Category

My Personal Journey

My Personal Journey

La Foce: A Perfect day in a Perfect garden

In the heart of the Val D’Orcia there’s a place that has seen 500 years of history, and yet sits quietly buzzing in the sunshine with no visible scars from the past.

La Foce is a Tuscan estate, made up of an old villa, extensive farms and a garden. But at it’s heart it is a truly glorious garden with some lovely buildings to set it off.

The original villa was built in the XVth century as a wayside tavern for pilgrims on their way from Siena to Rome and then became a part of the estate of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala of Siena.
In 1924, wanting to use their wealth to develop an estate in poor, rural Southern Tuscany, Iris Origo (an Anglo American) and her husband Antonio Origo bought the villa and surrounding 7,000 acres and set out not only to restore it, and build farms on the estate, but also to design their dream garden. Designed by the English landscape architect Cecil Pinsent over 10 years, the garden combines levels, colors, and textures to create a dream space full of bees, butterflies, lavender, lemons and boxwood.

La Foce was not always so peaceful. In the Second World War the Origos took in refugees from the Allied bombings in Genoa and Turin and cared for the children through the ugly and violent Allied advance up through Italy as the Germans retreated. You can read the story of Iris’ daily struggle, and simple successes, in her war time diary War in Val D’Orcia.

But today you’d never know La Foce had seen such a dreadful period during and right after the war. Wandering through the courtyards and gardens I never wanted to leave. If you are driving south of Siena on a Wednesday afternoon (the only time it’s open) take a moment and stop.

 The original villa, built for pilgrims traveling to the Jubilee in Rome in 1600
 
 The inner courtyard, full of pomegranate trees and geraniums

 The sundial is accurate, not that you want to know the time

 Cascading levels of lavender, lemons and wisteria. 
I try, but my garden in Cupertino never looks this good!

 Pathways through sculpted boxwood. 
The roots are on a slope – their tops are level
 Looking back to the villa
(where you can stay and imagine a different life…)

 Lavender so perfect, and so busy, it’s hard to believe until you see it
 
 Geraniums everywhere

 Sculpted hedges drawing you in and down to the vista point. 
Recently cut and suffering from the drought.

 No warning of the vista that is about to come…
 Perfection. The iconic Tuscan road, created on the 
La Foce estate for no other purpose but to please the eye.
 My traveling companions…

 who insisted on getting a record of my endless grin

 Hidden “rooms” in the garden, overflowing with lush borders, beds and wisteria

 

And at the end of the day, thanks to a local chef (and much of it harvested from the garden of our house) dinner of tomatoes, cheese, cold tomato soup, homemade bread, salad and vegetarian pasta.
Finally, at the end of a perfect day, the view as we 
drank local wine and supped in our garden.
Leadership, My Personal Journey

Exec friendships are hard too

There was
a terrific article in the New York Times this week on how very hard it it to
make friends over 30. The discussion is buzzing and comments are flying.
Clearly lots of people feel the pain of forming deep friendships once they have
kids, and a job, and all the time conflicts that prevent us putting the time in
to form deep friendships that seemed so much easier in college and pre-kids.

But it also got me thinking about how much harder it is to make friends when you are
an executive. Some people see you differently as you take on more responsibility, and their view of you creates a barrier to forming genuine friendship.

For example – one assumption folks make about me is that I don’t have time to make
friends. Because I am a CEO surely I am busy all the time working and would not
have time to go out for a drink with no work purpose. Wrong. I am human and
enjoy socializing as much as the next person. Yes I am busy, but I make time
for my life as well as my work. Especially when it comes to cooking together.

As an exec you do have to weed out the people who just want something from you, but
wrap it in “friendly” behavior. There is a group of casual friends
who I have now learned only contact me when they are looking for a job. Why
they don’t realize I have figured that out escapes me, but I help them anyway
because it’s the right thing to do. Or the people who want a reference, or they
want me to coach them – but they never give back. There is an ask every time I
see them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love coaching, but I want an authentic discussion. “Penny, I’m
facing an issue, can I get some coaching” is great. The “hey, Penny we haven’t have breakfast in a
while” bugs me.

People project their issues too. Some assume that because of what I do I must think
I am above them, or not be interested in them. Rubbish. Everyone is
equal, people either interest each other or they don’t. But someone with a
social status complex is tough to be friends with. The relationship just never
feels balanced. I work hard to bust this perception with my employees right
up front. It’s hard to design together, or sell together when one person has a status
complex.

Confidentiality can be an issue too. Clearly I never reveal company confidential information
anyway, but as an exec you can only relax with people who you know are not
going to talk about what you said, or did, the next day. Gossip is a nasty but
tasty social currency. I consciously think about whether the group I am going
out with is safe or not. Not that my behavior is ever actually interesting
enough to gossip about these days but in the day of cellphones and social media I am
always ON unless just with close friends.

Given that forming friends is harder over 30, and harder the more senior you are
professionally, it makes it that much more painful when you lose a friend. I’ve
lost friends in the last few years to cancer, to misunderstanding, to friends moving across the country (which doesn’t mean you lose them, but you certainly see them less often), to spouses not getting along. Losing friends to death is heartbreaking. Losing friends to people not being able to get along is just downright annoying, and bad ROI on my time.

I do believe that as we move through different phases in life we do, as the NY Times piece says, have to invest in friends for the phase of life we are in. And as an exec that means finding people to whom my job is not relevant to the friendship. Funnily enough, this doesn’t mean they are people I don’t work with – I like working with my friends. It just means they are people with a healthy self image who don’t attribute any special social status to my being a CEO. And the most fun are the ones who know my foibles, are absolutely irreverent, and can make fun of them with me when the day is over.

My Personal Journey

30 years and counting

Hard to believe that Bret and I have been married 30 years now. It seems like so very long, and yet the blink of an eye.

If you had told me 30 years ago that in 30 years we would have moved to America, raised two young adults, remodeled 4 houses (3 with our own hands), had lots of great dogs and cats, spent plenty of time on and in the water in the sun, worked too hard, run our own companies, loved each other, liked each other, and disliked each other – often all at the same time – and lived a hurly, burly two tech industry executives lifestyle I would not have been surprised. That was what I expected.

But if you had told me 30 years ago that we would have had to learn so much about Alzheimers, cancer, strokes, learning disabilities, eating disorders, divorce, meth addiction, aging, broken friendships and fatigue I would have ignored you and said “not us!”. Ah the innocence of youth.

But also if you had told me that we would be happier at 50 than we were at 20, that while our bodies were better looking at 20, our minds were not, that there is a greater depth and sweetness and appreciation of our lives today I also would not have understood, but I do understand now.

I was 19 when we moved in together, Bret was 21, and we were married 2 years later. We were different people then, just kids. Marrying young and moving to a different country with no family was either a recipe for disaster or burning the boats so we had to make it work. We are the lucky ones that we are still married 30 years later. With shared values and a pragmatic view of what it takes to build a life together and raise a family together – and plenty of respect for each other’s personal space and hobbies – we’ve emerged still loving each other and still having fun together.

Last night we talked about what happens next as we become empty nesters and we each made our bucket lists – the places we want to go and the things we want to do before we die. Some places appear on both our lists and we’ll get onto those right away! Some appear on only one list and for those we agreed to either sign up friends, or take it in turns to go where the other wants to go. Either way we’re going to get going on the list. There is just so much to do!

Whatever happens we’re living life to the full, and loving and supporting each other as we do it. I feel very lucky.

My Personal Journey

Advice to my son on his high school graduation

 

My son Sebastian graduates from Harker High School this week. At the request of his adviser I wrote him a letter to capture this moment in time, and my advice for his future.
May 16, 2012
On a train in New Jersey
As you read this you should know words are an inadequate way to express the depth of our love and admiration for you. But let me try to share with you how Dad and I see you and feel about you.
You have become a marvelous young man – literally “causing great wonder” – and I am thrilled for you. Three sets of parents have contacted me to tell me how you made a difference in their kid’s lives this year. Your kindness, leadership and caring for the younger kids is unusual and a sign of your big heart. The world is a tough place to live for everyone, regardless of wealth and status, and it is the people who are kind and caring of others that can make life easier and happier for the people around them. No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, never lose that wonderful part of you.
With leadership comes responsibility. You are blessed with natural charisma. People are going to follow you once you discover the depth of your personal power. I suspect you have only scratched the surface so far. You began to feel it on stage and it has been such fun to watch you develop your glorious, funny stage presence. You have talent and charm. A potent combination.
When combined with confidence and a passion to make the world a better place in some way, personal power can be a very positive force. When combined with insecurity or selfish purpose it can be very destructive. My wish for you is that you stay grounded in the strength and vision you have and don’t let insecurity or fear distract you. Stretch your intellectual muscles, open your mind and explore what kind of life and purpose you want and you’ll figure it out. But stay positive always. Don’t give in, as some people do, to negative judgments of others. Everyone needs your warmth and leadership, even if they can’t ask for it.
Please learn how to care for your health my darling. Our bodies need exercise to stay healthy. Especially in our family. Your passion for learning, theatre, music and video games does not leave much time to care for your body. Don’t forget it and wake up one day at war with it. Going to college is a great time to change your routine and build time in to exercise, but going to college in a big city is also a very hard time to do so, so pay attention.
And your mind… You have a big brain and there is no greater asset in the Western world to build a career with. We are so very, very proud of how your thought processes are developing and, I confess, truly delighted that you are following the math route. If you study maths or engineering you can do anything. Anything. Technology is the engine of our world now and it is going to change every aspect of human life in ways we cannot yet imagine.
You are living in an incredibly exciting time and you will, in some way, be a part of the dramatic changes the next 50 years will see. Its very important you work hard though. Hard work now and for the next 10 years will profoundly change the choices you have for the following 50 so please, please don’t waste your time. Dad and I have worked hard because it gives us freedom. Freedom for our family, freedom of choice, freedom to work on ideas we find interesting. Freedom of choice in how you spend your time is incredibly precious and allows you to pursue your passion. Dad and I both believe this and we exercise our freedom in different ways, both pursuing joy and happiness.
Finally, we hope you find someone to love, and who loves you, to share your life with. While there are many times in life that it is just fine to be alone, especially when you are young, there are also many times when being with someone you care about makes a huge difference to the quality of your life. When you are really happy, when you are down, when you are ill, when you are celebrating, when you are exploring a new world, or rebuilding your old one, when you are raising children or taking care of aging parents – all are times when being with another person and sharing the experience with another person changes the joy and quality of the experience. Really corny I know, but true. So date lots of girls, be kind to them when it’s over, have a great time in college, but when you meet that one person who makes you really happy more than half the time hang on to her. And be loyal to your friends, they’ll save your life more than once!
You are beloved. Much loved. By Dad and me, by Melanie, by Granny and Grandad, by Farmor. By your aunts. Your family loves you deeply and forever. Because you are you, and you are one of us, and we choose to love each other unconditionally. Like black Labradors.
I hope we are alive to see you graduate from college, and dance at your wedding, and kiss your first child, and help you plant your first garden, and kite board with you, and climb ruins with you in exotic places, but in case one of us is not keep this letter. I love you so much tears are dripping onto my iPad as I write. I know, I can see you rolling your eyes, but one day you’ll feel the same way about someone and it is a wonderful feeling. When you were born and I held you for the first time I felt I was looking into the face of God (note God is the word I use for the deep mystery we feel in love, whether or not you are atheist).
Congratulations on your graduation from high school. Congratulations on emerging as a fine, honorable young man with such a bright future. Enjoy it. Celebrate it with your friends. And most of all — Be happy!
All my love from your over-the-top, unabashedly proud
Mum
My Personal Journey

The new Evita on Broadway is a worthy successor

Evita is bring revived on Broadway next month – now in previews and opening April 5 – and it’s marvelous.

The new production, first shown in London in 2006, wholeheartedly embraces the atmosphere of the time. The tempo of the music and instrumentation has been updated to a quicker, more authentic Latin sound than the original, with slow, and fast tango dancing woven throughout the performance. It sounds and feels higher energy than the original.

Everything in the staging and costumes is brown and grey and pale orange, dingy and post-war, making the two times Eva is dressed in white that much more impactful – and representing the power she was wielding. Dominant government buildings, jackbooted military, simple floor plan. The design successfully threw me into the period completely.

I was expecting Elena Roger to be good in the role of Eva Peron and she was. It’s a very hard role to sing (huge range, often in the same musical phrase) and she packed a punch most of the time. I was not, however, expecting Ricky Martin to be good, and he was terrific. I was wrong before; he’s not just a pretty face who can sing pop. He sang the part of Che with power and perfect pitch, humor and emotion. His English accent was a little off-putting at times but overall he was really very good. What a pleasant surprise.

Being an Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice fan since I was 12 years old, I bought the original concept album for Evita in 1976 and had all the music and words memorized before the first show opened. The third performance ever, there I was seated in the front row in the middle transported by Elaine Page, David Essex and an experience which is still one of the most profound of my musical theatre history – and one I repeated several times over the following months.

But my history with the opera colors my experience. Without a big star like Ricky Martin I wonder if Evita will appeal to today’s Broadway tourists? It doesn’t have the flash of Superman, it doesn’t have the humor and familiarity of Jersey Boys. When it was originally staged in 1978 Juan Peron had only been dead 4 years and Argentina’s tumultuous politics were fresh in Londoner’s minds. Today, 34 years later, do many people know the dramatic impact Eva Peron had on Latin America? Can they appreciate the complexity of Lloyd-Webber music which is much less accessible that Phantom of the Opera?

I hope so! And if you’re in New York, and open to a thinking person’s musical, go! This show is rock opera at it’s finest.

Equality, My Personal Journey

Fighting from women’s rights in Pakistan

History and family reached out their long fingers to grip and squeeze my heart in the early hours this morning.
The tribal areas of Pakistan is one of the hardest areas in the world to be a woman. In two of the poorest and most conservative areas of the world – Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunhwa province (formerly know as the North West Frontier province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – women are traditionally powerless, often abused, only 3% can read and they have one of the highest chances in the world of dying in childbirth.

But out in this war-torn part of the world women are helping women, trying to climb out of the abyss and improve the quality of life for the women and children in the area.

Khwendo Kor is a small grass-roots organization founded in 1993 by Maryam Bibi, who grew up in the Tribal areas, and four of her friends. This group of brave women and their volunteers raise money from donors for projects focused on improving education, health, training and micro-credit as well as being advocates for democracy. And it is a tough task they have taken on.

I’ve known about Khwendo Kor before… but this morning, reading their newsletter, I felt the threads of time pulling me.

Opening this month’s FROK newsletter (the UK friends of KK) I saw a picture of my grandmother!

After the rush of emotion at seeing her unexpectedly, I was inspired that her work in the Tribal regions is, even now 60 years later, still recognized. As the wife of the region’s Governor before Partition, my grandmother could chose to live the life of bridge and gin and tonics, or get involved and try to improve the lot of the women around her. She did both.

My grandmother founded the All Pakistan Women Association – for the “Educational, Social, Cultural and Economic Advancement” of the regions women. She was a smart, Cambridge educated woman (although she could not be granted her degree because she was not a man), caught up in the Raj which was a man’s world and she was clearly determined to make a difference.

And she did… not only in the moment but also down through time. When Maryam Bibi finally decided to defy her family her first job was with the All Pakistan Women Association. The FROK newsletter article asks “Can it be just coincidence that these aims [of AWPA] correspond so closely to KK’s? Or did the ideals of the APWA continue to echo for Maryam Bibi, as she continued into the 21st century the work with women which Lady Dundas (my grandmother) started in the mid-20th?”


I wonder how my grandmother felt, having worked hard to change the lives of the local women around her, to be leaving to return to England and back to the stifling English society of the early 1950s. When I was a little girl she talked endlessly of India (the region had been part of India back then). I think she missed it terribly. And as a child I assumed she missed being the High Commissioner’s wife and the status that came with that. But talking to my mother and reading the papers about their time in what is now Pakistan I wonder. Was that the place she was actually the most free?

The words of the final farewell address by the APWA to my grandmother are inscribed on a silver scroll case, cherished by my mother, and could have been written also about Maryam Bibi, KK’s founder:

“We have always found you anxious to do something for the betterment of the lot of the women of this Province…..It was the result of these efforts that today we find social relations amongst the women of Peshawar which did not exist earlier…

“You always made it a point to go round the refugees inhabited area to see for yourself the condition of the refugees and always insisted on their being provided with the necessities of life. But for this personal interest and supervision the lot of the refugees would not have been what it is.”

My Personal Journey

Distractions in my [home] office

I like to believe I can work from anywhere – and so can travel with my family when I need to. But sometime nature makes fun of me.

This week I am in Costa Rica and working from a house high on a hill in a very remote area on the Pacific coast border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Why, you may ask, do I chose to go to a place that is 1 hour down a dirt road from the nearest “town” – which is a truck stop and a few houses with 1 traffic light?

The answer is that my husband and my son are fanatical kite boarders and this is one of the best spots in the world. So, rather than be left behind when they take their annual trip as I have the last 3 years, this year I decided to come with them and work from the house we have rented.

And this afternoon that is just what I was doing. Quietly working on a presentation in the shade when a family of 10 monkeys decided that I needed distracting. They came happily jumping through the trees, screeched at me to get my attention and make me jump up, run for my camera and spend a happy 10 minutes talking to them. Then just as quickly they scampered away and let me get back to work.



What a treat – thanks to the miracle of a satellite dish and the internet!

My Personal Journey

Tears for the Iron Lady

I did not expect to cry in the film the “Iron Lady”.

For many years now if people ask me who I most admire I would say Margaret Thatcher. She was the first politician I ever voted for. I lived through the disfunctional 70s in England and I watched in admiration as she rose to power, broke the back of the unions and got England back onto a healthy financial footing.

But as I watched the movie my chest felt a crushing ache and tears kept sliding down my cheeks.

Tears slipped out as I watched Meryl Streep’s extraordinary portrayal of Mrs Thatcher’s dementia. Living on a daily basis with my mother-in-law’s dementia is upsetting for us and so painful and frightening for her. We help with the confusion, try to explain what’s happening at any moment and grieve for the loss of her confidence and clarity. For a woman as brilliant and powerful as Margaret Thatcher to lose her mind must be heartbreaking for her at the moments she realizes it, and for her family.

Proud tears leaked out as I watched Mrs Thatcher win the leadership of her party and then became Prime Minister. She was the first woman in the Western world to win the elected leadership of a country. England has a history of very strong female leaders in Elizabeth I and Victoria, but Thatcher broke the thick glass ceiling of the English white male establishment (which is hugely powerful still today in English society) and smashed it with her drive, intellect and conviction. She was charismatic and extraordinary as she did it and I will never forget the thrill I felt as she won.

I listened to my mother’s tears sitting next to me in the dark movie theatre as the film showed the day Airey Neave was killed by the IRA with a car bomb. Lord Mountbatten was also killed by an IRA car bomb in 1979 and I still remember her crying that day, grieving the man she had known as a little girl.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful film and Meryl Streep’s skill in her craft has to be seen to be believed. But if you connect with the tragedy of dementia yourself, or the intensity of the politics of the time, take tissues.

33 years after I voted for her the first time I still think of Margaret Thatcher as one of the best role models for me that I have ever seen. I saw her in person once in San Francisco, years after she was out of power, on stage with George Bush Snr and Mikael Gorbachev. Even then she was a force, leaving the other two in the dust with the power of her personality, her intellectual clarity and her conviction. Simply marvelous.

My Personal Journey

Progressive states of long offsite meetings

Long meetings can progressively sap energy and create altered states of being. Yes they can.

We went offsite as a management team for 2 days this weekend to talk through our strategy and 2012 planning. 11 of us in 2 houses at Pajaro Dunes, lots of flip charts, heated discussions, cooking together, walking on the beach and generally spending time together thinking about our business. It was really fun but, even so, it was intense and, combined with long discussions late into the night about the state of the world accompanied by some excellent wines, pretty tiring for some.

Two of our jokesters memorialized their progressive states of mind as they helped clean up after the meeting. They sent me the photos – the editorial is all mine.

Yeah! This two day offsite thing is a great idea, they’re ready.

A few hours in and Ryan is already wondering, he’s seen enough of these type of meetings to be healthily cynical, but Nima’s still gung ho.

Second day and Ryan’s mind is wandering but Nima’s using caffeine to push through – “There’s the mountain guys let’s go for it!”

Ryan’s rolling his eyes at Nima’s enthusiasm, just as Nima starts to wind down .

But as Nima finally falls asleep in response to Penny’s energizer bunny, Ryan stoically keeps pushing forward.

Thanks Nima and Ryan – it was fun – and despite the warm sun and sand, amazingly productive!

My Personal Journey

The best and worst of days at the Hanakapiai Falls

Everything hurt. The backs of my calves, my ankles, my lower back, much of my exposed skin from bug bites. How, I asked myself, did I end up in this situation?

It was completely self induced, and it was one of the best of days.

Yesterday we hiked the Kalalau trail on the North shore of Kauai – starting from the end of the road past Hanalei. First leg was the 2 miles to the Hanakapiai Beach up and over about 1000 feet. This beach is stunning with crashing turquoise waves – but a killer. The sign above the beach says the beach is “Deadly” and uses notches to show the number of lives taken by the waves. Over 60 notches. Is that the value of a life – one notch?

Then the hike up to the Hanakapai Falls. Up, up, up, often climbing hand over hand over rocks and dragging our feet through fudge. Walking on a 2 ft wide ledge of red sludge. Crossing the river four times in our hiking shoes and walking on in wet socks and oozing shoes.

And about 1400 feet up I was having to talk myself into finishing. Everything hurt and I had a pounding headache. The “trail” was continuous climbing over boulders and my 20 year old hiking buddy was scampering in front of me with chipper comments like “not far now” and “keep on coming”. But I just won’t quit. A stubborn witch.

It was, of course, worth it. The falls are indescribably beautiful, the water ice cold (exactly what I needed to cool off) and the water crashing down pulsed and massaged my aching deltoids. Bret arrived 5 minutes after us (taking less than half the time on the way up!) and observed that I had lost my sense of humor – but a bag of Maui chips later and some electrolytes and I was once again smiling.

Down was harder than up! Mud, slick rocks, a dropping sun, mosquitoes, and my lovely husband whistling along with useful comments like “honey, it’s like childbirth, you’ll forget the pain and want to do it again”.

Maybe I’ll only remember the spiritual beauty of the Falls and forget the pain by the time the spectacular bruises on my butt fade!