For the past 4 months I’ve participated in a middle-school educational program called the Entrepreneurial Adventure. In it, a business mentor is paired with a teacher and a grade 6-8 class to start a business that raises money for a community or charitable cause. The program teaches kids some of the principles of business, but I learned a thing or two myself.
Together we selected a cause, brainstormed product concepts, raised capital, developed a supply chain and production process, implemented financial systems, and launched a marketing campaign. At least that’s what a businessperson would say. What the kids experienced was a lot of arguing and teamwork. In this, I realized, they were no different than any management team.
In the classroom, I saw in miniature, every person I’ve ever worked with. There was Charlie, who had ideas so big he struggled to explain them. Claudia, with her sunny disposition and boundless enthusiasm kept things moving. Ahmed was smart but mercurial – when he didn’t get his way he checked out. Summer often acted bored but this masked a fear of embarrassment. Aislynn was the wallflower who could do brilliant things if she got engaged. Quiet and steady Tommy smoothed over conflicts and good-naturedly got on with whatever job he received.
As I watched them miscommunicate, snipe, get distracted but somehow pull together to solve each challenge (with plenty of guidance from their teacher), I was brought back to any of countless management meetings. I was reminded that all my life I’ve been working with 12-year olds! In fact, I’m probably one of them.
Early in my career, I was put in charge of a business before I was really ready. I struggled to build momentum with my team. Seeing my frustration, an older staff member pulled me aside and asked if I had children. Puzzled I shook my head. He smiled and said, “I didn’t think so. You’re appealing to everyone’s intellect and expecting them to act logically. People aren’t always like that. Try thinking of them as kids. Everything I know about managing people I learned from raising my children.” That was some of the best management advice I ever got.
All of our business processes and management techniques are simply ways to enable the children in all of us to work together for a common cause. As managers on our own entrepreneurial adventures, we sometimes forget that we’re not running a machine; we’re part of a family. Our role is to find the strengths in everyone, smooth over the conflicts, set some boundaries, remove obstacles and gently point the way.
My Entrepreneurial Adventure class sold custom-made bracelets and proudly raised over $300 for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to fight shark-finning (a hideously cruel fishing practice). As a team, they achieved something they couldn’t have as individuals. And they learned an important lesson in business leadership – how to manage an organization full of 12-year olds!