Early in my teaching career, I found myself leading a high school class on entrepreneurship where the students were to run a school-based business. I could see immediately that this was not going to be easy. Many of my students were known among the teachers as being difficult.
Two of the students, Cindy and Kyle, were especially well known for their poor behavior in class. Cindy was defiant and had a wicked temper. Kyle was large and used his intimidating stature to bully and coerce others to get his own way.
And wouldn’t you know it? On the first day of class, when discussing what type of business we should run, the pair of them got into a fistfight.
After the incident, I reflected on the fact that, for their whole school lives, these two kids had likely been written off by teachers and authority figures as “challenging” and, because of that, had probably never been given the chance to show the world what they could do.
So I decided to elect Cindy to be the Vice President (VP) of Production and Kyle to be the VP of Human Resources for our school business.
Trying something different
I knew Cindy had a lot of friends in the school and class, so why not make her responsible for the operations of the business, where she could use her influence to spark engagement, productivity and innovation? And I knew, because of his size, that Kyle intimidated others, so why not make him the person responsible for managing all the students in the class, using his words, not his stature, to guide, stimulate ideas and motivate others?
My colleagues at the school thought I was crazy. How could I give the two most challenging students in my class such important roles in the business? After all, they and all the other VPs were responsible for locking and unlocking the business every day, counting the dollars earned, paying our vendors, scheduling the students for after-hours shift work, assessing their performance and driving all the marketing efforts. This was a tremendous amount of responsibility and work, above and beyond what was expected of their classmates.
“Taking an interest and active role in the development of your people is the key to keeping them engaged and growing their skill sets.”
I wanted Cindy and Kyle to genuinely feel cared for, connected to something larger than themselves, appreciated for their efforts and fulfilled in their roles. Let me tell you, it was hard for all concerned. I put in many extra hours and a lot of energy to learn precisely what made them tick, what made them who they were. I was not trying to change them but simply meeting them where they were and listening openly – and with empathy – to what they were saying.
Cindy and Kyle had to build new habits and let go of their default reactions to stimuli when those reactions weren’t serving them well anymore. It was a challenge for them to be open to the feedback I provided them, to self-reflect on how they were performing and to re-apply their learning the next day. In other words, they needed feedback, time, practice and repetition to deepen their learning and change their ingrained behaviors.
To cut a long story short, not only did we make record sales in the history of the school board for our student-run business – we were even highlighted in the local newspaper – but the experience also helped both Cindy and Kyle become more interested and engaged in school.
Kyle became a gentle giant who could command attention and respect and no longer terrified others. Cindy was named First in Class. She was chosen by all the teachers as the most improved student in the school.
Time well spent
Building productive relationships is primarily an emotional task, and creating trustworthy, caring and genuine connections takes time, but it goes a long way.
Taking an interest and active role in the development of your people is the key to keeping them engaged and growing their skill sets. Engaging in conversations about emotions is one of the many actions you as a leader can use to guide your people to boost business practices and improve performance. Establishing meaningful connections with my students changed their lives and mine.
While writing this book, I attempted to get in touch with Cindy and Kyle to see where their lives had taken them. I was not able to track down Kyle, but I did connect with Cindy.
It had been 20 years since we had last been in contact and Cindy was excited for the chance to share her life with me. Our conversation stunned me as Cindy revealed what she had been going through all those years ago when I was coaxing her to open up and give the VP role a real chance.
“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Keep that in mind and be kind.”
She shared with me that, after having been in foster care for some time, she had been reintroduced to her family that year. She complained of a lack of focus and direction and at the time had been so disillusioned with life that she tried to end hers. It was heartbreaking to hear her recall the pain and suffering she endured as a teenager. But I was also heartened by her strength. The courage she exhibited enabled her to pull herself up and be named the most improved student in the school.
“You know,” she said, “after all the pushing away I did, you pushed back. Most people, when I push, they get pushed over, and then, they don’t make it. I’ve found that, in my relationships with my partners, I tend to push because that’s how I know about love and strengthening relationships. You know, if I push them, are they going to stay? Are they going to go? And when I pushed you, you pushed back and pushed back right away. Then when you came back, that gave me the strength and the security of knowing that you weren’t going to walk away so easily.”
In my line of work, I often hear these kinds of emotional stories. Occasionally, though, the stories I hear sound downright normal, and yet they still have a profound impact on those involved.
As Marc Brackett, Founding Director for the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence, so marvelously puts it, “Sometimes the tales aren’t nearly so dramatic – just people who grew up in homes where everyday emotional issues were ignored because no one had ever learned how to talk about them or take actions to address them. Your life didn’t have to be tragic for you to feel as though your emotional life didn’t matter to anyone but you.”
Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Keep that in mind and be kind. I think, in hindsight, for Cindy, even though I did not know the depths of her despair and heartache, I did not run away from the challenge. I did not let her emotions and associated behaviors scare me away. I spent time with her, listening to her, learning with her and supporting her development. That, in a nutshell, is being an emotionally strong leader. So ask yourself: Who are the Cindys and Kyles on your team?
Carolyn Stern, the author of The Emotionally Strong Leader, is the President and CEO of EI Experience, an executive leadership development and emotional intelligence training firm. She is a certified Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Development Expert, professional speaker, and university professor whose emotional intelligence courses and modules have been adopted by top universities in North America.