Nowadays, whatever your background, getting your foot into the world of business is a challenge. You may have spent years crafting the most dazzling CV with a glittering array of extracurricular activities, emerged with a first class degree from a highly regarded university, and have thought deeply about your Personal Purpose – the world you’d like to see, your contribution to it, your short and long-term ambitions, your values – but there is no guarantee that you will land your dream job, let alone one that pays the bills. Competition is venal, securing a salary in line with your talent, even tougher. Right from the start – in order to build a successful career – you need to be inexorably focused and resilient.
But who encourages you to be focused and to hit the ground running? Who teaches you about the business world and the behaviours it values? Who helps you to make the right decisions and to not give up? Imagine being a young care leaver facing these questions.
In addition to the generic challenges of starting a career, care leavers, disadvantaged and understandably disillusioned, start their climb many rungs below their counterparts on any career ladder. Without parents to guide and anchor them, unlikely to have mentors or role models to support them or lend a helping hand when most needed, care leavers are career starters, trapped in a vicious cycle: alone and without a network they can rely on, access to opportunities will be missed that a virtuous circle (a support network) would open up.
Malcolm Gladwell illustrates a comparable example in his book ‘Outliers: The story of success’, where he contrasts school performance of children from low-income families with that of middle-class school children. He observes no obvious discrepancies between first graders; however, after the first summer holiday, results are alarmingly different: “He (from the middle-class family) gets taken to museums and gets enrolled in special programs and goes to summer camp, where he takes classes. When he’s bored at home, there are plenty of books to read, and his parents see it as their responsibility to keep him actively engaged in the world around him. […] She’s (from the low-income family) not getting driven by her mom to special classes, and there aren’t books lying around her house that she can read if she gets bored. There’s probably just a television.” So, without a family to provide engaging and enriching summer vacations, there are no clubs to join, no camps to explore one’s potential, no encouragement to read and learn. Young people in this situation miss out on valuable life experiences, denied the benefit of external input or stimulus that inspires their advantaged peers to look at the world through a different lens.
This example is about school children from low-income families and their holidays, rather than about care leavers, but the underlying truth is comparable: if the assumption is correct that care leavers are often on their own, without parents, stable family structures or support networks guiding their education and caring for their upbringing, then it is likely that they will miss out on what other children absorb from their infancy.
So, who can become the care leavers’ “tailwind”, helping them to make up the time and distance lost to accident of birth or upbringing, the “tailwind” I received from my dad learning to ride a bike, finding the courage to conquer the hill that seemed too big?
Companies can be that tailwind. Some offer programs specifically designed for care leavers. They understand that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve to fly, too. Until recently, I worked for one, global creative powerhouse, Saatchi & Saatchi. Its former worldwide Deputy Chairman, and my fellow beta baboon, Richard Hytner, supported an organisation called Drive Forward Foundation and our team, the global Strategy and Innovation practice, became home to a number of energetic, passionate and talented care leavers, who were then able to complete work experience at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Inviting young people, who normally wouldn’t have the chance to work at our company and whose CVs were – in truth – not competitive on any conventional selection criteria, might sound like some kind of pro bono benevolence; and, at the beginning, given the time it took to induct them, it did involve at least some spirit of generosity. To write the experience down, however, to their good fortune, and opportunities made possible only by us, would be a truly flawed assessment of the situation.
We learned – and were forced to relearn – the fundamentals of our business through fresh eyes, we got challenged about assumptions, some misplaced, with which we had been living for years, and we got an injection of passion, raw optimism, and commitment that even those graduates able to park their privilege, find it tough to demonstrate. In fact, companies and their employees have much to learn from care leavers, their resilience, courage, and adaptability.
We know that company and team performance profit from diversity. As an employee, if you have the chance to work with care leavers, whether to listen observe or coach, you will be astonished by their views on the world and enriched by keeping their company. Somewhat unfairly, we discovered the privilege to be more ours than theirs. Tempting though it may be to surround ourselves with people who think like we do, approach problems like we do, even look and sound like we do, my experience gave me the chance to look at everything through a new lens; through eyes of several young people with resilience, strength and the will, every day, to overcome adversity and to fight for their lot.
This is why we at beta baboon are passionate supporters of the See Potential campaign – designed not only to promote the business benefits of inclusion but also to help businesses review their recruitment practices and become stronger. I hope this gives many more people in business the chance to acquire new perspectives of what challenge really involves, what it means to be ‘hungry’ and to confront the reality that, most working days of our lives, we too easily take things for granted. On one level, my experience was a humbling one; on another, it helped to raise my game.