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Early lessons

Francis Wade

During high school in Jamaica, students often ask: “what am I learning this for?”

They wonder to themselves why they are learning subjects whose content they are unlikely to retain. They have a point. Years later, I admit that although I got stellar CXC results, I hardly remember what terms like mitochondria, moments, theorem and molecule even mean.

Proponents of the standard school curriculum argue that the content of what one learns at that point is not all that important, and instead it is all about learning how to gather information and think critically.

If that is the case, and I believe it is, then I think that in addition to subjects such as biology and physics, there are lessons about the working world that they are much more likely to use that can be taught.

I think that there is a more basic curriculum that working adults need to learn, and that the best place for them to learn it is in high school. The vast majority of Caribbean adults are forced to learn them from the school of hard knocks, in an unstructured manner. While some professionals never gain a grasp of these “10 Working Basics” even after many years in the office, most end up stumbling into them through trial and error in the first decade on the job.

What are these 10 Working Basics that each and every working adult in the region must learn at some point to be a proficient professional or employee? If a young professional were to focus on learning these Basics early in their careers it would build a firm foundation for them to be successful.

Basic #1: How Business Works

Each professional needs to know the basics of business, and needs to understand concepts like profits and losses, ownership, dividends and even learn how to start their own business (with an emphasis on reality vs. theory.) A young professional who knows how business works from early on can develop a good idea of how they fit into the larger purpose of the enterprise.

Basic #2: The Employee Contract

There are so many misconceptions about work, and the implicit agreement between employee and employer, that some basic understanding must be created about the nature of the relationship. It must be clearly distinguished from other kinds of relationships, such as parent-child, teacher-student and friend-friend. The earlier this distinction is made, the better.

Basic #3: The Role of Customers

The vast majority of new hires meet live customers for the first time when they take their first jobs, but by then they would have missed a chance to understand the role of the customer in a business, and how they can be served by employees and a business. The importance of customers to a business is a concept they may never have experienced first-hand, given the low level of importance that many companies place on customer service. Unfortunately, they need to be taught the basic idea that the customer occupies the supreme role in business, academia and government.

Basic #4: Customer Service

Even the most highly trained professionals in our society – doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors – show an appalling lack of basic customer service. They certainly were not trained to deliver any particular customer experience in their formal training, yet most have to interact with customers on a regular basis. An introduction to the idea of customer service would include role plays, as well as the essentials that impact a customer’s experience, such as waiting time, first impressions, and last impressions.

Basic #5: Feedback Conversations

These conversations are at the heart of every effort to improve business performance in the workplace, and most are conducted with the elegance of an elephant stomping through the woods. The overwhelming experience is a negative one. The result is that
managers and employees avoid having these conversations altogether, in the hope that their colleagues will magically be able to improve on their own. Of course, this rarely happens, and performance stagnates at all levels.

If constructive feedback conversations were taught, perhaps using role-plays, future employees would not be afraid of these difficult conversations.

Summary: Young professionals who go into the workplace knowing that these critical skills must be mastered to achieve even basic performance, can look for opportunities to learn them quickly, and expand their careers.

Next week: Working Basics 6-10 for young professionals to master early in their careers.

The author is the owner of Framework Consulting, a firm specializing in conducting high stake interventions for Caribbean companies, and the author of FirstCuts monthly e-zine.
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