Lessons in business leadership: Creating a learning mindset, through struggle

I was thrilled to participate in the Principal for a Day program at Kingswood College last week. The experience presented many learning opportunities, including new perspectives on business leadership and opening the worlds of our children.

Last week I headed back to school. But this time I got to be Principal for a Day… that is, I spent the day with the true principal of Kingswood College, Elisabeth Lenders, and gained valuable insight into business leadership – including how businesses can learn about resilience and flexibility from the education sector.

business leadership Principal for a day
Deirdre Diamante with Kingswood College Principal, Elisabeth Lenders

And the day started early at 7:45am with a finance committee meeting – one of the many board and committee meetings a principal must attend. It seems running a school is not so different from running a corporation. A school principal interacts with the school board in much the same manner a CEO does: the board reviews and asks the right questions, then provides the right level of governance to their principal and to the organisation – the school.

Growing young minds

We then moved to a conference on “Growing Young Minds: The Science of Emotional Resilience”, presented by Kingswood College and Elevo Institute for teachers and educators.

I think we all understand that schools need to foster a learning environment where intelligence, progress and achievement can be grown. Interestingly, however, there was also great discussion on the need for this growth to be achieved through effort – where effort equals struggle and struggle is not considered a bad thing. In fact, students often feel better about themselves with achievements obtained through effort. Learning to try, then fail, then trying again and succeeding, builds a learning mindset and resilience.

Listening to this, it struck me how important this learning mindset and resilience is within the context of ‘jobs of the future’ and business leadership. We all need the ability to think and learn and struggle – both as students and adults.

During the conference we were fortunate to listen to Professor Geoff Masters, OA (and CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research), who reinforced the message that every student is capable and can build intelligence – if we can get the learning environment right.

However, he emphasised that successful learning is about progress, NOT aged-based expectations, using the example of the child that gets a D every year simply because they are being taught concepts they are not quite ready for. This requires a strong understanding of where students are in their learning and the use of an assessment tool that focuses on long-term progress and ongoing growth. This helps children to develop confidence in their learning.

Again, I related this to the business world, thinking about adult-based learning, where generally adults are assessed against levels and progression against these levels. As adults we no longer study units based on our age!

Fostering entrepreneurship

After the conference I enjoyed various meetings with teaching leads among Kingswood College’s senior school, science cohort and other STEM programs.

I was thrilled to be introduced to the Human Powered Vehicle (HPV) program, where science and engineering is learnt through the design, build, test and operation of a HPV. These vehicles are raced amongst more than 100 other schools, and at the completion of each race the students learn new ways to design and deliver a winning vehicle.

Kingswood College Human Powered Vehicle (HPV)
Kingswood College Human Powered Vehicle (HPV)

Finally, I had a wonderful chat with the principal of Kingswood College, Elisabeth Lenders. I think both Elisabeth and I agree that the primary role of a school is to produce a well-rounded human being that can interact and contribute to society. However, as students get older they also need to build work-ready skills. Our top picks for work-ready skills: reading and writing (i.e. communication skills), working in teams, problem solving, making mistakes and a processing ability. An understanding of maths and numbers is also important.

We then discussed entrepreneurship: how does a school build entrepreneurial skills in its students? I think many young children are natural entrepreneurs. From an early age they test and trial different options to get what they want. They are innovative and focused. Sure, they don’t understand how to commercialise these skills, but they aren’t afraid to take risks, to struggle.

Through school we begin to use these skills less. Both the risk and stakes of failure increase with the threat of exams, missing tertiary opportunities, and letting down peers, parents and teachers. The system almost knocks this entrepreneurship out of us. This is why programs like the HPV are so great. It’s also why it’s great that this school is talking about creating a learning mindset built through struggle.

Relevance to the business world

I look at business leadership in the commercial sector – my business, and others. We all need to have this mindset of learning and flexibility that schools have… We need to be more open to changing our attitudes to growing and innovating our businesses. Nine years ago I created Mia out of nothing, yet now it’s difficult to think about to how to change, let alone grow, a service offering.

Being a school principal is a hard gig. They run an organisation where their staff, clients, and quite often shareholders are constantly around them. As well as possessing business acumen, they must also create the culture of the right learning environment and walk the talk. I also noticed they are responsible for extinguishing quite a few spot fires. They must have compassion and be forthright: warm heart, strong spine.

But these are the same qualities we need in business leadership. In addition to our business acumen we must have passion for the outcomes of what we are doing – the why we set up a business originally. We must also have compassion, and importantly we need to create a learning environment within our organisations.

With the changing pace of technology and business it’s critical that the business community embraces the same learning mindset, again built through struggle, to not just support us today, but help prepare us for jobs of the future. As business leaders we must create these learning environments not just within our business but across the ecosystem.

When we look outside our own environment there is so much we can learn about business leadership (and more!) and I welcomed the opportunity to learn from being a Principal for a Day.


About Principal for a Day

The Principal For A Day event, which took place on Tuesday 3 September 2019, is an initiative of the Australian Council for Education Research. It aims to increase understanding, awareness and partnerships between schools, businesses and the community by providing leaders with firsthand and current experiences of schools.

More information: http://www.acer.org/pfad

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