Musings of a Critical Friend

On winging it, tasting chocolate and herding cats


Me at 21

East End Girl: Wide-Eyed & Wide-Brimmed


At 21 I was in the east end of London running a hanging garment depot (the first in the UK). It might sound rather grand but most days it was terrifying. I had been pulled off a management training scheme having had only six months of training, largely because I was a trainee and had no experience of saying “not me thank you”. The depot was on the bank of the Thames at Woolwich squeezed between the Hayward’s Pickle factory and Tate & Lyle. I lived in Northwood so it was three tube journeys and a train ride away; two hours on a good day with the wind behind me.

Of course I was thrilled to be selected to do it; I was proud of what we managed to achieve (more by luck than judgement); and I grew to love my little empire.

Each management job after that was easier, I knew a bit more about what I was doing; more about how to get the best out of people; more about what the stake holders wanted; and mostly that whatever I did it was unlikely to be enough but likewise, it was unlikely to be the end of the world when it wasn’t enough.

Now, 40 years on I find myself managing a charitable enterprise. You know how it happens – there is something you believe in and no one is stepping up to the plate – if you don’t do it, there is no one else. So suddenly I am in the lead seat of a Fairtrade shop previously generating £25,000 a year. There are volunteers: not enough, some hugely committed and some great…..every five weeks…… for two hours max. There are all the demands of retail: attracting customers, building customer relationships and loyalty, obtaining the right stock, maintaining stock levels, anticipating peaks in sales at the right time.

We recently had our Christmas Spectacular – in October. We had our doubts about that. We had our doubts about lots of things.


Divine Fairtrade Chocolate

Its clear that everything is driven by the seasons and what customers want. Finding a customer is hard work so it is incredibly important to hang on to the ones we have; if they want to think about Christmas then we have to……… and so in July we started to think about Christmas. In August we went to look at the new Traidcraft stock. There were five of us in the Free Church in St Ives on that sunny August, day knowing we had to buy stock for Christmas presents. Each of us with a particular mission. So we shopped; we tasted new chocolate flavours; we shopped; we listened to fantastic presentations about the producers and the difference buying fair trade products makes and we shopped; we ate lunch and talked about what we had seen; we shopped: these socks, that hat, would 150 packs of Fairtrade Christmas cards be enough …… 5pm we were still there, the last party standing but we had formulated an order.

Then for two months we worried: had we ordered the right things? Had we ordered too much? Had we ordered too little? Where we going to put it when it all arrived? How were we going to deal with pricing everything? Were we spending other people’s money responsibly? Would anyone come? Would we sell it all on the first day?

I worried about rotas – to be honest, I was consumed by rotas night and day, asleep and awake. We had eight shifts to cover and I needed ten people on each minimum but it wasn’t happening.

By then we had a visual merchandiser on board who was used to working on a big stage; but at our level, every penny counts and the thing about volunteers is that they have all opinions but they do not all agree. Back in the east end I was the boss, once I had decided then it happened. It has not been quite like that in the last few months. Sometimes it has felt like herding cats; nice cats, willing cats, amiable cats but independent, capable cats who let me know their thoughts on decisions made and whether or not they agreed, regularly and without reservation.


Festive Fairtrade Fair at St Andrews Church, Bedford

Our October sale is now behind us and the punters have passed their fairtrade advent calendars on to their excited children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.  They have hidden their carefully chosen presents in the back of a cupboard (they do hope they will remember where they are when the time comes). My team of chaotically herded cats was heroic and it was a fantastic event. About 250 paying adults attended and lots of children; 28 volunteers helped in one way or another; £4972.98 (important that 98 pence) was taken. So we achieved what we set out to do.

The October Christmas sale reminded me that the voluntary sector is fantastic and makes the UK what it is. This blog post gives me the opportunity to thank my team for all they do and to thank them for taking me back in time to the days of my east end depot forty years ago.  I thank them for reminding me how wide-eyed (not to mention wide-brimmed) I was in my quest to achieve something sustainable.  I thank them for reminding me how to play to individual’s needs and keep everyone happy (while achieving my own ends). And I thank them, most of all, for reminding me that – more often than not – winging it still works (fairtrade chocolate incentives are also very useful)!



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On Blonde Bombshells and Inspirational Buddies

What is the most exciting thing you have ever looked forward to? A birthday, Christmas, going to the zoo, going to the Maldives?

As you have got older has it been more difficult to get excited?

For me it has. We take for granted the big occasions because we are spoilt for choice. But today, now, I am excited. I have a ticket to see Dolly Parton on stage at the NEC!


I have loved Dolly since 1973 when ‘Jolene‘ was released. Dolly was a well known Country & Western singer but not widely recognised outside the genre. Back then I was starting out as the first depot manager of a transport depot in the National Freight Company, determined to prove to the world that I could hack it. The organisation had its eyes on me, waiting for me to fail – because I was a girl. Dolly was frowned upon by all her fans because she was selling out. I loved her voice and her chutzpah and felt a certain trans-Atlantic affinty.

Since then she has been astounding; a fantastic singer, a song-writer, an actress but also a businesswoman and a philanthropist. You might not know too much about the last two roles; Dolly doesn’t exactly hide her light under a bushel but she doesn’t broadcast it far and wide either.

Dolly has always kept control of her career and has broken new ground. Famously she would not sell the publishing rights to ‘I Will Always Love You‘ to Elvis. Good decision Dolly – think of its reincarnation with Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.masciotra-bodyguard-insie She has created the songs, kept control of them and experimented with new ways of handling the music business. She has her own film and TV production company. Maybe that seems the obvious development for an all-round performer. It wasn’t when she did it.

Maybe you think branding is another obvious avenue for her. Not branding like this!  She set out to transform herself into her vision of female beauty (local hooker meets town trash). Love her or hate her if you are in mid-life you know this blonde bombshell. She used to be buxom in her rhinestones now she is slender and svelte, often in buckskin. As she says it costs a lot to look this cheap. She set out to become her vision and now the brand is maintained with surgical help. It’s not for me but I admire it, the brand has personality and is unmistakable. I also love the way she sends herself up mainly for the bosom, the wigs and the surgeon’s bills. There have been down times in her life but she has never failed to laugh at herself and no one in the business has anything but respect for her – no snide comments.

dollywood_theme_parkThen there is her charitable work. She founded and runs Dollywood in Pigeon Forge in a very poor part of Tennessee. It employs family and friends and generates tourism. Like Dolly, it is a ridiculous concept but enormous fun; the basic idea is to get as wet as possible! If you ever have an opportunity to go along do.

Then there is the Imagination Library in Tennessee. imagination libraryComing from a family of twelve children she had very little that was her very own and not much in the way of an education –  her foundation sends a book a month to every child from its birth until it attends kindergarten. The book is packaged and mailed to the child by name so it owns something as well as having the excitement of the book to read. The idea has been hugely successful and is now copied with her foundation’s help all over the world. It has been operating in Rotherham since 2007.

So, Dolly has been an inspiration to me for forty years. She is a living lesson that just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Each of us can live our dream; if we can visualise what we want and keep focused on it, we can make it happen. I think everyone should find an inspirational buddy who can remind them what is possible. I think it is even better if you can get to know the person and talk to them when times get tough. That is why I do the work I do – everyone needs a place to think and explore their own ideas to refine them and become more certain about what they want to be.

So thank you Dolly; thank you for the music, the laughter and the pleasure you have given me; thank you for showing the world that blondes can be funny and bright; and thank you for inspiring me that any thing is possible. See you in Birmingham!

Dolly Helps Nashville

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Liz Toogood & ‘it’

It’s one of ‘those days’. We all have them. The sun is shining and we want to bask in its warmth or the rain is falling and we want to do nothing except drink hot chocolate and snuggle up in front of a roaring fire. It is so easy to not do what we should be doing and find something else to fill the time.


 Why don’t we take a moment to try and understand what the problem is?

  • Not sure what you should be doing?
  • Not sure what you want to achieve?
  • It all looks too huge, too daunting?
  • You have an objective but no proper plan to achieve it?
  • You need information, skill or input from others which you have not amassed yet?
  • You’re too frightened to ask for help?
  • You feel you’re not up to doing it?
  • Well, you think, if I don’t start I can’t fail?
  • You’re worried you won’t get it right?
  • You’re not confident enough in your own ability to do it?
  • If you just ignore it, maybe the whole thing will go away….

first-step1They say every journey begins with a single step – once we are on the way we keep going and the nearer we get to the finish line the more motivated we get. It is that first step that is always so hard to take, whether you’re a toddling infant or a grown-up………but how great does it feel once you get going?

So – you can just not do whatever ‘it’ is; go on meaning to, promising yourself you will, but never actually starting out.

Or, carpe diem, you can join the ‘Elizabeth Toogood School of Get up and Go’ and kick-start yourself in to taking that first step.  And here’s how;

  • Set yourself a timer, spend 30 minutes on ‘it’, no more, no less.
  • Today – get a nice project book and gather all your ideas together.original_A_Little_Book_of_Big_Ideas_Tan_Cut_Out
  • Tomorrow – review your ideas and start to think through a plan.
  • The day after start on the plan. The day after that…… get the picture.
  • Break it down into bite-sized chunks that you can tackle in the next few days.
  • Remind yourself of a time when you set about something big in trepidation but achieved it in the end. Write about it in your book.
  • Visualise the lovely warm satisfied feeling of having done it.
  • Clear your mental and physical space – shift all the distractions.
  • Start your day with the project – then you can feel good for the rest of the day.
  • Don’t answer the door, switch off the phone, don’t look at your emails; don’t check Twitter, don’t make yourself coffee – JUST WORK ON THE PROJECT.
  • Focus on the task itself, what it will do for you, why it is important.
  • Promise yourself a reward when you finish your first bite-sized chunk.woman_working_on_laptop_outside
  • If the sun is shining take the work outside.
  • If it’s cold and rainy make your space warm and cosy inside.
  • Tell someone whose opinion you value that you are working on whatever it is.
  • Tell them when you have achieved your first milestone.

That wasn’t so hard was it? Please take a moment to let me know how you got on, I’d love to hear from you,


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On people watching, authors, clients and tapestry

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

We all know the feeling – back-from-holiday blues; I am no better at re-entry than anyone else and find it particularly difficult when the return is from a literary festival like Cheltenham where there are no responsibilities, no chores and I give myself permission to rise above everyday life and just enjoy! I love the intellectual buzz; people discussing and arguing with strangers; everyone talking and sharing a snapshot of their lives and interests; some celebrity spotting – a people watcher’s paradise!

Spending an hour hearing about a speaker’s latest enthusiasm is like being with an over-excited child; everything celebrates the individual’s most recent enterprise. This is great, and as we are conscious of the layers we don’t feel exploited; we know the rules of the game.  Literary agents want exposure for the product and a boost to sales, authors want respite from the loneliness of their creative process by meeting their audience and, on the whole, they relish the attention and love to be reminded they have adoring fans.

As a Critical Friend, my day job is about the validation of someone’s thinking through talking, exploration and questioning.  It is about focus and engagement through understanding a project and, through affirmation, comes the confidence to consider the next stage. There are many similarities with Cheltenham but in my work I see the world not through authors’ eyes but through my clients’; I see the glories which they sometimes miss; and I see the risks over which they often stumble. Together we reach a balanced view of the future and piece together the panels of the rich tapestry of life with new determination and enthusiasm.

At the festival – authors, however uncertain, were reassured, affirmed and publicly celebrated; how could they not feel a thrill when people were paying £20 a time for a copy of their masterpiece and queuing for a signature and a chance to say hello. In return, the likes of Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, Edward Stourton, Alan Johnson and John Bishop inspired us – for me personally, they did that thing my clients do – they laid something new before me and opened a door I had not yet been through. I love that.

More unexpectedly, but just as importantly, metaphorical doors were opened by the retired teacher I met who loves science, the delightful couple who shared the story of their extraordinary charitable work, the enthusiastic waiter who talked about the fun he had in his fourteen hour shift – an eclectic, dare I say ‘random’ bunch of people, who drifted fascinatingly in and out of my revitalising short break in Cheltenham Spa.

And the pièce de résistance if you like – the unexpected bonus curve ball – the non sequitur that took me quite by surprise – was seeing The Great Tapestry of Scotland. I had read about this fantastic community project but had not given it much thought. As I arrived in Cheltenham, ‘The Cultural Centre of the Cotswolds’, I was greeted by a selection of panels lining the Town Hall corridor for all to see – breathtaking! And then I met a stitcher……but that’s another blog post.

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James Naughtie in my bathroom

‘I am a wheelchair user’ – well that is what I say when I am phoning places to enquire about their access. Actually my best friend is a tiny electric blue mobility scooter who has no name but accompanies me everywhere.

She lives in the back of my car (and her twin lives in my garage). The car has a hoist and if ever there was a man magnet this is it. Grown men and little boys line up – fascinated by the mechanics of the whole thing. I prefer it when the girls are intrigued and want to see how it all works – engineering is not just for boys after all (but that’s another story).

My scooter is my legs and most of the time we tolerate the able-bodied world and cope with the challenges that are thrown in our way.  However there are certain times when we have loads of fun. There are particular venues that look after us extremely well and one of these is Cheltenham Literary Festival. Like most festivals it pops up on open land and most of the events are in large canvas tents – all very accessible, and the marvellous organisers often give us the front seats and we are always very near the action!

To have a good sight-line is wonderful but it does mean that ladies of a certain age, intelligence, style and sophistication (yes, I am referring to myself here) are suddenly reduced to quivering wrecks as they get close enough to their idols to touch them!  Having said that, I didn’t get too starstruck when I chatted to James Naughtie last year, after all he is in my bathroom and bedroom as I get showered and dressed pretty much every day!

I find it fascinating, we behave like we know these people….because in a funny sort of way we do, especially with the advent of social media interaction, but they do not know us from Adam! It can make for interesting conversation both on and offline.  Pleased to tweet you Mr Naughtie…..

So once again my trusty scooter and I set off for Cheltenham Spa wondering just how close we’ll get to the stage, and which interesting people we’ll chat to this year.  We’ll report back, and just so you know, we make serious judgements about people depending on how well they relate to us. After all, it is only my legs that don’t work………

On the day job, and butterflies

‘So someone asked me yesterday what exactly is a Critical Friend?  What do you actually do?  So I thought it was time enlighten you….’

Some people are driven to develop all their talents and abilities; being acceptable isn’t good enough.

Others hate getting decisions wrong and want to weigh the options carefully.

Some know what they want to do but cannot plot the course to make it happen or work out how to engage the people they need to help.

And then there are the people who spend their lives developing others and have no time for themselves.

Believe it or not, all of these people need a critical friend.

These are people who are good at what they do and often know so much they are overwhelmed by their options. They are often at the top of their tree but have no-one to turn to for support or advice. They need a sounding-board.

These are people who get very little “me” time or focus.

These are people who I encourage to step outside the protective walls of their lives and look back in from the outside.

And then I help them. I create an atmosphere in which they know that they are totally accepted; they have nothing to prove and nothing to be embarrassed about. They can revert to being the little boy who needs some appreciation or the teenage girl who is frightened of making a fool of herself. They can unpick the happenings that have caused them concern; they can craft ways of dealing with upcoming events. They can rehearse their arguments and evaluate the consequences.

I ask questions; lots of them. I encourage people to pause and look at events or decisions objectively and from every angle. There is no rush – the important thing is to get it right. Sometimes we go back to something many times until the person knows they have got the right solution for them (not for me and not for anyone else, the decision must be right for them).

I draw on my experience and knowledge, my years as a top executive.  I become the friend who will tell the truth; who asks the questions but does not judge you by the answers; who is interested in the problem and respects you for wanting to develop your thinking. I am the friend who will celebrate the great things that you do and enjoy them with you.

In the critical cocoon of my friendship, many a clumsy hungry caterpillar has turned into a beautiful breathtaking butterfly….. sounds appealing?  Perhaps we should talk? 001234 273644 or 07968 822275 – your first consultation is a gift from me.


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On Excitement

I am packing to go to the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I have been before so know what to expect and how wet I will get if it rains. However the location is great; the arrangements are slick; and there are some great watering holes to escape to when the heavens open, so all will be well.


And here I am with a fist full of tickets thinking about the pleasures ahead of me. These twelve tickets in my hot little hand allow me to wallow in the subjects that I most enjoy for four marvellously precious  literary days.

So what have I got?

HistoryEdward Stourton who is as good on paper as he is on

Radio 4; and then more intimate stuff in a two hander between John Julius Norwich and Patricia Hodge based on his mother Lady Diana Cooper’s letters.

Contemporary religion – a discussion about the influences that have formed “The New Boys” AKA the new Pope, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Chief Rabbi and what should be on their agenda. That will throw up lots of issues of social justice but if that isn’t enough, there is a panel discussion on Martin Luther King and American Civil Rights to keep me going.

Personal courageAndrew Marr talking to a live audience but confined by the immobility of his left hand from his usual hand flapping enthusiasm; and Alastair Campbell and Anne Robinson speaking about their addictions and depression.

Political discussion – there will be a panel “Reforming Government” chaired by the peerless Sue Macgregor; and Alan Johnson talking about his life: postman, trade unionist, politician and Home Secretary and maybe even his ambitions to be a rock star! And if that were not enough, Nick Robinson will be telling anecdotes of broadcasting politics.

Laughter will come from being with Julian Clary and John Bishop – most definitely the best medicine.

fishI am bound to come home with an empty wallet but with a pile of signed books.  I will have spoken to some of these incredible personalities and will no doubt be totally exhausted from all the  intellectual cut and thrust.  Ultimately, I’ll be one happy lady – after all what more could a girl want? Except to ask that it doesn’t rain! Where’s national treasure Michael Fish when you need him?  And where did I put that umbrella?

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On being appreciated

I have just taken a lovely phone call. I had hoped it would be my ISP to tell me why my email was down but it turned out to be a trustee from the Road Victims Trust. I have done a bit of work for them in the last couple of weeks and the kind gentleman on the end of the phone wanted to tell me the outcome and thank me for my input, which was lovely.  But it was more than that. He said some really nice things about the importance of my contribution and my professionalism, and that made my day.


I spend my life trying to persuade my clients to hear the good things that are said about them and more importantly to savour them.  Often  people seem to be expecting to hear criticism because they are never convinced that what they do is good enough. Today I listened and I heard.  It was lovely for me to be appreciated, and I most definitely savoured the moment.

The Road Victims Trust, a bunch of highly motivated, inspiring people had flattered me by asking me to help them do something. They could have asked anyone but they didn’t, they asked me which was a real compliment and it has been a pleasure to work with such an amazing charity.

If you haven’t come across them, you are fortunate.  The charity started from nothing twenty years ago in Bedfordshire when a few people who had lost family members in the sudden and unexpected tragedy of road traffic accidents decided survivors needed support. The charity now also covers Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire too.

There are hundreds of accidents a year when innocent victims are killed or maimed and the very special volunteers from the Trust support people who have either experienced the sudden death of a loved one or the horror of being involved in a fatal or serious road collision. The work also encompasses support during the legal processes that follow in the wake of the collision.

VolunteerCentreThe volunteers are extraordinary people and a privilege to be around. I hope they feel appreciated.  And while I’m on the subject, if you’ve ever considered being a volunteer yourself, in Bedfordshire you can get in touch with The Volunteer Centre who are a mine of information and who will most definitely appreciate your help.  There are many volunteering opportunities to choose from and almost as many reasons why people become volunteers:

  • meet new friends
  • learn new skills
  • do something different
  • give something back to the community
  • enhance your CV
  • get work experience
  • improve your self confidence
  • use your skills and experience
  • develop new interests
  • gain satisfaction
  • fill spare time
  • support a specific cause
  • enjoy yourself and have fun

And I’ll close with a final thought – a little appreciation really does go a long long way – I’m still on cloud nine after my phone call – why don’t you share the love and tell someone you appreciate them today!


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