About a year ago I signed up for a MOOC on Coursera titled “Conversations that Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change.
The first exercise we had to do was to:
‘Reflect on your past and think of the people in your life who have most helped you to grow as a person, to motivate and inspire you, and to help you accomplish what you have in life.’
We were told to separate our lives into distinct stages or eras, for example primary and secondary school, university, then 10 year blocks in our working lives.
I started this well. I could think of the Geography teacher at 6th form who gave me good grades, encouraged me when I wanted to apply for Cambridge and tutored me for the entrance exams. Then at university, there was my dissertation supervisor – I got a 1st in my dissertation and she encouraged me to think about postgraduate study and to consider publishing the dissertation.
There was a pattern emerging already – getting good grades (doing something I was good at), people who believed in my ability and encouraged me to go further.
And then I realised I couldn’t think of any other examples. As soon as I went into working life it seemed to stop and I struggled to think of even the slightest encouragement at work. Some of this is down to the fact that in my early career I was teaching in remote areas completely on my own. (This was fine at the time – I was getting plenty of feedback from the students and I had a strong desire to do well.)
But looking back at the larger organisations in the UK I’ve worked in, I’m struggling to think of any manager or leader who ‘helped me to grow as a person’ or ‘motivated and inspired’ me. This, despite the fact that conversations about direction and growth could happen at least once a year in the annual appraisal. Have I just been incredibly unlucky? Or unobservant? My memories, if anything, are of being held back. Even when I went back to university to study at postgraduate level, there was no one who put any time in for me to succeed – no supervisor to guide me, no support when I asked for help. (The opposite, if anything.)
Yes, we’re adults and we’re supposedly all in charge of our own careers and lives. But we all need to know we’re doing a good job, to get a little encouragement now and then and to be given the opportunity to push ourselves a little and move forwards.
And yes, this encouragement can come from family and friends, but we spend the majority of time at work and we get meaning from our professional lives. I read articles from leaders who mention someone who mentored them or gave them a break, and their desire (or sense of duty) now to pass it forward. So there are definitely people out there who do this.
But if the majority of people out there are like me, then what on earth are we doing in our organisations?
Why does encouragement and desire to support someone’s development stop when we leave school or university? We could all be doing more of this for each other – let’s make an effort to do so.
But in particular, I would consider it part of any manager’s role to get the best out of their people – to encourage them, make sure they’re growing and learning in the role and prepare them for the next. I’ve seen glimpses of this in other managers I’ve come into contact with. But until I undertook Aurora leadership training last year, I’d never had a mentor and it was a revelation. For the first time, here is someone talking to me about me! About what I enjoy and what I want to achieve. Wow!
So my advice to managers today is this. You are in a privileged position. You have the power to influence another person’s life for good or otherwise. You can choose to make your mark and be an inspiration to the people you’re leading. If you’re in a managerial role and you’re not taking the time to talk to your staff and about their ambitions and encouraging them to grow, start now. Don’t knock their ideas or plans for the future – listen, encourage them, find ways to support them, offer advice, connect them with others. Do what you can. And if their plans involve something else other than what they’re currently doing, still help them.
Just one conversation that shows an interest could be enough. Just one stretch assignment could send them on their path. It could be the moment they remember in years to come and you could be the manager they name as the ‘person that inspired and motivated them’.
Go on – I know you can do it!