Children too young to be inhibited by hierarchy spontaneously offer refreshing insights into the grownups they observe.
It never ceases to amaze me what children say. Their thoughts are unfiltered, candid and brutally honest, unlike the corporate cultures of many companies today. However, there’s utility in thinking about adolescent behaviour and the leadership implications we can gain from it. Kids don’t worry about social status when they work together, for example. Instead, they shut up, show up and do the work. Then they take a nap.
When I work with teams to help them elevate their performance, one of the first things I look for is their norms. These are the unspoken rules -- arriving on time, following up with commitments, choosing seats in meetings, who speaks the most (or least), etc. -- that guide behaviour. Over time, these norms become ingrained in their thinking, behaviour and daily routine, oftentimes to the team’s detriment.
Children, however, are constantly learning norms. That learning process is where we can glean valuable leadership insights. Here are three leadership insights I've learned that came from the mouth of babes:
One day when my son and I were driving we pulled up alongside a bus with a whole slew of advertising banners on it. “Dada, look!” he exclaimed, “A moose donkey!”
“A what?!” I had no idea what he meant but I couldn’t wait to find out.
“That’s a moose donkey!”
“Ronan, that’s a camel.” It was an advertisement for Camel cigarettes.
What my son did was take his perception of reality and translate it into a reality that he understood, which is exactly what employees do when they don’t get the guidance or information they need. Without details, people construct their own reality. To my son, it was clear that the image on that bus was a "moose donkey," and now I’ll never look at camels the same. Of the many responsibilities of being a leader, leading with clarity is at the top because clarity leads somewhere. That “somewhere” will change as the company grows and that’s fine, but a lack of clarity is a road to nowhere.
My niece, Audrey, is seven. The other day she spit on the sidewalk, to which my sister, founder of Fierce and Free clothing (that’s a shameless plug), said, “Audrey, stop spitting. Nobody wants to step in your spit.” Without skipping a beat, Audrey fired back, “What if I told them it was your spit? Would they care then?” True story. The lesson here is about identity. To Audrey, the problem wasn't spitting itself but rather to whom that spit belonged.
Identity exists in all walks of life -- including the sidewalk, apparently. In organisational culture, identity is reflected in a company’s brand, its norms, interpersonal salutations, objects (do you have a corner office?), the way people dress and the language people use, just to name a few.
One study found that the different forms by which organisations examine the past, such as textual, artifacts or verbal, constitute different experiences, which can be used to reconstruct their current identity and better adapt their value proposition. To move forward, start by looking rearward.
When my son and I ran into the building manager when we exited the elevator in my apartment building the other day. She’s always playful and offers my son sweets that he doesn’t need. As we were about to depart, she said to my son, “Okay, be good!” I interpreted this as the equivalent to “have a nice day!” but my son looked at me and said, “But Dada (he’s six), I’m always good.”
What I learned from this exchange is that my son knows who he is. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong and, most importantly, he knows how to navigate the two. Establish boundaries for yourself and for your team so you know where you stand, and where you don’t.
Learning is a two-way street. We learn by teaching, such as raising children, but we also learn by listening and reflecting upon what they teach us. Make time to learn. There’s no competitive advantage without it.
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