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Grooming Emerging Leaders: Lessons from Sveta

expectations in the emerging leaders program

The Emerging Leaders Program (formerly called the Emerging Fellows Program) is a scholarship we award where we take people from very disadvantaged communities, with limited chances in life, and we guide them through their studies, even guide them into universities and place them into major consulting firms and other major companies.

Graduates of the program have joined McKinsey, BCG, Bain and Morgan Stanley.

I don’t want to talk about the part of the program where we help them join consulting firms and other companies. We covered this topic a number of times previously.

Today I want to talk about values, obligations and expectations of those selected for the Emerging Leaders Program.

The expectations are enormous. It is called Emerging Leaders for a reason, versus the Emerging Upper Middle Class Program.

If you read the contract that they sign when they join, its not a big contract but in there it is clearly stated that people who join the Emerging Leaders Program are expected to go back to their communities once a year and become involved in a significant socio-economic endeavor, with the approval of Firmsconsulting.

This approval part is important. We take it seriously.

I want to talk you through a recent event with Sveta, the lady from Siberia, who is one of our emerging leaders. For those of you who don’t know, this lady have never left her village pretty much her entire life. When she contacted us she wanted help joining the mining industry in Russia, and knew I had been a resources partner.

She wanted to earn about 200$ a month. We started speaking with her. We convinced her to aim higher, finish high school well. She joined good university in Moscow with our help and transferred into great university in Paris. And eventually got into McKinsey. She will join McKinsey full time when she graduates.

We had discussion recently where we were planning the kind of work she will do come the winter vacation. When I run these type of discussions I don’t really worry about the agenda because I am expecting the client, or in this case one of our emerging leaders, is going to drive the bulk of it. I am enjoying talking about what she is doing. I am listening, but I am not really paying attention because I do not expect any surprises.

Then, half way through the call I realize, “Hey, hold on a second, what do you mean you will be spending your winter in Paris helping out with some community dealing with the integration of refugees? Is that what you want to do?” And she said, “Yes, I want to do something different and I know I need to go back to Russia but I lived in Russia my whole life. I want to do something different. And I am still helping out with communities. I am going to help teach these refugees.”

Now I think it is admirable to want help refugees. My ancestors were refugees. I fully support these things. Firmsconsulting is 100% in support of these type of causes. But this is not why we give out an Emerging Leaders Program.

The Emerging Leaders program is a program where we specifically target certain communities which we think lack role models. We go into such communities. We scoop up someone we think could be a great role model. We make them work very closely with myself or another partner. We groom them and train them. And then we send them back to that community so that they can serve as role models for others.

It’s a circle of life. You can’t break the circle and expect the conveyer belt of progress to continue. Its not going to continue.

If Sveta does not go back to her village what happens to other people in her village who have dreams but don’t know what is possible because they do not have any role models to emulate and observe? Who will be their inspiration?

So we had a long debate about this. When we have these debates I never remind client about the contract. I don’t say, “Hey, you signed a contract and you will do this.” Because, the reality is, the client knows this. If the client does not want to do something, me reminding them about the contract is not going to force them to do it. Its not how we operate.

This is not how anyone should negotiate. When you need to enforce a contract you have essentially failed.

So, we had this debate about why she wants to work in Paris.

I said, “Helping refugees learn to speak English is very important to them, but given the skills you have and the potential you have, it’s a waste of your skills. So get someone else to do the refugee work. You can do more.”

She had this long debate. Eventually she agreed with me that it is a waste of her time.

And then she tells me, “Well, the reason I don’t want to go back to Siberia, besides the terrible winter, is because I have boyfriend in Paris and I want to spend time with him.”

emerging leaders programNow I am thinking to myself, “Oh my God, you wanted me to spend the better part of the black hair I still had on my head trying to bring you into Western world, give you a future and you are now passing up career opportunities and leaving on the table an opportunity to make a real impact just to please some guy? I mean, honestly, is that what you want to be doing so early in your career?”

Obviously I cannot tell her this, but I am thinking this.

I am trying to get her to see it my way, without getting involved into a personal dispute.

Basically, it came down to me saying, “Look, you can’t make decisions this way because you have to think about long-term implications. You still have to develop yourself. You still need exposure to these skills.”

So I had to position it that way. Not as, “Any guy that makes you change your career just to suit him is probably not worth it.” You obviously can’t say that. But I was thinking it.

So we agreed she will go back to Russia for winter.

But then she comes up with this quite ridiculous plan whereby her school has a program where all the masters in business students, so broader than MBA, go to do these projects. Basically like what MBA programs do. They send off the MBA students to other parts of the world to do some type of market analyses projects.

Now, I don’t have any problems with those projects.

But let me ask you a question. Who benefits from this?

Does that little shop in the middle of Peruvian desert truly benefit from the market analysis done by a group of MBAs or is this being done primarily for the benefit of the MBAs to get some international exposure and tell potential employers that they worked internationally and, therefore, should be remunerated accordingly?

Moreover, just like case competitions this adds little to no value to your life if you are trying to get into McKinsey or BCG. These programs, where students are taken to another country to do consulting work, do not really help your chances to get into consulting.

So, as you figured, I did not end up telling Sveta, “Yes, do this!” Because it is not going to help her and it is not going to help her community. Remember, the goal is to help the community.

Taking her boyfriend along and a bunch of his friends to get drunk and do weird stuff in Russia is not the goal of the Emerging Leaders Program. So I had to talk her out of that.

Eventually, what I did talk her into doing, which took a long time, is that in Sveta’s village they have a very outdated system of pensions being distributed to village members. It’s a manual process. So one of the things I wanted her to set up is a system where a local bank can accept SMS payments and payments can be distributed via mobile phone.

Now, this is not difficult to do. Its actually pretty easy to do. If she wants to take some tech people from her school to do that I am ok with it. But they have to roll it out. That is useful to a community. It helps the community. Versus going out and teaching people to read and write. That is going to help some other country, which is great. But that is not the best use of her skills and that is not the goal of the Emerging Leaders Program.

Emerging Leaders have a lot of expectations on them. They have unprecedented access to us. They can call us at any time of the night and ask for help and we will guide them. We will talk to them for an hour in the middle of the night, if required. We sit down with them when they are making career choices, when they are picking their majors. We sit down with them when they are planning where they will apply for internships. We sit down with them when they are planning their savings. We sit down with them when they are planning which offices to join.

Such access comes with responsibility, and accountability. And the responsibility is that you have to honour the program’s initial goals.

Now, am I upset with Sveta?

No. She is young. She never been out of her country. She is obviously excited. I can’t blame her. She is a child. She is going to be excited. She is going to do silly things. I don’t at all belittle why she wanted to make the choices she did. I would have probably done the same thing in her situation.

I think the key is, when you are dealing with such young people you don’t want to get into this model of saying, “Oh, young people! They are so irresponsible.” It is easy to fall into that trap. I think the trick here is that she is going to be irresponsible because she is young. Accept that and life will be a lot easier. She is irresponsible because she is young, not because she is not smart. She wants to do things she never did. She is trying to compress it all into one vacation.

if you were born into the collapsing Soviet Union you would probably also want to never go back.

So she will not be going to Russia for the whole of her break. Just for half of the break. I think she can roll this thing out during half of her break. And then she will come back and do whatever she wants.

The trick here is that it’s like raising a daughter. You have got to reward her and teach her responsibility at the same time. If you only teach her responsibility she is going to rebel on her own terms.

So the deal we have is that she has got to roll out the SMS system and then she is free to run wild in the streets of Paris. My gut feel is once she is in Siberia she will stay there for most of her vacation because it will be so fulfilling for her, but I will insist she spends some time just resting.

A part of life should be spent observing things and I think there is enough to observe in Paris.

So what are the lessons from this story?

The lessons are, when you are developing younger people I feel that the older you become you kind of forget that you have got to have some fun in life. Yes, she has obligations but you cannot cut out the fun. You have got to go through the motions but it has to be fun.

There is a reward system in place. There is a reason capitalism beat communism. Not just beat it, it white washed it. You work harder when you are incentivized. So her incentive is, “Roll this out then do whatever you want.”

I think the second one is, never fall into the trap of saying, “Oh my God, young people are just so lazy.” Because it is easy to do that.

I don’t think Sveta is lazy. I think she is very impressive, if not one of the most impressive people I have ever seen in my entire life. She reminds me of Kris, a partner at Firmsconsulting. May be she is a younger version of Kris. She also reminds me a little bit of Amy, another partner at Firmsconsulting.

When you want to develop someone, there has to be an explanation of responsibility without judging them. You have to get them to do what you want them to do by rewarding them, not by punishing them. There is no punishment whereby I say, “Hey, you took our time and money and now you have to do it.” No. Because if I do it to her she is not going to want to do it.

You have got to find the way to encourage people. This is difficult because you think you sign a contract that people will follow. But people are human. They get tired. Its hard to do everything all the time. So if you have people you are trying to inspire, remember it is about motivation, it is about incentivazation. Its never about, “You signed the contract. You have to do this.”

It would be nice if the global warming scaremongers would adopt this philosophy versus trying to scare us into changing. If 10,000 articles about rising sea levels did not change things, maybe a different approach is needed.

Even though someone signed the contract you have to motivate them and get them going. So hopefully that is the lesson you take out of it.

Obviously we will chronicle Sveta’s journey quite closely because she is one of our most successful emerging leaders. She could end up being the most successful over time. Time will tell. Yet, she has strong competition from Sanda and other candidates.

Hopefully you find this useful. If you have any comments or questions please feel free to respond and I will give you my thoughts.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Have you ever fallen for the trap of brushing off the disappointment caused by a young mentee by saying, “Young people are just too lazy these days!” What happened? Please share in the comments.

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Image from Giulia Forsythe under cc, cropped.
Image from David Spinks under cc, cropped.
Image from Daniel Dionne under cc, cropped.

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