I recently went back to High School in my former home county of Norfolk, spending an entire day working with a range of young people of differebt ages and academic abilities. It was scary. It was humbling. It was hugely inspiring.
But it also made me realise how two key skills I rely on in my professional life - self belief and focus of vision - were not confidently possessed by the teenage version of me. I learned them and continue to learn them based on the inspiring wisdom of others and my own trial and error experiences.
So perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me that the teenagers I was working with were deeply lacking confidence in this area too.
I asked the group of high achieving 15 and 16 year old girls in the first of several classes I worked with "are you really afraid of failing?" and "do you put a lot of effort into pleasing people?” Every one of them bravely and honestly answered yes!
Like many people, for a lot of my life I would have probably said the same. But not now.
So what changed? And more importantly, is that teachable?
Well given I acquired these skills, rather than emerging into life as a pre-formed entrepreneur, then there must be some teachable processes involved.
So for the business studies, technology and high achieving girls classes I worked with on Friday, I tried to distil what I've learned into something “practicable” that would hopefully be valuable to at least one or two of the young people in the room.I don’t know if I'm right, only what has worked for me.
So here are the five things we focussed on:
1. Fail fabulously
I hate the way that culturally we seem to prefer to mock or punish failure than celebrate success. It is no surprise that the message we communicate is that it is somehow safer not to try and preferable not to take a risk than fall short.
It is not possible to please everyone, however safe you play it. And life is too short to make the scattershot pleasing of others a priority. Likewise there are no mistakes on the planet that someone else hasn't already made. Silicon Valley is so much better at recognising how talking about and celebrating failure and we should learn from it, as that approach has the wonderful benefit of de-risking the experience for those who follow.
Success comes from practice and practice involves failing. So you failed? Horribly? Again? Unless you failed fatally (definitely not recommended) then life goes on.
I can honestly say, I am no longer afraid of failing. In fact, if I fail then I intend to fail fabulously. I want it to make the FT. To me, that’s failing in style! (And by the way imagining really fabulous failure – whatever it means to you - suddenly makes it less scary).
But what I did stress is this: don’t fail the same way twice. You will get beaten up in business (especially if you’re out raising investment). I make it my goal to not let a punch ever land in the same place twice!
2. The secret art of self promotion
Do less as and tell more. That’s it. Don’t be perfect, be damn good and make sure people know it. Sheryl Sandberg said all this way more eloquently in Lean In and it was a focus of the recent Everywoman Leadership Academy I took part in. So I won’t repeat it at length - but it is important. As an employer, I can honestly say if you do not also spend time being seen and heard – as in spell your awesomeness out to me and be very sure you can back it up with data – then I’m not going to somehow intuitively know it!
3. Ideas, innovation, getting to “yes and....”
Young people often ask me the very excellent question of how do you come up with your ideas? (I think many “grown-ups” just presume some people are ideas people, but that they aren’t!) The answer is I have a process. I practice that process every day, I never worry about if an idea is possible, as a result I have hundreds of (mostly silly) ideas. But if an idea doesn't earn its brain space, I quickly ditch it. The process is teachable and my young Friday afternoon inventors were living proof that when you say “yes and...” things get interesting!
4. Seek forgiveness not permission!
My friend the headmaster and I disagree somewhat on this one! But in my opinion, most rules we encounter day to day are really just guidelines or legacy processes in disguise. Audacity, chutzpah, moxy, lateral thinking – call it what you will – there’s an art to selective rule breaking. Obviously this does not extend to tax or the legal system – but 70% of the everyday “rules” out there really don’t stand up to the question “why?” That makes them potentially negotiable in my view!
5. Know your numbers!
One for the GCSE Business Studies class, this. Not to mention would be entrepreneurs, would be board directors and oh, pretty much everyone else. Seek out exotic life philosophies if you will, but do not neglect the greatest philosophy of all – accounting. Once you rule the cash flow, not the other way round, life is just all round better. (And forget that The Matrix stuff about “there is no spoon” – the most profound thing in all of life is that a balance sheet always balances!)
Understand how to read basic financial reporting and the world is truly your oyster. I’m not knocking numbers in all their other glorious forms – coding, logic, algorithms, probability – I am, after all a data queen. I simply think accounting is undeservedly and inexplicably unsexy, given the awesome power of the P&L report!
Be seen and heard!
So that was my first day in school for 24 years. I’m not claiming to have all the answers, in fact I probably learned more than everyone else. But these are principles that work for me and that I have been fortunate enough to refine on an interesting business journey since I left Norfolk. Doing something - even simply sharing my learned experiences and personal view of business life – was incredibly rewarding and something I look forward to repeating.
I do believe those of us who have had the benefit of other’s wisdom have a duty to pay that forward. And there are some amazing programmes, like being a STEM Ambassador and Founders For Schools, that are structured platforms to let you do just that.
Going back to school at 45 was definitely scary, but I highly recommend it!
How to come up with ideas for your startup - with a little help from high school students
Five fabulous things I've learned by failing
Failing your way to success - Transcript of school prize day speech from July 2015