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Knowing what to say to harassed senior executives beset with significant issues vital to the corporate mission is a piece of cake compared to choosing precise words (eagerly anticipated by arthritic pensioners, wheezing smokers, pregnant women and the acne-laden teenager waiting in the doctor's surgery) to answer my two-year old's genuine enquiry, uttered in penetratingly piping tones: 'So what does wanking mean, Mum?'
The reality of parenting is rarely described. Nor is the obvious fact that its demands provide apt preparation for the equally chancy delights of 'consulting', the kind that has nothing to do with plush partners of global firms. My Inquisitor is now in his late-20s, his sister slightly younger. Yet I still don't really know how to answer the politer question of what I do for a living.
In essence, I sell my mind so presumably am part of that oddly-phrased "knowledge economy". Minds like bodies, however, can acquire pathological viruses. So I seek to keep the goods for sale disease-free. This means I read a lot, though few management books because most are tediously tendentious. I also get people with widely different experience to challenge me. Thus when I make my report, I should have enough understanding to make life better not worse for my 'client', being both the human in front of me who's commissioned the work, and the organisation footing the bill.
It began as my daughter was hurtling full pelt into paddling pools before dropping asleep in the dogbox. I was thus contemplating What To Do Next while, fortuitously, Colonel Gadaffi was seeking to transform chunks of Libyan mountainside into consumer goods. To this end, he'd sent some bewildered young compatriots to the UK under the auspices of British Steel, allegedly to study such subjects as metallurgy and production engineering. No matter how loudly nor how slowly local lecturers lectured, these young men remained smilingly sheepish and, more to the point, uninformed. Belatedly, British Steel advised their government they should be taught English (aka "communication" by anglophone monoglots), and I was asked to join the party.
My pre-pregnancy career as a Handsworth secondary schoolteacher began to pay off, and I rapidly became unemployable by choice.
There was a useful trade-off, too, discovered when another company asked me to do some work whilst a family picnic beckoned. I named a ridiculous price which was not, evidently, outlandish enough. Here were two valuable lessons: first, if I didn't want to work, I had to say so. Secondly, I could either roll in the filthy lucre or, far better, earn a decent living without knackering myself, or depriving myself of the opportunity to hold the bucket for someone who'd just beed sick. It all seemed rather a lark as I learned a third lesson, that there's genuine bottom line value in being an intelligent outsider, observing what's going on and reporting it back, often verbatim and always, but always, anonymously.
Dilemmas do occur, though thankfully rarely — what do you do when a boss' pet project is doomed to failure, or there's a flouting of regulations, or management-speak is hiding vile behaviours? Despite occasional misjudgments on such delicate matters, I discovered payment for my apparently uncanny prescience; I can nose out and interpret great swathes of information quickly, including statistics if need be, as well as ask naive questions and listen carefully to clerks, cleaners and other normally unappreciated minions who, unlike some bosses, have their fingers on the pulse. And it helps to gain a reputation for writing humorously-pertinent reports.
On balance, methinks it helps, too, being a woman. Business organisations are, for the most part, run by men. Women play power games of course, but rarely the same games men play. I found slowly peering, schoolmarmishly, over my spectacles at a be-suited executive who's put in place some daftly overblown 'strategic initiative' or berated underlings for not achieving 'customer delight' (yes, some people really do talk as though they're naming cheap chocolates) creates a very different effect from a man trying the same approach.
Since you ask, I didn't know what to say in the doctor's surgery all those years ago. My son has probably forgotten my disappointing silence and no doubt I've embarrassed him often enough since. This nebulous livelihood has suited me, paid enough and allowed me to be there during the times when he and his sister really needed their Mum, including those times when they were absolutely convinced they really, really didn't.