What Teaching Teens Business Taught Me…

This is an article I wrote recently on Linked In.

I was recently asked to teach a couple of classes on Management and Digital/ Marketing to non-native English Language students aged 16-19. I was working on a long-term project which allowed for a couple of weeks break over the summer period so I agreed.

It’s been around 25 years since I taught teenagers formally and a lot has changed in that time – both in terms of the subject, the equipment and resources available – I was curious to see if the students had changed in terms of their attitude or approach, because for good and bad, 25 years has changed me a lot. The training and workshops I have run throughout my professional life have been geared to in-work professionals of varying experience and seniority but I wanted to be as non-patronising with the students as I was with their older counterparts: I hope I succeeded in doing that, and hope this article follows that intention.

The students I spent two weeks with were all of a high level in terms of their language level: none lower than a B2 written level and all higher in spoken language skills and while they had a mixed background in terms of their previous knowledge of the subject they had elected to study, all were keen and willing participants who took their classes seriously and many of them were very much thinking about higher education options.

I thought it might be of interest to note some of the things that emerged during the modules.

Management Studies

Of the various modules studied the ones which students found most interesting were around the establishment and motivation of groups and teams and different management styles.

Looking at historic and contemporary structures it soon became clear that what is still considered ‘contemporary’ to those of us of an older generation (and the concept of what ‘old’ meant was an interesting, if at times humorous/ depressing, notion…) is already historic to many of the teens of today. As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (As one of those ‘old’ side notes: teenagers do not know who Ferris Bueller is…J). That’s not to say they weren’t interested or prepared to take on lessons from the past – it was just a wakeup call when I had to explain who companies like Lehman Brothers, General Motors and Enron were…

What students found particularly interesting and grasped very quickly was the difference between both a ‘manager’ and a ‘leader’, and a working group and a team. And if their knowledge of ‘classic’ companies was limited, their views of ‘great leaders’ were, without fail, more historic: whether in business (e.g. Steve Jobs) or wider life (e.g. Martin Luther King). The importance of a leader’s ability to provide direction, change, motivation and vision needed no prompting and the agreement on the most important attributes – purpose, honesty, inspiring, knowledge and genuine care for their team was universal.

The preferred management style for teenagers? Well, my classes were firm advocates of the various incarnations of Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory – a belief that a manager had to be adaptive and balanced between task and people-focused may seem obvious in the classroom, but the recognition that this might be challenging in ‘the real world’ was a good discussion point to be had.

Overwhelmingly, when it came to essay time and choosing a preferred style the students were enamoured most with Greenleaf’s views around Servant Leadership: sharing power, putting the needs of the employees first and helping them develop and perform – “It just makes sense and is the right thing to do.” seemed to be the recurring sentiment. Will it last them as they take their management studies forward, and in years to come become managers…or hopefully even leaders themselves?

Time will tell…


Marketing & Digital

Should a distinction even be drawn between ‘Marketing’ and ‘Digital Marketing’ for the teenagers of today and the marketers of tomorrow? The concept of Direct Mail and varying examples of Above the Line advertising seemed alien to some, quaintly nostalgic to others. That’s not to say they were dismissive or uninterested in learning about the history of Marketing: they all paid attention, made notes and asked questions: sometimes questions about concepts or practices I’d wrongly taken for granted that they’d know: my fault, not theirs. They were fascinated by the classic models and fully at ease in applying Porter’s 5 Forces or providing examples of an Ansoff Matrix in effect and completely unaware of SEO or SEM: perhaps something that happens so naturally for them it doesn’t occur to them that there are devised strategies behind so much of what they expect to see.

After 15 years as a Global Head of Digital Marketing, I was interested in seeing their take on Social Media: there was a range of nationalities present and some of the examples they were able to provide from their local experiences were fascinating. There were some things I expected that bore out: out of around 40 students taught, a total of one had a Facebook account (“My mother likes to use it and gets in touch with me by it…”) and only a handful had a Twitter account (“It’s for old people…”). What did surprise me more was their acceptance and expectations around data visibility and what they considered ‘private’ data. Sure, they fully expect and don’t care if their age, religion, likes, dislikes, activities are known and used by companies…but the thought of their parents knowing…not too much has changed from the paper diary my sister kept hidden from my mother all those years ago…

One of the most interesting sessions on each course was the wrap up: talking about what the future might mean for them and potential career opportunities. Of course, given that for many of them, that employment future may be up to five years away a lot of it is pure guesswork…but, but, but…the opportunities. The possibilities. The idea that they could be doing something they were actually interested in was palpable.   And while I take no responsibility for setting any of the students on a path to greatness it was interesting to hear some of the comments at the end of the classes.

I’d never considered Marketing before, but I’m actually thinking about it for university now…

I didn’t think I knew anything about marketing, but it’s all around us. Every day. And it’s really interesting to know how it works…” (Tell me when you figure that one out…)

I’m really interested in photography, but the idea that you could possibly combine that with Marketing is something I’d never thought of…

I think we all got something out of the two weeks I spent briefly returning to teen teaching. The students got an insight into possible futures as well as their nice certificate to take home with them. I got some interesting insights into what marketing means for the next generation. I had some thoughts on assumptions and pre-judgement. I got the same good feeling I get whenever I’ve ran a workshop or a session at any level where you think things went well. And I got a couple of future investment tips if I see some of those students’ names come up in Business News in ten years’ time, because if they keep the enthusiasm, and questioning and desire to do the right thing, I think there were definitely a few leaders in those classes.

If you’re interested in marketing or management workshops at any level – from new starters to board, you can always contact me on simon@bewickconsulting.com

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