30 July, 2017

Starting right – Maybe The Most Important Step Of All

In his outstanding book “Creating Innovators”, educational researcher Tony Wagner examines a group of high achievers, all of whom had reached positions of acclaim and honour in their chosen fields, primarily as leaders, by an early age. Most of his selected group were in their thirties when they were selected by him as outstanding examples of innovative, inspiring leaders. The purpose of his study was to determine if there were common characteristics or aspects of their upbringing or education from which he might draw robust inferences about the nurturing of such talent.

Although his reference group came from a large range of family backgrounds – poor, wealthy, immigrant, established, low and high educational focus -, aspects of their life paths and upbringing were significant enough for him to draw reliable conclusions. Specifically these successful, innovative personalities had all shared three very similar aspects to their upbringing as children and young adults, namely:

1. Parents who were encouraging, experimental, highly tolerant of failure, but with a clear set of inviable rules governing behaviour at home, including strong regulation of access to television and social media;

2. At least one teacher at high school or university with an interdisciplinary conviction and infectious enthusiasm, who promoted regular participation in projects that required them to work in groups comprised of students with diverse academic foci;

3. A first boss who nurtured them and immediately gave them significant responsibility to execute meaningful projects, whilst closely monitoring the results, with thoughtful feedback and emotional support.

There are many conclusions and lessons to be drawn from this study, but my focus today is on the last characteristic. It has been a few years – at least four – since I read “Creating Innovators”, but the importance of that last aspect was brought home to me last night, as I read the thoughtful review of Bunny, my eldest daughter’s performance at the end of her five week work experience at the Chicago-based business “Tasty Catering“, by the Founder and self-designated “Chief Culture Officer” Tom Walter.

Now you should know that my daughter is in her 16th year, lives and goes to school close to our home near Dublin, Ireland and had specifically requested that we support her in finding a summer job in the States. We know Tom and Bobbi Walter personally, through our long mutual association in The Small Giants Community and they had been ambushed by Bunny on a recent trip to Ireland, which took them through our home. So she flew off in early June on the cheapest ticket we could find, to stay with a family she didn’t know, in a place she had never been to approx. 8.000 miles from home, to perform her first ever paid work in a company she had only heard of once, some ten days before the trip was planned and booked.

She returned a few days ago, a changed person: more confident, maturer, calmer and enthused with energy and a hunger for work. She had worked – often volontarily and including a couple of 60 hour weeks – both in the kitchen and outside at events, preparing food, venues, equipment, setting up and taking down the event infrastructure and serving guests, all as part of the Tasty Catering team. She had been looked after by a number of supervisors and was regularly checked into by the senior management and by Tom and his wife Bobbi, both of whom are still actively involved in the management of the company. She had received support, encouragement, friendship, challenges and above all acceptance and constructive criticism throughout her short tenure, and all this for a young girl, with no work experience at all, in the middle of the busiest summer season before and after the 4th July celebrations, who the Tasty Catering team knew would be going home again within 6 weeks.

Tom wrote to me last night, describing how he and his team had experienced my daughter and was full of praise for her attitude, sunny disposition and work ethic, all of which made me glow with pride, of course. However, reflecting on his letter with my wife, I had to think back to the “Creating Innovators” criteria and was filled with gratitude and relief that, less by design than by luck, Bunny had had that most critical of experiences, a first workplace that recognised her in the fullness of her still young identity, welcomed her in, given her responsibility as a reward for her enthusiasm, had seen her and reflected on her and voiced that reflection in a respectful and encouraging way.

Her personal experience of how a work environment can be, of how fulfilling working in culturally sound business is, of what it means to work for supervisors and owners who are themselves emotionally well-grounded, present and thoughtful, is now rooted in her mind. She has been seen and accepted outside of her home environment, working shoulder to shoulder with young and not-so-young adults, whose life paths and experiences have been entirely different from her own, far more so than any cultural diversity she may or may not have experienced at school. She has earned her own money and learned that how she shows up for work impacts how she is received and honoured at the workplace. Her bar is now set high in terms of what she expects from her future supervisors, bosses and business owners, because her unspoilt mind has set its own benchmark from five weeks at Tasty Catering. She will now, I guess, chose her next place of work carefully, using her new yardstick and we will encourage her to do just that. She will want to duplicate that experience of being seen, trusted, included, valued and nurtured, knowing that, despite her lack of experience, what she has to give in return by way of service, hard work, smiles, humour and integrity is worth a great deal too.

I know that the percentage of companies that exhibit that depth of culture and values-based leadership is a small fraction of those whose cultural norms are less focused on people and whose environments are harsher, more ex-clusive and who wouldn’t notice or care much about an impressionable young 16 year old,taking her first tentative steps into a strange new world. But the percentage is not zero and it is worth all the effort you can expend in searching for those businesses and learning within them. They can be found in organisations such as the “Small Giants Community – Companies thatchoose to be Great instead of Big”, the “Great Place to Work” organisation and a few others and you can work the scuttlebutt by asking around, reading the business sections of the local newspaper and contacting local business networks.

I am more grateful than I can express to Tom Walter and his family for taking Bunny into their home and their business, but I am deeply in his debt, as is Bunny, although she doesn’t know it yet, for ensuring that her first impressions of working life were joyful, nurturing and inspiring. Getting her off on the right foot is probably going to determine the path she takes and the quality of her future experience, just as much as her home base and her schooling. I wish everybody could be assured of such a good start.

If you are reading this as a parent or guardian of a young person about to take their first steps in the working world, then try, as well as you can, to ensure that their first critical steps are taken in a healthy work environment; if you are a business owner, ask yourself what experience an impressionable young person will take with them after an internship with your business: will they feel nurtured, valued and trusted or will they emerge from the experience bruised, belittled and bewildered? And if you are reading this as prospective intern or job-seeker, then dare to set your standards high:

your first experience in the workplace is far too valuable to be wasted on an environment that neither sees you or cares.