For many years, I was an advisor for the Junior Achievement Company Program, which was an after-school economic education course. Over a three month period a group of 20 – 30 high school students met weekly to run a company of their creation. The students elected officers, created a product to sell and managed the company’s financials.
I recall one year when a quiet sixteen year old girl named “Janice” was elected to be the Vice President of Production. Being the VP of Production meant procuring raw goods from a supplier to make a product, so one day after school I met Janice and her mom at a wholesaler of craft goods. We needed to select a couple of different colored items (as I recall, some sort of fabric) to bring to the JA meeting that night.
As we stood before the many rows of fabric with the vast color choices, it was easy to see how someone could become overwhelmed. And indeed, I sensed that Janice nearing that feeling. I also understood that as a teen, peer pressure was playing a key role in Janice’s thought process: will they think I’m a dork if I pick out the wrong color?
This was Janice’s first time in role of leadership; it was important for her to succeed in this task. What was a fairly easy decision for an adult was much more challenging for this young woman. So I started by saying, “Janice, let’s narrow down our choices – what three or four choices do you think will look best for your company’s product?” I noticed a pattern in her decision-making: she would slide a sideways glance towards mother, as if seeking permission. After a bit of vacillating, Janice made a few choices.
“Great!” I encouraged. “Now we just need to pick two color choices. What do you think?”
And this is where it gets interesting.
“Um, maybe the blue and the green?” Janice hesitated and looked at her mom for confirmation. “You know, Janice,” I offered, “You are the VP of Production. Your peers voted you into this position because they trusted your ability to make decisions. If you think the blue and green are the best choices, then that’s how we’ll do it.”
I watched in amazement as confidence bloomed right then and there on Janice’s face. It was as if nobody had ever told her she was capable of making good decisions. “OK,” she said, her new-found self-assurance picking up speed by the minute. “Let’s do blue and green!”
Janice went on to excel as the VP of Production. Whenever she had her moments of doubt, my fellow advisors and I would be sure to bolster her confidence by praising her decision-making skills.
When this encounter occurred, I had been a supervisor for nearly eight years, but this was the first time I had the privilege of coaching a person into her very first official leadership role. Up until this point, I had been developing my leadership skills; now it was time to nurture someone else’s.
The experience taught me something vital about developing emerging leaders: in order for someone to lead, they first have to see themselves capable of doing so. There are people who can boldly stake a claim to leadership without any assistance – and off they go into the fray. More often, though, people need the nudge that says, “Yes, you are a leader and you will make good choices.” I’m very grateful to Janice for helping me make that discovery.
Photo credit: Paulo Neo.