Learning from my children

My partner and I have the pleasure this week of two of my adult children returning from university for the Easter break (the eldest had a better offer: three weeks in Shanghai). So the house is a hive of essay and play writing, requests for food they can’t usually afford and conversation topics that I am not usually exposed to. So it’s a place of learning for all of us.

We get insights into a parallel world, where different knowledge is assumed and traded. I didn’t know about the Bechdel test until I was party to a debate about which blockbusters passed (apparently”Die Hard” passes but the whole of the first Star Wars trilogy fails). We hear from our daughters about the cutting edge of feminism and learn that, despite the best efforts of our younger selves, there is still work to do. And a great take on teamwork from my son, born in the experience of a successful show at the last Edinburgh fringe: “if everyone does more than their job, then you get more than the job done.”

And I am taken to task when I disparage recent graduates whose consultancy style involves fitting their clients’ problem to the latest faddish solution. That is, of course, poor practice but it’s not about the consultants being young. Some of my childrens’ peers have had experiences I’ll never share. They have freshness, energy and curiosity. They will have their own blind-spots and frailties but you won’t hear them discard an idea because “we tried that in 1985 and it didn’t work”. But it does seem that many organisations are poor at harnessing this resource.

We also seem to have a problem at other end of the career path. I meet many people with track-records of successful leadership who have reached the stage where they want to do less but still share and apply their hard-won wisdom. But few jobs or organisations are geared up for that: keep on putting in the hours or (if you don’t have 3 children in higher education) plan for your retirement.

And in the middle, there are the thiry and forty-somethings: often the powerhouse of the organisation, young enough to have some energy, openness and creative ideas, experienced enough to know which ideas to back. But often my clients in this age group struggle to get the balance right. They have growing families, with children soon to hit the mumbling, grunting, door-slamming years. They risk burn-out out just when they are starting to ask existential questions that seemed irrelevant when they were younger. They shoulder a burden at work and at home.

But of course, we mostly deal with all this. And do our best to get a decent balance and ensure that our enthusiasm and our wisdom get heard.

I do wonder though whether we could do better and make our organisations more productive places where the changing needs of individuals are recognised.


Perhaps we need something simple, like the Bechdel test, to assess how well organisations take account of the shifting priorities, gifts and perspective of their employees. I think I’ll ask my children to devise one.