C-suite execs, senior managers, leadership coaches, and mentors – these are the people the average entrepreneur or worker looks up to for advice on getting better at everyday work and succeeding at it.
There’s one category of people who can give you some sound advice but you almost never pay attention to, unfortunately. They’re ubiquitous but ignored. To see – or “watch” them – you need to look down instead of up. Yes, the little ones.
Here are some lessons business leaders can learn by watching five-year-olds’ habits and mannerisms and applying them in strategy, operations, and growth plans.
- Adapt and Pivot
Children are great at adjusting themselves to the most trying circumstances far quicker than us. Many businesses sink when their funding is scaled down, major clients stop working with them, the economy enters a bad phase, or consumer behavior changes.
Not so for the kids. The first day at school, most of them cry and wail. A few cry well into the second week. A month on, they’ve made new friends, gelled with their teachers, and are even doing what they’re supposed to do at school!
“Lean” businesses and leaders with a flexible mindset think and act like kids:
- View obstacles as challenges and not as paralyzing events.
- Be resilient. If you’ve committed to a strategy, see it through.
- Learn quickly. If something doesn’t work, change your tack and try a dozen different ways.
- Pivot if your business model is not working or profitable. There is no such thing as failure.
- Don’t Replicate the Real World
Many managers never become leaders and most businesses never make the transition from good to great because of their discomfort with trying the unknown.
In a famous TED Talk, Ted Wujec talked about an experiment in which different teams had to construct the tallest buildings they could – out of spaghetti – in 15 minutes. The structure had to be strong enough to hold a marshmallow at the top. Out of teams consisting of CTOs, lawyers, and designers, kindergarteners came out second only to architects (thankfully).
While adults approached the task by making plans, picking the best one, and dividing responsibilities, children got down to the task by building rapid prototypes and intuitively adopted a “fail fast” approach. Kids’ brains thrive in unfamiliar situations where past experience doesn’t apply. While adults attempted to reproduce structures like the Eiffel Tower, children brought out their inner engineers by fluidly thinking out-of-the-box and drawing inspiration from imagination.
The lesson here for designers, marketers, engineers, process managers, and even CEOs is to approach projects and problems with a fresh perspective, not apply old tactics to new strategies, and keep experimenting.
- Stick to the Task at Hand
One area where five-year-olds easily beat even board chairmen of giant holding corporations is single-mindedness. Companies need a mission statement to stick to their goals and strategies; children are on a mission with every single thing they do.
In addition to focus, another thing that makes kids “experts” at what they do is endless repetition. They keep doing – “practice,” if you will – what they like relentlessly and obstinately, never tiring of routine. Automation, anyone?
Businesses would do well to be persistent with their core strengths and strategies, repeating what works well and discarding what doesn’t quickly. In present-day culture, individuals at every level in the organization are prone to multitasking. While multitasking is crucial in certain situations, its drawbacks are well-known.
In contrast, when kids set their minds to a task, they approach it optimistically and passionately, forget food and drink, watch other people doing it closely, get help if necessary, and quit only when it’s done.
- Take a Step Back
Even super-performers have their limits. Your star salesmen or ramrod CEO simply can’t go on delivering quarter after quarter, year after year, unless they take well-timed breaks to rejuvenate themselves or change their routine to get a new perspective.
Nobody knows when to stop like kids. As soon as they’re bored (or they see a new toy), they’re on to something else. They might not stick to their dinner or bedtimes, but when they’re really hungry or exhausted, they don’t compromise on food or sleep. They get their full eight hours, and then some!
Study after study has proved that downtime and rest improve both productivity and creativity. And yet, we continue to take our work too seriously, obsess over competition, dwell over threats and risks, or just passively complain about the daily grind.
Kids, on the other hand, never forget to laugh, explore, and “gamify” their everyday challenges. Their ability to “pretend play” is what makes them so creative. It lets them imagine new ideas, invent new concepts, and make do with whatever resources they have (which is little more than balls, blocks, and paper).
No business or work is easy, as half of the SWOT board is constantly telling you. Leaders need to build empathy and enjoyment into the work culture of their organizations in order to transform them. And there is no better mentor-by-example than the little boy or girl up to some mischief in your backyard.