40 going on 4

Believe it or not, I actually turn 40 this year.  I have more in common with some of my millennial friends than with the typical 40 year old woman, and yet all of my friends have been telling me that I am getting old or have asked me if it bothers me.  The truth?  No.  Not even slightly.  The fact is that in many, many ways, I am still around four years old.  Old enough to know better, but still young enough to get up to mischief  I still love super heroes (Avengers and X-Men anyone?), I still devour fantasy stories (The Hobbit, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal to name but a few) and I still love Disney (Little Mermaid, Frozen!!!).  Of course, I’ve learned a lot along the way.  I’ve been hurt, knocked down and bruised.  I’ve laughed, loved and soared high.  Frankly I wouldn’t change a thing – even the REALLY painful parts.  Since not everyone I know feels this way about themselves and their lives, I thought I would share my life lessons in the hopes that it will help not just them, but others too.

It seems as though I’ve always been little miss confident, little miss independent as you can see from the photos below.  Was this behaviour learned or inherited, I couldn’t say, you would probably have to ask my family.  I do know though that I was the first and only one in my family to go to university, the first to travel outside of Europe and the first to work abroad.  Confidence can be learned, failure embraced and learned from, and fear should be seen as a motivator.  If you’re not afraid, you are not challenging yourself enough!  Why do I say this?  I present to you my facts of life:

20140502_0947241. Children learn by making mistakes.  You learn to walk by falling, you learn to ride a bike by crashing.  This first photo shows me at the age of three checking to see if my parents are watching before I sneak off to climb my neighbour’s six foot brick wall.  Funnily, there are plenty of other similar photos of me.  I once was grounded for peddling my tricycle on the main road.  There was a long queue of traffic behind me, the first and foremost of which was a six wheeler flatbed truck.  Everyone in my street was watching the funny parade of traffic following this 3 / 4 year old child being honked and blared at by the impatient drivers.  When I eventually turned off onto my side street, the lorry driver pulled up to talk to my parents.  When he asked “Didn’t I hear him honking?”  My reply was simple. “I was peddling as fast as I could…”

I have to admit I don’t remember either of these stories actually happening, but my parents (and their friends) have told me these stories and others enough times that they (and I) are village legend.  As you can imagine, I used to scare the pants off my parents on a regular basis!  I never fell off that wall, but I am sure I fell off enough smaller walls to be confident enough to tackle the bigger one.  I’m sure you get the point I am making.  Dont’ be afraid of falling or of making mistakes. Instead, be afraid of not trying.  Life is very very boring if you play it safe!  Also, you’ll never be noticed by doing what everyone else does.

20140502_0946442. Find out what makes you special and own it!  Both of my parents worked when I was young.  It was necessary as my parents weren’t rich by any standard.  This of necessity made me independent.  I used to walk myself and my brother to school.  In the small village where we grew up, it was perfectly safe back then!  As a result, I learned responsibility young.  That being said, I distinctly remember hating the dresses I was put in to go to school.  One of the parents of a classmate of mine was a dressmaker and almost every girl in the village wore these dresses as they were of a good quality and inexpensive.  Of course, I was a tomboy and hated dresses on general principle.  The only way my mother could get me into the day’s dress was if it had the colour red in it.  (I still prefer that colour to any other).  We also compromised with my school coat.  It had to have big buttons, so that I could use it as a cape when playing G-Force or Wonder Woman in the playground.

Growing up in a family where we had very little and in a village where everyone was related and knew everyone else’s business made me determined to escape, to be better and to be different.  Luckily for me, my mother encouraged me to read and let me live and play in my fantasy world.  I was always making up stories and little fantasies where I would be the hero and save the day.  Now I work for a global corporation, and have done not one but two different secondments outside of the UK.  My job entails creativity and innovation (I get to play and teach games for a living) and being a thought leader.

That being said, I went through a horrible phase (both professionally and personally) in the early part of my career with the company.  Work and home felt like a battleground.  During that time, I was lost.  I lost sight of who I was and why I should care.  I felt mired in failure and thought I couldn’t do anything right.  Fortunately one or two amazing people mentored me and helped me to regain that self-confidence that I lost for a while. They saw potential in me and helped me to bring it out.  I won’t name them (they know who they are) but because of them, I was able to win a National Training Award for the company and for a short while flew with the stars.  It only seems fair to pay that gift forward.

The fact is that everyone has a gift.  Some more than one.  If I can help just one person find what makes them unique, special and help them to turn that gift into a talent that they can leverage, then I have done well.  One of my friends is going through a bad patch at the moment.  She’s lost faith in herself and doesn’t know which way to turn.  She’s trying to fit in and keep her head down.  I keep telling her that regardless of what others around her think and say, it’s her opinion of herself that should have the most weight.  Value yourself and others will value you too.  Being different worked for me as a child, and being different is what has made me successful as an adult.  The truly successful are unique and original.

3. Be proud of your connections and help them to develop.  As the eldest child of three brothers and sisters, I was forever hearing “Take your brother / sister with you!”  or my favourite, usually when my brother had done something stupid and of course, it was my fault,  “Why didn’t you stop him?  You know better!”  Regardless of whether I was popular or not at school (and for a while, I really wasn’t!), I always had someone tagging along.  I learned a lot about teaching and mentoring and it made me a better person because of it.  I learned patience with my brother who is three years younger than me and I learned teaching with my sister who is eight years younger than me.  When I was a teenager, she was just a little girl.  I taught her to avoid all the mistakes I made.  Now I do the same with the young people I mentor at work and the interns whom I employ.  I learned that being responsible for someone (being a leader) means looking out for their welfare and development as well as bossing them around (like big sisters do).  You have no idea how proud I am of my little brother and how far he has come, especially since the birth of his gorgeous little daughter…  I feel the same way about my interns.  There’s nothing like the pride you feel when you see someone you have encouraged succeed.  The bike in the photo below eventually became my brother’s.  Both of us started with stabilisers and eventually moved on to a bigger better bike (I eventually moved onto a motorbike – but that’s a whole other story!)


4. You should never stop learning, regardless of your age.  Incidentally, I would never have gotten as good on social media and blogging if it weren’t for my younger friends helping me out and paying me back.  Just because you are older and wiser, it doesn’t mean you are better.  The younger generation has a lot to teach us about life in general (not just the latest tech and which apps you should have on your smartphone). Having a reverse mentor doesn’t just keep your outlook young, it can help you be more assertive and dare I say it more successful.  I belong to Generation X, but have Baby Boomers as friends as well as Millennials.  Believe it or not, I learned how to demand what I want from my job and my position from my millennial friends.  I learned diplomacy, tact and how to behave at work from my baby boomer friends.  No one knows everything, regardless of how old they are or how wise they are.  Being willing to change and adapt, understanding what to do with information, is more important in today’s world than being an expert.  Let’s face it, you can find anything you might wish to know with Google search.

20140502_0947165. Passion and Humour makes the day go faster.  This year, I will have worked for the company for fifteen years.  Strangely enough, that feels more like a milestone than my turning 40!  As a typical Brit, I am a master of sarcasm and wit (ask any one of my team!) and of course self-deprecating humour.  That doesn’t mean though that I don’t value myself or others.  In fact, the people that I am most fond of, usually get the most stick, myself included!  When preparing a facilitation session or a presentation, I always try to add in some fun and some jokes.  After all, if you can make people laugh, they are much more likely to remember you and by extension, your message.  After 15 years I have hundreds of co-workers (or should I say co-conspirators?), many with the same irreverent sense of humour, and I think  I have stayed so long because the company believes in its people and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  We’re passionate about what we do and it shows.  Frankly, if you can’t be passionate about your subject, then stop talking!  My blog is chock full of tips and techniques, musings and inspirations.  Above all though, it is about things that I am passionate about, whether that’s developing people, innovation, simplifying difficult topics, Excel charts or PowerPoint presentations.  As a child I grew up knowing that I was an odd little duck – my blog (and my twitter feed) is no different.  But I was given this advice by an old friend who mothered me on more than one occasion.

Stick out your tongue, tell the world to get in line, be good to your friends and march to your own tune!

Don’t you agree?

+Alesandra Blakeston

Who am I: Innovation Program Manager

A few weeks ago the communication department of the company I work for posted a soundbite video of me and how I’ve moved to the United States. This week, they are posting a video on what I do in terms of innovation.  You can watch it on YouTube below.  Hope you like it!


+Alesandra Blakeston

Intern Advice

A colleague of mine has recently passed her 40th work anniversary. That’s an amazing 40 years working for the same company. As part of our women’s network, she was asked to give her advice to new young women joining the company. Very inspiring stuff. In fact, it inspired me to pass on some life learning to my interns. Here goes…

  1. If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters! Stay cool – Claire Cook
  2. Life is either a #DaringAdventure or nothing – Helen Keller
  3. Don’t be afraid of being #Different. Be afraid of being the same as everyone else – Unknown
  4. #Don’tCompare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 20.  Everyone was a beginner at some point – Unknown
  5. If you are working on something #exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed.  The vision pulls you – Steve Jobs

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Hope these inspire you!

+Alesandra Blakeston

Tough week?

I’ve been doing a lot of travelling with work recently, which I usually enjoy.  This week has been the first back in the office for a while and as a result, it’s been tough.   I was reminded of this quote by Muhammed Ali:

I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

Since I’m probably not the only one having “a bad week”, I thought I would share.  Hope it helps you too!

quote (Small)


Thanks to teetasse for the photo!

+Alesandra Blakeston

There are seven days in a week

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions.  Perhaps it is because I don’t feel the need to wait for a specific date to make changes in my life.  Or perhaps I’ve never managed to actually keep a New Year’s resolution for very long.  That being said, I have been reflecting on the changes that happened in my life in 2013 and what changes may come in 2014.

In 2013, I moved to the US, changed jobs, (and lifestyles), so it’s difficult to see how I can top that in 2014 – even if I wanted to.  My aim, in fact this year will be to prove my worth in my new position and while doing so remain true to myself and my inner truths.  I was asked by friends over the Holiday season why I had made so many changes and how I could do it. Wasn’t I scared?  The fact is that it’s who I am.  I like change.  I enjoy adapting to new things.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know.  During one of these conversations though, one of my friends said:

“There are seven days a week, and someday isn’t one of them.”

She was actually answering for me, but frankly, it summed up exactly what I was feeling.  There are 3 ways to cope with the things we don’t like in our lives, one is to sit and complain about it, another way is to wait for others to make the changes for us and the final way is to act. You can wait for a New Year if you wish, or you can simply start on your journey to another destination.

So finally, despite not liking New Year’s resolutions, I’ve altered the look and feel (theme and colour) of my blog and I’m stepping forward on my next journey.  Someday is today!  What about you?

+Alesandra Blakeston

Being on the road to success

A friend from the US sent me this quote from Oprah Winfrey recently:

“You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job, and not be paid for it”


It got me thinking. What does the road to success look like for me? What does it look like for other people? Is it…

  • Money
  • Power
  • Position
  • Personal comfort
  • Prestige
  • Happiness
  • A big office…

On one of the many blogs that I follow “Method leadership”, Michael J posted something recently on a similar theme: Why Lead? In fact many of the reasons above were listed by Michael as being factors on why people lead. This made me wonder if you are a leader and have these things, then does it then follow that you are successful?

According to the English Oxford dictionary, success can be defined as:

  • the accomplishment of an aim or purpose:the president had some success in restoring confidence
  • the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status:the success of his play
  • [count noun] a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.:to judge from league tables, the school is a success. I must make a success of my business

Obviously I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but success for me isn’t about how I am perceived by others. Fame, wealth, social status doesn’t do it for me. I get a sense of success, of accomplishment when I have achieved something I perceive to be challenging, worthwhile. This in turn makes me happy.

As a leader, I would also hope that my successes have something to do with the people I lead. In effect, I am successful, if my team is successful. As they develop and grow, I feel pride in their accomplishments, in their successes.

While doing research on this subject, I came across a post on LinkedIn by Jeff Haden. This post talks about happiness being an indicator of success. The best definition of success is the one you never use. It also talks about trade offs in business and how typically people who are classed as being successful have had to trade off time in their personal lives etc to achieve this “success”. I really liked this point:

If you’re making serious money but are unhappy on a personal level, you haven’t embraced the fact that incredible business success often takes a heavy toll on relationships. Other things are clearly important to you besides just making money.

He also says:

Defining success is important, but taking a clear-eyed look at the impact of your definition matters even more. As in most things your intent is important but the results provide the real answers.

If helping others through social work is your definition of success, you may make a decent living but you won’t get rich… and you must embrace that fact. If you’re happy, you have.

I also found a post in Inc.com by Eric V. Holtzclaw which made me think even further. Do you know your true definition of success. It defines success in several ways:

  • Jobs created – lives touched
  • Money made
  • World changed
  • Opportunities afforded
  • It’s about the journey

It’s the last point that I really identified with:

Entrepreneurs really don’t like to make it to the goal, because once we do we are looking for the next climb. All too often we focus too much on “making it” and don’t take the time to enjoy the journey. It’s in the journey and the creation that an entrepreneur is truly the happiest. This we must all be reminded of often.

I think the same is true of leaders and trainers, or at least of me. As well as of making it to the goal – and then the next (which all leaders try to do), think of developing / encouraging a person or member of your team. In my humble opinion, no-one is ever a finished product. Once I’ve finished one training course, once I’ve developed a person to the point that they are ready for the next role, I start again, encouraging and developing them (or someone else) to the next point on their journey. I’m successful when the next milestone is reached and I’m happy when they are growing.

In summary, and having thought about it probably way too much, I feel that I am on the road to success. I am happy in what I am doing, in the path my career is taking. When I view my team and their successes, I also feel successful. I’ve achieved most of the goals that I wanted to achieve (though not always on the first attempt) and I’ve learned from the mistakes that I have made. I will never be Steve Jobs, but I don’t want to be!

I’d love to know your thoughts on this one! Are you successful? What would make you successful?

Alesandra Blakeston

road to success (Medium)

Giving a presentation in another language!!!

0002654301BB-849x565I am by no means bilingual when speaking in French.  I get by.  However, I’ve been asked to present myself and my career at a convention for HR personnel in French.  I have to admit, I am very very nervous!

Presenting in English is difficult enough and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without at least a modicum of skill in another language.  Presenting myself and my career is even more difficult (I am never confident singing my own praises, as it were).  Then to do it in another language?  Well, let’s just say it’s going to be tough.

I’ve prepared my presentation of course.  I’m only speaking for 20 minutes, so not so many slides.  I’ve also had them checked over by a French colleague, to make sure that the few words on the slides are perfect, at the very least.  I’ve also been assured that no-one will expect me to be fluent.  Having said all of that, the temptation to put more text on my slides to help me on the day is extreme.

My big worry is the question section afterwards.  I’m quite used to the Parisian accent now, and some other accents in France can be quite strong (just like the North of England).  No doubt I will be asking people to repeat themselves frequently!  So, what can I do?

510372_60297462Step 1: Know your audience

Knowing who you are presenting to, what their concerns and interests are, is key to preparing content that will deliver.  I am of course checking the content with the conference organiser as well as with my colleagues, to make sure that what I am presenting is what the organisers have in mind.

I do not want my presentation to be an unwelcome surprise to the participants, I want to meet my audience’s needs!  When a presentation is a surprise, the audience participation can go either way.  I want the audience to be engaged and listening.  This will happen more readily if they are ready to hear the content.

0010847454R-849x565I will probably try to get to know some of the participants the evening before, even if it is just grabbing a coffee with some of them.  If I have a few friendly faces in the audience, it will help.  It will also help me to pitch my presentation at the right level on the day.

Step 2: Structure & formatting

Once I knew what I wanted to deliver, I structured it.  You might think that this is obvious, but for a non-linear mind like mine, that can easily divert onto another topic, it is vital.  I’ve added one or two stories to help engage the audience as well.

I have also made sure that I know the content like the back of my hand so that I can react quickly in case of a problem or a difficult question.

The slides also look great, formatted to my high standards – as this will help boost my confidence!

Step 3: Preparation & practice

Now that the slides are ready, I am going to practice, practice and just in case, practice some more.  I always do this anyway, but I will be putting in extra time for this presentation, due to the language.

623433_40211672Unfortunately, I’ve never been to this venue before, but I am arriving the night before, so I will get the opportunity to practice in the room beforehand as well.  Overkill?   Perhaps.  Necessary?  Most definitely! Knowing the size of the room, the audio equipment involved etc., will help boost my confidence.  If I go in blind, it is just one more thing to worry about.

I’ve also got my favourite, confidence boosting suit and jacket ready.  I’ve even got a backup presentation ready on a memory stick – just in case!

Please note that I will not be memorising my speech though.  I don’t want to sound rehearsed or like a robot.  Instead, I will make sure that I keep to the planned structure and memorise just a few key points.

Step 4: Calm and deep waters

0010054993Q-849x565A few techniques I will be using to stay calm during the presentation:

  • Deep breaths
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Smile.  If you look confident, people will assume you are.  A smile invites the participants to join you in your storytelling.
  • Use of Pauses – to ensure I am not talking too fast!)
  • Eye contact
  • Be aware of my body movements

What do you think?  Any other tips and tricks?

Alesandra Blakeston

Your favourite quotes

I’ve recently posted a few presentations containing my favourite quotes on change, training, development, motivation, leadership and success. Since then a few people have emailed me their favourite quotes, so I thought I would put them together for you to view as I found a lot of them to be inspirational.  Please keep them coming!  Here they are on slideshare.net.

As always, you can find the downloadable *.pptx version here.

The previous posts can be found here:

Change and innovation quotes
Training Learning and development quotes
Leadership quotes


Alesandra Blakeston