Help on a journey


Jane travelled to Myanmar in South Asia this month to take part in a conference and meetings about disability and employment. She reflects on the mentoring relationship which took her there.

How was 2010 for you?

For me it was not my best year. Long story short, I found myself suing the large government department I worked for while still working there. The global financial crisis (for which I was not personally responsible) meant my support costs to do a posting I had earned on merit became ‘a problem’. Somehow this translated into me becoming a problem. Such a situation could seriously mess a person up.

To stop that happening, I had to ask two questions:
1. What do I need to stay sane and true to my values?
2. Who could help?

The answer to question 1 was ‘challenge this discrimination’.
One of the answers to question 2 was ‘find a good mentor’.

The thing is that when you are discriminated against, you feel bashed about psychologically and emotionally (with physical symptoms too – insomnia, feeling sick, disassociation etc). So it doesn’t put you in the most confident frame of mind.

So when I came across Vicky Bowman, whose job title was – rather impressively – ‘Director General of Global Economic Issues’, I had to act as if I was confident and fake it, basically! I could tell she would be a fabulous mentor – brilliant mind, great experience (including as Ambassador to Burma), coolly analytical and personally warm and great fun. But I felt downtrodden. Why would such a busy woman want to bother with me? It took all my not very good acting skills to approach Vicky, try to appear relatively normal and ask if she would consider mentoring me. Because I expected her to say no, I had prepared a quick ‘pitch’ explaining how easy, un-time-consuming I would be as a mentee – sending a summary of where I was at plus key questions in advance by email and only requiring short discussions.

I was surprised that Vicky said yes. As a mentor, Vicky offered openness, objectivity and a useful more senior perspective on the situation I was in. These were crucial in enabling me to decide what I could do – what my options were and which one was best for me.

A few months later Vicky decided to go on a secondment from our department. I followed, also initially on secondment. Neither of us returned.

This was a semi-intensive short-term mentoring relationship which focused mainly on how to handle the huge impact of the discrimination and the ongoing tribunal cases I had brought. The relationship had a profoundly positive effect at a time when I was at very high risk.

After leaving the Foreign Office, Vicky and I kept in touch occasionally. In 2013 I started my role at Result CIC. A couple of years later I saw that Vicky had taken the decision to return to Myan mar after her secondment. Her new role – Director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business had a strong human rights focus. I imagined the immense power, energy and skill the Centre could develop under Vicky’s leadership. I was happy that our work coincided more and that I was able to make the occasional connection for Vicky with useful influencers in the UK.

In December 2018 Vicky invited me to take part in MCRB’s second multi-stakeholder forum on employment opportunities for disabled people. Would I like to speak at the event and take part in a panel about coaching for job seekers?

I would.
And I did.

And it was wonderful. There were several ‘shocks of the new’ and salutary reminders of how few rights disabled people have in many other countries. It was also the most fantastic opportunity to learn. I had contact with well over 200 people during one week, had the chance to explain Result CIC’s work and sowed seeds for future co-operation and projects.

So at a professional level this was an incredible experience. But one of the things which touched me the most was a short personal conversation with Vicky herself (the worlds’ busiest person, I think!). She told two other women we were talking to at an International Women’s Day event that ‘Jane doesn’t know that she mentored me’ and that I had been part of the reason she had chosen to make the move into work involving supporting people in minorities including deaf and disabled people. The photo below was taken just after this conversation.

Photo caption: Pictured from left to right: Jane Cordell, Vicky Bowman, Sarah Maguire (lipspeaker) and Zun Mya Mya Htut)

You never know where a conversation – and a request for help - might take you.

Are you looking for support at the moment? Here are a couple of pointers based on my experience:

  • Go with your instinctive response to someone you meet who seems right for you. Research shows that ‘gut feeling’ is actually based on an accumulation of useful experiences.
  • If you don’t feel confident enough to ask for help, fake it and ask anyway.
  • Never shut down a promising relationship. Keep in touch as far as you can.

You never know where it may lead!

The conference made the national news in The Myanmar Times. Read the article here.


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