Natalie Campbell: Business has a thing or two to learn from schools

Now the new academic year is under way, no doubt schools will once again make the headlines. Not for looking after our children for more than half their waking hours, for keeping them alive, mostly engaged and safe – but for what they fail to do.

It’s a shame that we hold schooling – something so important to living a good adulthood – in such poor regard.

I admit that, as a rebellious student myself, I viewed our school start time as arbitrary and homework as a choice. One I rarely said yes to. I grew up believing schools were a place of repression; an oppressive environment where creativity, entrepreneurialism and ambition were killed.

Not that I went to a bad school. I had amazing teachers that saw through my ambivalence and pushed me to achieve pretty good results. But over the years I’ve seen many children failed by the ‘system’, and as an entrepreneur, I’ve never been able to get over the structure and authoritarianism of schooling.

This all changed recently with my appointment as director of Kensington Creates, a business incubator located in the heart of a new academy opening in Kensington and Chelsea this term. I am responsible for bringing to life a culture of entrepreneurship in a school that believes in a ‘growth mindset’ and the realisation of talent for every student and member of staff. Pretty cool, right?

So today – I say with my hand proudly on my heart – I’m sticking up for schools and sharing my tips for what business and industry can learn from them. The Kensington Aldridge Academy in particular (yes, I am biased!).

It’s about the people

Over the past couple of months I’ve been working with people who believe the biggest determinants to a young person’s success are:

(a)  Quality and depth of teaching, so they become independent thinkers able to respond to the unknown

(b)  Nurturing the ability to foster positive relationships, where encouragement and praise is given more than rebuke

(c)   Confidence in communicating with peers, authority figures and people from all walks-of-life, to ensure social capital enhancement.

In order for these three determinants to be fulfilled, young people need the best teachers, support staff and governors – and not just at the recruitment stage, but forever, and daily for that matter. Meanwhile, the school principal must ensure and champion excellent performance management, a strong learning environment and the sense of working to a shared vision. We can all name businesses that forget they are in the business of people, both those that work for the business, and those they sell to. It’s all about people, people!

You need to foster a ‘growth mindset’

This idea comes from Carol Dweck and her phenomenal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck makes all kinds of brilliant statements about creating the right mindset, a mindset of continual learning, strong character and one that aims for extraordinary instead of ordinary. 

When I discovered that the whole teaching and learning policy at Kensington Aldridge Academy is based on instilling a growth mindset in students, I nearly wet myself with excitement! I believe most employees would too if they knew their organisations championed their development, learning and ambition, not just for productivity and profitability, but because they have a moral obligation to do so. This quote from the book sums it up nicely.

CEOs face this choice all the time. Should they confront their shortcomings or should they create a world where they have none? Lee Iacocca chose the latter. He surrounded himself with worshipers, exiled the critics—and quickly lost touch with where his field was going. Lee Iacocca had become a nonlearner.

‘Tolerate the ambiguity’ and ‘don’t be sh*t’

These two phrases are my favourites from conversations with teachers over the last couple of months – they go straight to the point. When things go wrong, understand what’s happening, learn from it and move on with delivering the vision without bringing people down.

‘Don’t be sh*t’, really gets to the heart of performance, don’t do anything half assed, give it 100%. Coasting at work for me is being sh*t, if I’m not trying to find ways to improve my product or service then what’s the point? So my favourite tip for business is “Don’t Be Sh*t”.

Given that the population spends most of their time between school and business, I really believe that these two institutions can and should have a better relationship. To start with, a dialogue about ways to improve culture, learning and performance in both directions will help schools to feel less like the naughty little sister, and more like the bedrock of society, which, next to families, they are.

Natalie Campbell is the founder of A Very Good Company, Author of Starting A Business in 7 Simple Steps, and a trustee of UnLtd


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