Below is a writing from personal experience piece I’ve been working on for a few months now. I wrote it in answer to the question of what made me want to work in politics and business and this important but long forgotten memory sprang to mind.
I recently started attending writers’ forums around my town and I’m about to join a creative writing group to get live feedback on my work so I’m hoping to have more pieces to to be read here soon.
I’m actually thinking of changing this piece to a third person tense but, for now, this is what it is.
Cool Heads and Warm Hearts.
When I was sixteen I liquidated my first company and I will always look back on that time fondly. A small town girl, my first attempt at leadership was in my high school years and there weren’t enough students from my (slightly toff) private school, leading us to merge with the local public school to form a Young Achievers team. Our mission was to start our own company, come up with a marketable product, sell shares in the company and make a profit of sufficient return to our investors. I laugh now at the naivety we had in undertaking such an endeavour.
We were the private school kids so we all thought we were the leaders of the future in that town. A heated debate was had and I nominated myself as leader against another girl. I distinctly remember that she was the daughter of a teacher and so automatically thought she should be in charge of everything. The consensus among the team, who ultimately decide these things anyway, was that I was tough but fair whereas she was downright authoritarian. Given the opportunity to elect a leader for a change, rather than have one appointed by a teacher, the team thought I had the appropriate sense of responsibility and voted me in to take charge.
They wanted a cool head with a warm heart.
Unfortunately I had no idea what on earth I was doing. I didn’t really know what shares were, I had no idea what sort of a product people might find necessary to purchase and I got handed this huge pile of paperwork to go through with no idea where to start. Although I was generally regarded as having a “good head on my shoulders” I’d never chaired a meeting and I was scared of public speaking, even to a small group (half of whom were my own classmates), without a script.
Weekly we held meetings and week by week we went on without going anywhere. We lacked direction. We couldn’t find “the” idea for a product and we didn’t have any supervisors to point us in the right direction for a change. It became pretty apparent we’d been spoon fed information throughout high school to get the “right” grades for the exams but thinking innovatively on our own merits was a completely separate skill.
Through every meeting the public school kids, kids we barely even bothered to get to know, sat there as we bickered and fought over the “right” ideas as personalities clashed, school cultures collided, as leadership coups were staged (I kept winning by the way) and eventually, when we reached a formidable deadlock, interest was lost.
A people pleaser at heart, I struggled to give orders to classmates I was generally a good sport to - not to mention counter the strong personalities of those who’d lost the leadership contention. Our supervisors and sponsors, managers from a well known steel works that supported the majority of the jobs in our local community, monitored our progress at each meeting and it wasn’t long before their body language suggested they were just as tempted to bang their heads on the desk as I was.
After the fourth meeting I went home and sat with my head in my hands on the kitchen table. I had a pile of paper work to go through that I’d been staring at for weeks and I had no idea where to begin. We’d only just settled on a product (novelty badges - even now the thought of their uselessness makes my skin crawl) but we had no idea where we were going to get the money to manufacture them.
My Mum came home and I turned to her in exasperation. By this stage I had five weeks left to create a thriving enterprise with a pool of disinterested students, half of whom weren’t willing to work with the other half. I was determined not to give up.
She put it very simply. I couldn’t be their friend because I had to be their workmate. I had to be able to tell them what needed to happen to make sure they all achieved success. I had to be trustworthy enough for them to believe I could help them achieve it.
She was right.
Deep down I knew back then that I had to summon the courage within myself to show people that I not only had a vision where they thought I had none, but I had to communicate that vision to them and persuade them that it would enable us to reach our goal.
They wanted a cool head with a plan accompanied by a heart warm enough to encourage the group to achieve it together.
It’s not an easy role to fill, but it was much easier task to know that from the start.
That night I stayed up until midnight working on a plan that tackled all of the internal issues the team been facing. I stood up at the meeting the next morning having spent the whole day at school scared as hell that I was going to have to make this speech to my own peers telling them they had to get their act together.
I made it and, to my immense surprise, most people agreed with me and liked what I’d put together. In ten minutes the entire project swung around. For the first time in months people were sitting up and listening.
And so when I left that afternoon I was a sixteen year old who’d just liquidated my first company.
It sounds funny, but at about four o’clock that morning it had occurred to both my cool head and warm heart that this wasn’t about what I wanted to achieve, it was about what we wanted to achieve. I facilitated our first honest discussion since we started and the private schoolers all felt their hearts weren’t in it anymore and the public schoolers all felt overlooked.
(In studying my Management degree seven years later I discovered this was what the experts referred to as an “issue pertaining to cultural diversity”. We had two teams running under the one banner. I later learned through working in politics that this was known as “factionalism”).
In the best display of teamwork ever conducted by that team, together we decided not to continue as a team.
The main supervisor, who incidentally had worked with my Mum for a number of years, later approached me and informed me that it was one of the better displays of leadership she’d seen in a long time. I didn’t really think so, I told her. I felt like a bit of a failure. But she said, “If you’d only been like that every week! It was great!”
So I knew I’d done something right, and that knowledge set me in the right direction.
And the public schoolers?
Well the public schoolers, free of the crap we were throwing at them to deal with every week in terms of personality clashes, really got their act together. I mean REALLY.
They went ahead with the badges idea, approached a mentor who helped them with some guiding advice, sold enough shares to produce them and made over a thousand dollars in the short amount of time we’d left them.
They blew us out of the water and I applauded them for it. It was fascinating to see the work they did without the inhibitions of power hungry or arrogant personalities impeding them and they did some truly interesting work.
I still maintain to this day that you can only ever get the best out of the quiet ones.
It was from this experience that I realised I really liked project work and wanted to continue with it despite the inherent difficulties it presented. I learned leadership isn’t about being “in charge”, it’s about playing a directive role in a team to produce the best possible outcomes you can with the resources you’ve got to work with.
It really is about having both a cool head and a warm heart.
Since then I’ve worked on good teams, I’ve worked on great teams and I’ve worked on shocking teams. That night at my kitchen table with my head in my hands may have been the first time I’d felt that way but it certainly won’t be my last.
The lessons learned here can be channelled into a variety of interest areas; sport, charities, politics and philanthropy are all aspects of our community that can benefit from the skills set a good leader can provide if one is happy to review their experiences and learn from them.
Learn from your failures.
With a cool head and a warm heart, just about anything is possible.