Archive for November, 2011

Working Mothers, Older Children and Nuclear Fusion - the Pressure Points

Working Mothers, Older Children and Nuclear Fusion – the Pressure Points

The challenges of being a working mum with older children are sometimes less clear than with younger children. We are often blithely told when children are young that it will get “easier”. Easier? Different maybe, but the tensions between work and the needs of your family are ever-present.

Older children need a great deal of support at a time of growth and change for them and there are many pressure points for working mothers.
As a Business Advisor supporting business’ owners to implement their business plans, I feel a real sense of achievement when I have contributed to making a difference to the success of a business, particularly a small business. As a business owner myself, I can be flexible and often arrange my time around my children’s needs but am unable to do this all the time. There are ever-present tensions between work and home.

Nuclear fusion or is it fission?
It is nine o’clock on a chilly Monday night, and since the clocks went back it feels much later. I have just walked through the door, taken off my coat and am heading to the kitchen to say hello to my husband who is thankfully preparing supper. My lovely cleaner has been that day so all clear on the housework front. A plaintive cry reaches me from upstairs; “Mum, can you help me with my Physics?” calls my GCSE-work-laden teenage son. My heart sinks.
My day so far … up early, make son breakfast, feed cat, ensure has clean rugby kit (son not cat), see him off to train, check train on time, make packed lunch for daughter, take daughter to school, travel to client, work diligently at client, rush back to collect daughter (no longer allowed to go to and from school on her own since disturbing incident with man in black car), grab snack, shove-in washing load, catch up on emails, leave to meet second client of the day (evening appointment), discuss business issues, come home feeling achieved something good. I was looking forward to the remains of my evening.

After a brief hello to hard-pressed spouse, I trudge up the stairs to help research the difference between nuclear fusion and fission with my son. (I didn’t even do O level physics, so thank goodness for the internet). Tomorrow evening I will be practising French with him in preparation for his French-speaking examination, the next nights discussing forthcoming History and Geography “controlled assessments”.

The Pressure Points
The theory is that as your children get older the maintenance aspects of looking after them decreases, giving you more time to concentrate on work and leisure. My experience is that the support your child needs changes but does not decrease. Homework increases exponentially through both primary and secondary school, with your child needing guidance and often supervision to complete it, night after night. This requires a great deal of your time and energy.

The activities, friendships and events that your child wants to be involved in also grow as your children get older. This results in the familiar “logistics-dilemma-fixed-grin” when answering a question on your availability, while frantically working out in your head how you can agree to a fiendishly difficult work/child clash.

“Telford on Tuesday?” you airily respond to a client, fixed grin in place. “No problem.” While frantically texting a friend to ensure daughter can be collected from drama lesson on time while simultaneously working out how to transport son from after-school sports practice.
Childcare is also a conundrum. How old does a child have to be before you can leave them alone, and for how long? I would still hesitate to leave my teenage son all day at home in the holidays while I’m working. Yes, he is perfectly capable of arranging his own activities and making himself some food while I am out, but am I wrong in feeling that it is unfair to leave him for a long, full day? However, he is clearly too old for classic childcare options.

Over the years I have been through the full gamut of childcare options; child-minders – excellent care but someone else’s home; nursery – too impersonal and rigid; nanny – reliable but cash-haemorrhaging; au pairs – couldn’t get up in the morning and smoked on the sly. I have also relied on relations and friends to help. None of these options really suit a teenager.

My daughter is also at that awkward age where a she has out-grown the child-minder but is too young to be left alone. It is too much responsibility to ask my son to look after her for long periods when I am working, particularly in holiday times. BC or “before children” I had a good job, travelled the country and worked the hours I needed to. Now 15 years later and another child on, I am still often frustrated at the curtailment of the working day and at the sheer amount of juggling of priorities required.

What is the Answer?
Over the last few years I have come to terms with the fact that I have too many things to do and not enough time to do them in. It is very frustrating but I now accept that some (less important) things just won’t get done when I want them to be done. In pressure situations family, friends and acquaintances will help you in tricky situations, if you don’t take them for granted and are willing to reciprocate.
I have also come to terms with the fact that I will have to repeatedly stop doing certain things in mid-flow in order to service the needs of my children. I just have to ensure that I have focused on the priorities and have set expectations accordingly. I have found that if I specify realistically when something can be done, clients agree to this.

Focus on the priorities, don’t sweat the small stuff and enjoy your children now – they grow up too quickly.

Author: Christine Southern, founder of Business Accomplish Ltd, comprehends the particular challenges facing business owners looking to develop their business in testing times. Christine recognises that business owners are working hard in their business, often with limited resources and conflicting priorities. Christine’s track record of working with small and medium-sized businesses has convinced her that by supporting business owners to clearly determine what they are trying to accomplish, and by implementing prioritised actions to achieve this, owners can make real progress.

Email: christine@business-accomplish.co.uk, Twitter: @chrisiesouthern; Tel: 07931 174 500

Super manage your childcare - my top 3 strategies

Super manage your childcare – my top 3 strategies

In Part 1 of this series I talked about how you need to stop trying to be Superwoman – as a professional working mum you need to learn to let go (stop micromanaging!) and give others a chance to grow and develop both at home and at work. Let’s take a closer look at how this applies when it comes to looking after your children.

Anyone who juggles work and family knows that the childcare arrangement is one of the most critical things to get right if you want your life to run smoothly – it’s the linchpin. “Well, if you can afford it, just hire an expensive nanny,” you say and “its’ all sorted.” Sorry, money certainly helps, but it’s not what makes or breaks the situation. YOUR people skills and management skills are what counts. Just like at work, simply paying someone doesn’t mean they’ll perform. As humans, we’re a lot more complicated than that.

Whatever your arrangement – nursery school, childcare in the provider’s home, or some sort of help in your home, whether it be a nanny, grandmother, or perhaps student – think about how you would like to be treated if you were the one being hired to look after somebody else’s kids. Also is there anything you’ve learned in your professional environment about working with people – how to motivate, work effectively in teams, resolve conflict, resolve problems – that might also be useful when it comes to interacting with the person looking after your most precious asset?

You’ve got it. IT’S EXACTLY THESE PEOPLE SKILLS THAT YOU USE IN YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT THAT YOU NEED TO USE WHEN MANAGING YOUR CHILD CARE ARRANGEMENT.

Here are my top three strategies:

Manage the relationship day by day

Don’t let problems boil over. Deal with them as they arise. There’s a scene in the film I don’t know how she does, where Mom Kate comes back from a business trip and her husband Richard says they need to talk to the nanny about her being late all the time. Kate screams, “No! I don’t want her to leave.” Tiptoeing around these kind of sensitive issues may avoid some pain in the short-term, but in the longer term it only makes the pain that much worse. By not dealing with issues as they arise, you are also setting a dangerous precedent. In this case Kate & Richard are saying it’s ok to be late and are opening up the door to other potentially unwelcome behaviour.

Empower the carer

In another scene Kate’s on a business trip and she’s about to go into a very big meeting. She gets a call on her cell phone from her nanny who’s after a telephone number to arrange a play date. Understandingly so, Kate is frazzled and searches her handbag looking for some sort scribbled note. Kate clearly is trying to manage the play date and her big deadlines at work. Is this really necessary? Isn’t Kate causing her own stress? Empower the childcare provider to take responsibility for this kind of detail. After all, you’ve got other things on your mind and that’s why she is likely to do a better job than you. Just like at work, when you empower people, they feel appreciated and trusted and are able to handle the situation brilliantly. The figure out how to do things on their own.

The payback is huge when you follow this principle. Currently we have a university student (Callum) who picks our 11 year son Zach up from school and helps him with his homework. I make it clear that it’s Zach’s responsibility to get his work done and Callum’s responsibility is to support him. When we get feedback from the school that a certain piece of work is done well or not so well – we share that with Callum too and by doing so make it clear that he shares in Zach’s successes and’ not so good’ results. I always ask Callum for his views – eg how can we motivate Zach to do his work more quickly (he has a tendency to let his mind wander like any healthy 11 year old boy.) What’s his response? He suggests great ideas like promising to play football if there’s enough time after Zach completes his homework. Does Callum feel empowered and personally responsible? You bet he does! The irony is when you give people personal responsibility, their job satisfaction goes up – they feel like they make a difference. The upside for you is your time is freed up and it’s a real joy to see others develop. (I’m even teaching Callum how to cook!)

Support the carer’s authority

Empowering also means that you need to be careful not to undermine the childcare provider’s authority. I’m sure you don’t like it at work when you’re given a job to do, but then somebody comes along and completely undermines the direction and actions you’ve taken. Always support the carer’s actions, especially in front of the kids. If you have a disagreement, you need to deal with that offline. (Mom Kate in the film loves to avoid conflict. When the nanny takes her son to get his first haircut, she never discusses with the nanny that she’d prefer to be part of these “first” moments. With some discussion and planning lots of things are possible.) I remember many times with our two older kids that I had to have a quiet word with the carer about restrictions on television or snack food, usually because the carer was new. Children are natural arbitrageurs!

The biggest gift your childcare provider gives you is the opportunity for you to be you. Without this trusted partner, you can’t go out in the world and show your full talents. Like any relationship it’s a two-way street and this one certainly deserves day-to-day managing and investing. You won’t regret the long-term reward.

Author: Christine Brown-Quinn. As a former managing director, wife and mother of 3, Christine Brown-Quinn shares her 20+ years experience in banking (as well as recent experience as an author and entrepreneur) and offers practical strategies on how to get the most out of your work & life. Christine’s recently published book Step Aside Super Woman… Career & Family is for Any Woman offers professional women time-tested advice on how to create work-life balance. She is also co-founder of the Women in Business Superconference series.

This blog is Part II of a 5-Part Series: ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’. Sign up for our monthly update to receive them directly into your mailbox – just enter your name in the top-right-hand box to sign up. 

How to become a confident speaker - or at least looking like one!

How to become a confident speaker – or at least looking like one!

Presenting yourself confidently is a key skill to get where you want, not just for working mums. No matter whether you are starting your own business, are on your way to the top or are returning to work, Sally Hindmarch shares some of the best tips I have ever heard.

When I was about 23 in my first (and pretty much only) true sales role my 54 year old Managing Director turned round to me after a fairly poor presentation on my behalf and said “ Sally you need to be more confident ….. you need to be more like me!”

As advice it has to rank up there as some of the worst I’ve received! Although my MD certainly appeared confident, being more like a confident 54 year old man didn’t sound like the best idea I’d come across – what I wanted was to feel at ease; more comfortable or natural in what for me was an unnatural situation.

What I needed were some techniques that I could use to make me look, sound and feel more confident … and then I would appear to be more competent.

Unfortunately it was another 20 years before I met anyone who knew what those techniques are. And the people who I met are actors who learn these skills at drama school, so for the past 8 or so years I have strived to help people in business learn these techniques from our team of actors so that they can have more impact and come across as confident and competent whatever their role

I can’t cover everything in this short article but below are 8 key points that I wish I had known all those years ago!

Posture

Do you slouch? Or do you stand tall? Good posture portrays confidence and competence. As well as optimising breathing, it can also change how you feel about yourself – if you look confident, you’ll feel confident and you’ll be confident!

Breathing

Where do you breathe? Breathing deeply in the bottom of the lungs creates a more supported voice. The vocal cords are relaxed and the voice is more in control with a richer sound, which adds weight and depth to the message and makes it easier to listen to. The increase in oxygen also helps the brain think more clearly.

Passion

Enthusiasm is infectious! If you’re not passionate about your subject then those you’re speaking to won’t be. Find something you’re passionate about – even if it’s “the money I’ll make from the sale”!

Genuine Smiles

Smiling animates the face, warms the voice and makes you appear more personable. When we force a smile we bare our teeth and our eyes are dead like a lot of politicians I could name. For a genuine smile, think of something that makes you smile – a holiday, your children or partner, the person in front of you in their underwear – anything so long as when you greet them you are thinking “Happy”.

Congruence

When you go into detail and paint pictures you find your gestures, your voice and your thoughts all work in unison – congruence. You have none of that feeling of “what do I do with my hands?” or “my thoughts just don’t match my body language and voice”. You have natural variety, are focused and are ‘in the moment’ when you have images of the things you’re talking about.

Tell it from their point of view

If you tell your story as an experience from the other person’s point of view, then they not only intellectually understand your message, but hear, see and most importantly, feel it. As a result they buy into the message more effectively.

So what?

The “so what” factor is critical. Not what you do but the difference you will make. Start from where they are now and show them where you will take them. This is the so what factor: the value you bring.

Images

Many studies suggest the visual image is remembered longer. If you paint pictures and tell stories with your words the same thing happens. The listener remembers the pictures and stories. They then remember the facts associated with them and retain the information for longer.

Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes but as the saying goes, when you’ve dropped a brick, don’t kick it around. If you make a mistake – say “YES” (mentally, not out loud!) and move onwards and upwards.

Self Confidence needs work but it is a trait worth working on and continuing to work on. I’m sure you have heard the phrase that life is a self-fulfilling prophecy: picture it going well and it is more likely to. Visualisation and the use of positive affirmation are 2 extra tips I suggest you start using because if you don’t believe in yourself why would anyone else?

Author: Sally Hindmarch from Partners with You has a degree in Psychology & Drama and a career in database marketing. She believes that most problems stem from poor communication and has spent the past 10 years helping businesses and individuals to sell more, develop their staff and collaborate more effectively through improved communication skills. If you would like to boost your communication skills, be more confident and more successful, Sally’s The Lemon Club might just be the thing for you. @SallyHindmarch; @TheLemonClub

Mum and dad playing with toddler

How to get childcare right the first time

One of the biggest worries for working mums is childcare. Just because you know you cannot cut corners when it comes to childcare. Let me share with you what I, as a professional nanny looking from the outside in, have discovered that can make your choice of childcare easy.

A child is only as unhappy as its unmet needs
For the first 15 years of our lives, the world and people around us provide a mirror of who we are. We look to our parents in particular to validate who we are. When we look in the mirror, it’s important for us to see that we are OK – that all parts of us are loveable whether they are good or bad in other people’s eyes.

That is how our self-esteem is formed. By knowing that we are loved for who we are; not how we behave, not what we say and not what we do or don’t do. Having a strong sense of who we are and knowing that we are loved and accepted for that is by far the most grounding and solid start in life. Therefore your child’s needs should form the basis of your decision.

What does your child need?
Every child is different and every child has different needs. Working out what these are for your child is a good place to start. Here is a handy checklist that may help you make that all-important decision:

  • Safe & Secure

Your ultimate goal is that your child feels safe and secure when they are not with you. I’ve seen how a distressed child positively responds to being held tightly in my arms. When they are gently soothed and reassured, they feel ‘nothing can hurt me, I’m OK.’

Many of us, as adults, still fear abandonment and rejection. They were probably our unmet needs as a child, so to prevent history from repeating itself (as we know how painful that can feel), we want to ensure that these needs are met for our child. I would recommend childcare that provides:

  • Firm, fair discipline & boundaries
  • Trust
  • Routine & structure
  • Consistency & predictability
  • A qualified First Aider
  • CRB checked
  • Excellent references & good track record
  • Positive Energy

Your ultimate goal here is that your child is exposed to healthy and positive situations as much as possible. Spending time around people and in places that are uplifting will ensure your child feels good. A child responds well to resilient, encouraging, flexible, fun people. A bright, cheery, smiley, confident carer will enrich your child’s world and provide a positive role model. It’s true that we become like the people we spend time with.

  • Love

Without love, children cannot grow. They need love as much as they need oxygen to breathe. They need all the positive strokes they can get to know that they are special, unique, valued, important and OK. For some children this is hugs, cuddles and affection. It can also be time, attention, listening and understanding. When it comes to love for a child, they need warm, open, trusting, loving connections with others – it is here they learn about forming attachments outside of their immediate family circle. This means they are not always dependent on you and it also means they will be at ease about meeting other people and forming relationships with them.

  • Emotional Intelligence

A child needs sensitivity, patience and understanding. Somebody who is emotionally mature and will allow the child to be, to explore and give them a positive validation of the world around them. They will look beyond the behaviour and seek to understand what is driving it. They will have compassion and empathy for how it feels to be a child. They will have realistic expectations for the age of the child.

  • Good Communicator

The language we use is important: age appropriate language that the child can easily understand. Body language is also important. Children watch what we do and copy us all the time. They need a lot of explanations for things so they don’t make things mean what they don’t mean. I’m sure your child has a vivid imagination and they can be affected by the simplest of things, just because they have misunderstood them.

  • Age Appropriate Stimulation

Keeping your child entertained and happy isn’t just about making sure they are quiet and out of your hair. It’s more about discovering what inspires, motivates, fulfils and challenges them.

You may also want to consider the temperament of your child. Does your child need physical exercise, fresh air, stories, crafts, role-play, playmates, building, puzzles? Does your child prefer to spend time by themselves or around people?

You don’t want somebody to plonk them in front of the television and hope for the best. It isn’t healthy for their development. Of course, we all need time out to recharge our batteries and TV can be part of that.

  • Responsible Role Model

A big factor in childcare compatibility is finding a responsible, mature nurturer with the same morals, values and ethics as you. Do you hold honesty, peace, commitment, and kindness in high regard? Do you have zero tolerance for smoking, impulsiveness, laziness, lying etc. What is important to you and your family?

How do you know which child carer is most suitable for your child?
Children are pretty flexible and will adapt quite quickly to new situations. Although just because this is true, don’t make your childcare a case of trial and error. If you investigate your options and match them against your needs checklist, you will be closer to getting it right first time.

It may be unrealistic to get all your child’s needs met. The reality of day-to-day living doesn’t always allow this and besides, we are all human. Nothing is perfect. I would aim for ticking as many of them as possible and look elsewhere to make up the ones that are missing.

Listen to your child’s instinct – how they feel is important
I would also recommend a trial period. Monitoring and watching your child adapt and respond to their new situation. They will be the indicator of what is working and what isn’t. Meeting a carer in advance and getting a feel for what your child thinks is a good idea. I’m a big fan of gut feelings and there is nobody in touch with those more than a child. They have open minds, innocence and a 6th sense that can detect ‘You don’t feel right to me’ at 10 paces!

Author: Lisa is a Professional Life Coach and experienced nanny who believes in squeezing every drop of happiness out of life! Life Coaching closes the gap between how your life is now and how you want it to be. Being happy is contagious – it will touch other people around you too. Discovering new things about yourself and creating a different way of living is fun and inspiring. Discover Life Coaching with Lisa Parkes to help make happy changes to your life.

Having it all…does that include pushing myself to the breaking point?

Having it all…does that include pushing myself to the breaking point?

Are you a working mum? Do you push yourself to the breaking point and still feel guilty? You are not alone! A working from home mum shares how managing time like a sergeant major made her marriage suffer, and what helps her to find more balance.

I said to a girlfriend the other day, ‘I really need to re-organise my life priorities. I mean, who else goes to the gym at 9pm rather than see their husband because there’s just no other time in the day to do it…after looking after the kids, dinner, bath, bed?’ Her reply was, ‘I go to the gym at 9pm!’.

She has recently returned to a full-time job after maternity leave with her second child. I am a stay-at-home mum who is also trying to start up her own business. That’s when I realised that my schedule was pretty typical of any working mum.

I’m not sure if having kids later in life is anything to do with it, but we do all seem to want it all – a job that gives us status, independence and an income; children who we enjoy; a great marriage; and a fabulous, fit body – despite getting older and having less time!

What I’ve realised recently is that something has to give or else you just crack as you set the bar too high for yourself. However, giving yourself a break isn’t so easy when you’re running at a million miles and hour and totally focused.

Choosing which area of your life needs to give a little is hard and there’s no right answer. If we choose family life and spend more time with our kids, rather than putting them in childcare or pre-school then the stress of tantrums and thinking of fun ideas for you and your kids to enjoy every day can be hard. For others this comes naturally and is an easy choice.

If we choose work then it’s a risk – you can dedicate yourself to a job and be side-lined for promotion, made redundant or just find the whole rush from home to childcare to work and visa versa utterly exhausting. For others the time on the train is relaxing and they thrive on the self-satisfaction of the job.

We are all individual and no one size fits all.

I thought that running my own business would be the best of both worlds and to a large extent I’ve been right. I get to be there every day for my son during his waking hours. He sleeps for Britain, so the afternoons and evenings are free for me to work and by the time he wakes up I’m ready to down tools and have fun.

But recently I’ve realised it’s my marriage that has taken a side-line – not my work or my son. It’s happened slowly but surely until I suddenly noticed that we’ve both started putting our jobs above our time together. Juggling our son between us and both running off to our respective offices or negotiating who gets the chance to go to the gym when he sleeps.

It doesn’t mean to say I’m about to get divorced…far from it. Realising this slide in priorities has given us both a wake up call and we now follow a ‘no work on the week-end policy’. You might be thinking that it’s odd that we even have to make this rule but if you’re a workaholic then it’s definitely a must. For me, the only way to be successful in business and remain happy in marriage and family life is to time-manage like a sergeant major.

The reality is that there is no perfect parent. And you can’t always achieve the job success you want at the pace you might have achieved when you were single. Perhaps it’s an all round compromise rather than always thinking it’s one single thing.

A friend who runs her own business from home made me realise this when she came over for coffee the other day and reeled off the routine she follows each week which means she does not dedicate more than 20 hours a week to work: two days a week her son does after school club to give her space to work a bit longer, 2 hours per day on dog walking so she got in a dog walker twice a week to free up time, 4 hours to managing her son’s mini-rugby team etc.

I was so impressed with her rigidity and honesty in managing her time, and finding space for what is important to her without feeling guilty or pushing herself to breaking point, that I have since tried to do the same.

It is tough to pull off, which is why I’m writing this article at 12.30am before I go and tidy up the kitchen…but I’m getting better and am happier for it!

Author: a Surrey-mum who works from home

Working from home? - Plan your day

Working from home? – Plan your day

Many of us working mums start our day with the best of intentions. We know what we need to do and are determined to set in place important ways to achieve our short and long-term goals. Often those good intentions can be cast aside as other matters absorb our time and attention. We may end up stressed, frustrated and irritated.

Let’s look at how to plan your day the right way

Make a list

These are useful to refer to as a prompt, a valuable point of reference. We can use a list to prioritize. It gives us an overview of what we intend to do each day and helps us see why or where we have had to deviate from our original plan if necessary. It can be easy to get swept along with the moment and forget important matters. A list can be a useful way of putting us back on track. Try making each day’s list the evening before, go through and prioritize each item. It can help relieve pressure and keep on top of the day’s stresses.

Set goals and schedule important steps towards them

Every important goal involves a series of steps: from making contacts, submitting paperwork, ordering product to improving our fitness levels. All of these stages are art of the overall picture. Goal setting and planning need to include each step along the way. This helps to establish a positive mindset and enables the best chance of success.

Plan for breaks

Time out of the workplace for food, water, exercise allows an opportunity for a breather. Even taking a walk around the car park can provide an important interlude. Studies have proven that taking a break enables people to return to their work station with renewed energy and interest. It is a fallacy to believe that sitting and working non-stop is the most productive way to achieve your goals.

Keep on top of trivia

Paperwork may seem trivial and an unnecessary chore but it is vital to have a reference as to what you have done, where you are up to. I have had clients, successful businessmen, who have relied solely on their memory to keep appointments, retain important details. They are seriously stressed as a consequence. There is no need to overload ourselves in that way. Commit some things to paper, use technology, a diary and support yourself in whatever ways you can.

Have fun

Goals are important but so is fun. Free time, fun and laughter are a valuable way of de-stressing and provide balance in life. Plan some fun time each day. Ensure that the time you spend with loved ones is special and enjoyable. Mealtimes, going for a walk, talking, playing board games are opportunities for fun times together, sharing and demonstrating commitment.

Rely on relationships

Delegate to others. Let them help and feel part of your master plan. Make time for family and friends. These people are important. Children grow up quickly. Childhood days cannot be revisited. Partners and friends may start to live their lives and make arrangements that don’t include you if you seem too busy with other matters and don’t demonstrate that you are interested and care about spending time together. Plan to include those important relationships in your life.

Each day provides a fresh start, a new canvas on which to make your mark. A little planning can go a long way towards making each day special and the best it can be. Plan to include a good balance between work and play, exciting and mundane and you will achieve an important balance and a more sustaining quality of life.

Author: Susan Leigh is a Counsellor and Hypnotherapist who works with stressed individuals to promote confidence and self belief, with couples in crisis to improve communications and understanding and with business clients to support the health and motivation levels of individuals and teams. She loves to offer further support and advice. 

 

Flexible working in law - a woman's perspective

Flexible working in law – a woman’s perspective

A working mum and managing associate in a Magic Circle Law Firm has found a flexible arrangement that works for her. Lawyers out there, it can be done!

Women in Law, Tuesday 5 July 2011, by a Women in a Magic Circle Law Firm