When I was three, it was my father who took me to pre school every day. He did that every morning until I left for university at 18, for which I am eternally grateful. There were a number of things I learned over those years. A detailed knowledge of the back streets of London to cut traffic when we were late, 50s and 60s music he used to dance to …. and lessons that, perhaps unintentionally, prepared me for a career in business.
We played ‘I spy’, practiced my times tables and he tested me on spelling but it didn’t stop there. Those who know me understand I have a deep love of entrepreneurship and stock exchanges. This was entirely cultivated on those journeys.
My dad had a few shares in publicly traded companies. Each morning I would open the penultimate page of the Financial Times and scan the paper for the daily share price (pre iPhones when you read a hard copy newspaper first thing in the morning if you wanted to know anything current!) and played guess the share price. I have early memories of the newspaper being much bigger than me and struggling to open the pages without it collapsing due to my small hands and stature.
As I grew older we read other parts of the paper and intermittently, my father weaved in stories about people he knew or why a story mattered or something that brought the business world commentary to life. Born in Luton, my dad lost his father young and worked in a men’s wear shop as soon as he was able whilst studying at night, to help support his mother and siblings and get a qualification. These early conversations taught me about being aware of numbers, curiosity, speculating to accumulate and that business was not an inaccessible ivory tower. They taught me that from very humble beginnings, anything was possible. That the way you treat people truly mattered (‘it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a second to lose it’ has been drummed into me). That who you were and where you came from didn’t matter if you worked hard, seized opportunity and persisted. This was the best preparation for life and business anyone could ever wish for.
Pausing for a caveat: for those parents suddenly thinking that if you play this game on the way to school your daughter might start a company and then IPO it at 29, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case and you might lose money on the way! But what I can guarantee is that a lot of those skills I learned are ones that we should be encouraging and nurturing in children and young talent alike for all of our collective success. Supporting and developing young talent is so important – whether on the way to school or early in professional careers.
She notes young people have shifted the world’s attention towards an action orientated direction, which wasn’t previously the case
But what support and development really matters? Not necessarily the categories you’ll read in self help books or leadership training but I believe for young professionals wanting to get ahead, the top five things I know helped me and can help you are:
- Building a network. When I started my career I knew no one. I recall fondly my interview at McDonalds at 16 in a north London shopping centre, desperate to get a job so I could afford to occasionally go to Top Shop and buy myself a t-shirt. Many years later many of those people I worked with have been vital to my career. Andrew Reik, for example, is now a respected media man in mainstream TV. Many years ago he took my first professional photos and more recently, initiated and filmed me interviewing Nicola Mendelsohn, EMEA VP at Facebook, for Stylist Magazine. And to think that connection started over packing French fries. It’s never too early or late to start.
- Knock on doors: I desperately wanted to work in the City of London during my summer holidays and wrote letters to the people I read about in the newspapers asking them for work experience. One year, I sent my CV and a cover letter to 15 people I had read about who ran companies that sounded exciting, asking for a summer job. Every single one of them replied. To this day I apply that principle and when I want to reach someone, I go direct. Don’t be afraid to cold email (but do make it short and interesting!) or tweet someone if there’s good reason.
- Continuous learning: a newspaper, book, trade magazine or online course. People are rarely looking for existing knowledge or skills but rather a predisposition to be curious and an ability to learn when hiring. There’s an immense skills shortage for the jobs of tomorrow and arguably a school education that ends in your teens is insufficient given today’s employees likely have a fifty-year working life span. What you do today does not limit what you might do tomorrow. Invest in learning.
- Get a side gig: experiencing something other than a job or educational course to develop yourself will teach you as much if not more than you’ll learn from any course or careers service. Get involved in a charity or local initiative where you can have impact. One of my favourites is Refugees at Home (now famous because Gary Linkeker hosted a refugee). I have had the pleasure of hosting people in my home from all over the world who arrived in the UK having suffered difficult and traumatic experiences elsewhere. What I learned from these guests has been immeasurable and created a vibrant and unexpected network of friends and life lessons I otherwise would never have had.
- Speak up: if you want to be part of a conversation, you need to make yourself heard. I was mortally shy as a child and into my 20s. Business and outside interests taught me that if I wanted to be involved, I had to let people know who I was and why I should have a seat at the table.
Recently, I sat next to the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees at the Braemar Summit and had the pleasure of listening to him talk to our small audience about the wonder children have for dinosaurs, aliens and space. We lose that wonder far too early. It’s limiting for so many reasons when our minds don’t wander outside of our daily lives; it limits how we address challenges, solve problems, innovate and create. Those limitations serve no one.
I also met Enass Abo-Hamed at the Summit, founder of H2GO Power who develop cutting edge energy storage solutions to help solve energy access problems for millions around the world. For her, developing young talent and ensuring they feel empowered in the workplace is vital to solve the largest challenges facing humanity including climate change.
In the case of climate, where her business is focussed, she notes young people have shifted the world’s attention towards an action orientated direction, which wasn’t previously the case. This, she told me, is what is pushing the very real change. As she rightly notes, ‘young talent is closer to the future than the older generation’, are more motivated to solve pressing problems facing the world around us… and likely understand the tech to do that better than some of their leadership.
Young talent at the table brings vital, fresh knowledge and perspective. If you’re an employer, you can help your talent to teach themselves these skills. Mentorship, ERG (employee resource groups), days off for charity work or match funding for those raising money.
Invest early and sharply and all of us will benefit. Whether it’s with children, colleagues, staff, peers and/or friends, what constitutes continuous learning isn’t always done in a classroom or boardroom. It’s in our everyday lives, before we start work, when we’re starting our first paid Saturday job and on the fringes of the educational system. Broaden the mind, promote wonder and learning and tidal waves of fresh ideas and energy to execute them will follow.
Emma Sinclair MBE, co-founder of EnterpriseAlumni