Africa for pirates. I feel reasonably sure he will get me out of the plane in an emergency in spite of his multiple whiskies!

After a long restless flight and a frustrating hour sitting in seats on the plane in Rome we arrive at Heathrow. My luggage arrives plus my purchases. I feel I have been away for months. I arrive home to a banner across the front door and the first thing Laurie says is ‘can you show me pictures of children in Ethiopia?’

I take out my camera.

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