Dr. Mary Mason is the CEO and founder of Little Medical School.
Some of my favorite getaway trips are the ones with my high school friends. There is something extraordinary about reconnecting with those people who knew you before you became an executive. While most of us think we remember our 16-year-old selves, nobody is better than those high school buddies to remind you of your younger teenage self’s strengths, dreams and aspirations.
While some people want to “forget high school,” I suggest that there are valuable lessons you can learn by going back to that high school reunion or connecting with old friends. These people were there when you made some of your life’s first “parent-free,” independent decisions. What school clubs should you join? Should you try out for the play or a sports team? Who should you go with to prom? What do you want to do when you grow up? Should you go to college, and where?
While some of these decisions that had to be made in high school seem at first glance trivial in your current position, this was the starting line for your becoming an executive and business leader. And those old friends were there supporting you every step of the way.
Your high school friend group was probably some of your earliest experiences of functioning as part of a “business unit:” You had the group leader, the social chair, the PR/communications lead, the accountant and the project managers. You had to make collective decisions as a group, deciding what you wanted to do on a Saturday night, getting group buy-in and then executing. And you had to make sure other groups knew what the plan was, which was challenging in the days before cell phones and social media.
Here are some important lessons you can learn to make you a better leader when returning to the old teenage days.
1. Humility: Hanging out with old friends who knew you before the corner office or had the title can help you remember where you came from and grounds you. After all, humility is an essential trait in great leaders.
Reflecting on high school relationships reminds us of our initial struggles and growth when we were young. These high school relationships, often filled with misunderstandings and compromise, provide valuable lessons in patience, acceptance and empathy. By remembering our past experiences and the personal development that ensued, we can approach workplace interactions with a humble and understanding mindset.
2. Authenticity: High school friends knew you in a more original, raw form. They can remind you of the importance of being authentic and genuine to yourself, which can translate into a much high form of leadership.
Authenticity in the workplace, much like our high school friendships, involves showing up as our true, unfiltered selves. For instance, in a team meeting, an authentic leader doesn’t shy away from expressing their ideas, even if they differ from popular opinion. They are not afraid to admit when they don’t have all the answers and are open to learning from others. I believe this kind of authenticity can breed trust and respect among team members, just like it did in your high school friendships.
3. Appreciation Of Diverse Skills: We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Friends who were great artists, scholars, cheerleaders, athletes, student leaders and thespians in high school are now successful business owners, entrepreneurs, teachers, real estate agents, social workers, doctors, lawyers and government officials, making significant contributions to their communities. Appreciation of diverse skills is crucial in the workplace.
Leaders should acknowledge, value and cultivate the unique talents and abilities that each team member brings to the table. This could be done through providing interdisciplinary and inter-departmental trainings or encouraging higher education with a tuition benefit to further develop and enhance an employee’s skill set. Just like our high school friends who pursued various paths and excelled in different fields, the diverse talents and skill sets within a company can contribute to its overall success.
4. Diverse Perspectives: Your high school friends have all pursued different career paths and professions. Listening to their perspectives can give you great insight into other industries and remind you of the importance of thinking differently.
There are many ways business leaders can take this lesson to the next level in your organization. Promoting from within sends a strong message to employees that there are opportunities for growth within the company, no matter their background. This can encourage diverse perspectives at all levels of the organization. And there is no better way to show your employees that you care and take diversity seriously than developing inclusive policies and offering benefits that cater to the unique needs of your workforce. This could include flexible work hours, parental leave or support for mental health.
5. The Importance Of Honest Feedback: You can count on your old friends to give you candid feedback, refreshing in today’s “yes-sir/ma’am” corporate world.
Just like we did when planning an after-graduation party or working on a group English project, encourage employees to express their thoughts and ideas freely. This could be facilitated through regular team meetings, suggestion boxes or anonymous feedback platforms.
As you progress along your career path, take the time to reconnect with those who were pivotal in shaping the person and leader you have become. Remembering your roots and where you came from can keep you grounded, shape your values and guide your decisions as you navigate the corporate world.
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