Start ‘em young – It’s never too early


How to train managers to become good leaders and leaders to become more effective is a constant endeavour for human resource managers. Admittedly, it’s hard to learn these lessons when one is already in a leadership role. There are the pressures of being responsible for the team’s performance as well as one’s own, of meeting targets and deadlines, and resolving interpersonal issues.

But what if these learnings came early on, before one joined the workforce? Would it help if the lessons most leaders learn in hindsight or understand only instinctively are spelt out for the leaders of tomorrow while they’re still in school?

“It’s never too early to teach someone leadership skills,” says Prof. Neharika Vohra of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), in a phone interview. Prof. Vohra, who will be conducting two executive education courses on leadership at the IIM-A in September, adds that it may be better to induct people into leadership training programmes sooner rather than later. That way, she explains, “when they come into roles of leadership, they don’t have to break myths then and undo learning about what it takes to be a leader”.

Bernadette Butler of The Leadership Education and Development Program at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US, agrees. “Exposure to business principles and the skill sets needed for successful business careers empowers students to confidently make better informed decisions when choosing their university and career in the short term. In the long term, these students are our future leaders, so we want them to be as prepared and as equipped as possible,” she says.

We spoke to some organizations that offer such training, parents who have previously sent their teenage children to leadership camps, mentors on programmes designed for teenagers, college professors and domain experts on why it may be a good idea to introduce leadership concepts to schoolchildren, and the best ways to make these ideas stick.

Reaching a consensus

With just days to go for the final presentation, Divya Tyagi realized her team might be cracking under the pressure. The 14-year-old student of Ryan International School in Gurgaon, Haryana, is one of the 94 teenagers who signed up for this year’s TiE Young Entrepreneurs (TyE) programme, offered by the Delhi chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) trade group.

For two months, her team had sat through weekend classes on various aspects of launching a business. The culmination of the programme, the presentation, was approaching and her team’s business plan was starting to fall apart at the last minute.

“A team member wasn’t happy with the proposed revenue model,” says Tyagi. The plan was to set up a crowdfunding-for-higher-education venture. The team had initially agreed on charging a registration fee of Rs.100 from fund-seekers. Students would, however, only get funding if the amount they raised matched or exceeded the goal they set at the start. “One team member felt that the students who failed to get funding even after paying the registration might think the company was fraudulent,” says Tyagi. “She even influenced some others in the team (of seven) to see her point of view,” she adds.

This was a big upset.

The team called a meeting. It wasn’t easy, but they sat everyone down, heard everyone out and talked about how to “get the job done”, says Tyagi. The girl who had disagreed with the plan had to be pacified, and they had to reach a consensus. “In the end, we decided we wouldn’t charge registration but would take 1% as transaction fee from students who did get funding for higher studies,” she says.

Solitary study and exams had prepared her somewhat for focusing on the job at hand and the pressure of a ticking clock, but this was Tyagi’s first exposure to messy team dynamics.

Lacoste India managing director and chief executive officer Rajesh Jain, whose daughter Kamakshi was part of the same TyE programme that concluded in May, says the training mirrors real-life situations. Firefighting and mending plans on the go are all part of the routine in corporate offices. Even as his daughter worked on the crowdfunding project with Tyagi and five others (two teenagers dropped out of the programme before the final presentation), Jain says he could see them reaching some of the same solutions grown-ups apply in real-office situations—for example, actually listening to each other and appeasing egos.

Making it stick

Devendra Agochiya, author of Life Competencies For Adolescents: Training Manual For Facilitators, Teachers And Parents , says leadership training should be included in school curricula and should be customized so participants can relate to it.

“One important underlying principle of such training is that it has to be highly interactive,” says Agochiya. “The exercises and instruments used in the training should create interest and excitement in the participants; raise the level of their curiosity; and generate enthusiasm in the group,” he adds.

Participants at the inme Young Leaders’ Program in Uroli, Uttarakhand. Photo courtesy Exper Executive Education Pvt Ltd
Gaurav Saklani, whose Expert Executive Education Pvt. Ltd runs camps planned around outdoor activities for children aged 9-17 under the inme brand, as well as corporate training sessions, says different age groups respond to different training methods. Young children, he says, respond well to being told beforehand what they’re likely to take away from an experience, whereas teenagers absorb lessons better if trainers prod them to reflect and arrive at their own conclusions.
Exper Executive Education conducted its first leadership-focused camp this month. The objectives of the Young Leaders’ Program organized in Uroli, Uttarakhand, for those aged 15-17, included helping participants become more self-aware, to know their strengths and weaknesses, and educating them on how to get the best out of others in a team effort.

At schools like Sanskriti and Vasant Valley in the Capital, children as young as 13 years start receiving leadership training. The Global Education and Leadership Foundation (Tgelf), which develops the curriculum for schools and institutions, says they’ve devised a “graded” programme.

So, children in class VIII do exercises like enacting a machine—every student has to participate, even if it’s just to make a sound that emanates from the machine. Classes IX and X students use Harry Potter books to learn the Hogwarts style of leadership. There are at least two schools: the Dumbledore variety that is generous and nurturing, and the style of leadership espoused by the minister of magic, who likes to micromanage. Still older students pick a social project that takes them outside the school boundaries. The projects are designed to teach children values around “ethical leadership”, says programme director Dinu Raheja at the Gurgaon-headquartered Tgelf.

Just like the 70mm hero, who can sing and dance and is courageous, the myth of the great leader who knows everything and can do anything persists, says Prof. Vohra. Good leadership training programmes for schoolgoing students, she says, can dispel such notions.

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