What mentoring tomorrow's talent teaches us today

19 October 2018
Sonny Williams
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Nurturing talent in the tech sector has never been more important. There’s a skills shortage and events on the horizon (err, Brexit, for instance), that are opening up even more uncertainty about where future talent will come from. However, one thing is completely certain, there will be more and more jobs. 

Technology will not take our jobs, as some predict. It is a catalyst for the creation of new jobs. By one popular estimate, 65% of primary school children will end up in a job that doesn’t exist yet. We’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, thanks to the pace of technology, and we can only begin to imagine what these jobs will be. Who knew there’d be a steam train to drive or a weaving loom to man before the industrial revolution?

So what can we do to prepare tomorrow’s talent today? We’re working with the independent charity Inspire, that builds bridges between business and education, to try to do just that. So I recently went to talk to some teens at a local Academy to find out what floats their boat and to tell them about some of the opportunities in tech.

What I actually ended up doing was learning a whole lot about me. An unexpected but truly inspiring outcome. So I thought it might be worth telling the story in the hope that it might inspire others to go out and do the same. 

Validate your own self-worth
If you had asked me two months ago if I could turn up at a school I had never visited, in a part of town I had never been to, and mentor twenty teenagers for eight hours; I would have responded with a certain amount of poorly concealed apprehension. 

The task itself may not seem too insurmountable but I had never viewed myself as someone who might offer another person guidance. I certainly didn’t think that I had much occupational authority. At the age of 26, it just isn’t something that I feel particularly comfortable with. 

Even so, I found myself in a textbook example of a large inner city school, with children from wildly differing backgrounds, circumstances, and cultures, all mixing as relative equals. It set a unique stage for giving careers advice, as expectations and goals were vastly divergent.

So it was hugely gratifying for me to learn that these kids didn’t put me on a pedestal. They respected me but they challenged me. I had to dig deep to answer why ‘only 25 days of holiday a year’ was okay. And I surprised myself in coming away feeling that it really was okay because, through talking about what I do, I was able to reflect that I really like what I do, I’m proud of it and I’m proud of me for being able to do it. 

When I left University at twenty-five I discovered I had a lot to learn in the realm of the young professional, so being viewed as someone who had “made it” was a new and encouraging experience.


Confidence is infectious
I have a feeling if you were to ask the students to state the most valuable thing they gained from the day,  it would be something around potential career paths and journeys. Very few of the teens were confident about their options at the outset. However, by the end of the day, they seemed to have transitioned from unenthused and occasionally pessimistic to a level of confidence bordering on arrogance. Not a negative or rude arrogance, but an absolute conviction that they had the answer. 

Some became so confident in their ability to manage things like an interview scenario and so comfortable in their perceived understanding of the professional landscape that they started to question the value of the tasks we were setting. Until they had to present, when they would invariably discover they had actually overestimated themselves. There was a moment of self reflection causing a noticeable shift in behaviour and those who came out as the strongest candidates were the ones who took time to reflect and bridge any newly discovered knowledge gaps. 

But the overriding confidence of the students in facing the unknown was palpable and infectious. Sometimes I obsess over my actions so much that it can result in inaction. I can focus so heavily on potential issues that I don’t even start. These students, through their curiosity and a willingness to question, gifted me the knowledge that, when it matters most, I can trust myself to do the right thing. That I do believe the things I say and I have earned a platform to say them.

Constructing an argument is more important than your opinion
You can learn a lot from a potato! I certainly learnt a lot when we asked students to take part in the potato pitch. We taught those that were open to the idea to sell their potato. Sell that potato like it’s the most amazing potato in the world! Because that's your potato, damn it, and if you don’t know why it’s valuable, how on earth could anyone else?

This is not a new or unique exercise but it gives kids the chance to experience flexibility within a scope. There were walls to the playground but the internals were up to them. The questions were predictable, “How am I supposed to sell a potato”, “I know nothing about potatoes”, “you didn’t say ours was any different or held any special value so what are we supposed to do?”. But the answers seemed to take the students by surprise, “You decide why yours is better, give me a reason to buy yours”. We were demonstrating that the ability to construct the argument bears more validity than the argument itself. And if that’s not a good life lesson, I don’t know what is!

Don’t pigeonhole yourself
As a result of my education, I am often concerned that my approach as a digital experience analyst leans too far into the realm of programming. I tend to break things down into efficient chunks and problems and solve each one. As a result, I often finding myself missing key details that are apparently extremely obvious to my contemporaries. I sometimes miss out on the bigger picture. 

When I arrived at the Academy, I think I viewed the students as question boxes. Little bundles of potentially problematic processes and variables that I might be able to untangle. As the tasks rolled by, the atmosphere became more relaxed and shifted from that of a lecture to a conversation. I was still being treated with a modicum of reverence, which I found both encouraging and unnerving in equal measure, but there was less and less of a boundary between us. In providing feedback that I was unprepared for, the kids managed to subvert my expectations of what a professional interaction should be like. 

For a shining, brilliant, moment I stood in front of many humans and thought to myself “I actually believe in myself, my opinions are useful, I can actually help people. I think I am good at something.” 

It took 20 students to help me to figure out that somewhere inside, I actually quite like myself and would like to share more of myself with others. A year ago that would have been unthinkable. 

Mentoring works both ways
I came away from the Academy with far more confidence about trying something new with little preparation. The exposure stripped away a few layers of paralysing fear for the unknown. In business, people don’t talk very much about the more personal aspects of their development. But I can tell you that a day spent with 20 kids teaches you a huge amount about yourself. 

I can’t recommend the experience enough. I had to learn to trust myself and trust my knowledge because I have earned it. It was the perfect therapy for an individual struggling to learn to believe in themselves. It has taught me to break free from cycles of self doubt and sell my potato.

If you’d like to find out more about mentoring through Inspire, or getting involved with schools as a business, let me know and I’ll connect you.