heliotrope learning

better skills, brighter future

The power of positive feedback

I had such a great day last Monday. I had volunteered to be a mentor at an event for sixth-form students. It’s run by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) of which I’ve been a member for nearly 20 years. I felt it was time to give something back.

The BASE (Business, Accounting and Skills Education) competition is designed to engage 16 – 19 year olds in a business challenge that enables them to develop key employability skills and understand what it’s like to be an ICAEW Chartered Accountant. There are 46 regional heats culminating in a national final in June 2015.

I had been allocated to a team from a school in Kent. I have to admit to being more than a little nervous before the students arrived; whilst I’ve been in learning and development for many years, I’ve worked with adults in a professional services environment. I’m not a schoolteacher and I wasn’t sure how the dynamics would work. I needn’t have worried. My team was confident, capable and enthusiastic. Although they were quiet and polite to begin with, they soon “warmed up” and told me about the subjects they were studying at A-level, their hopes and dreams about further education and careers and their passions outside school. One lad, Joshua, beamed a huge smile when he started talking about playing basketball – he’d like to get a sports scholarship to help fund a degree. When I asked who he played for, he replied that it was just the school for now; his parents didn’t want him to get too distracted from his school studies by playing for his county but you could see that’s what he would dearly love to do.

Although I’d introduced myself by name, they simply referred to me as ‘Miss’ throughout the day, which was disconcerting to begin with but seemed quite respectful once I’d got used to it.

My role was to answer their questions as they set about the tasks in the challenge. And they had so many questions. I was really impressed with their curiosity. What this term meant, why the company might take a particular course of action, what the ethical response might be, how they should communicate that to the board of directors. I wasn’t allowed to do the work for them but, rather, reflect ideas and suggestions back to them. At every opportunity, I tried to relate the business situation to similar scenarios in their world. I wanted to find ways to help them remember complex concepts.

There wasn’t a right or wrong answer but they had to be able to justify their stance. The tasks led into a final presentation. Each member of my team took a section to present back on. Each wrote a few key phrases down on index cards and asked me to time them as they practised. Each felt responsible to their fellow team members for delivering their part in sufficient detail without taking too long, as the presentation time was limited to four minutes.

They delivered it well and came in the top four presentations of the day but, sadly, didn’t win the heat. However, they had embraced the challenge and learned a lot in the process.

At the end of the event, one of the judges, who had been wandering round several tables during the task stages, noting how each team was communicating and working together came up to me. She said they weren’t supposed to comment on the mentors but she felt compelled to tell me that she thought I’d done a fantastic job with my team. I was “easily the best mentor in the room” and that I had “engaged them and kept them on track without taking over”. Well, the students seemed to get a lot out of the day but this particular mentor floated out of Chartered Accountants’ Hall (ICAEW’s London home) six inches off the ground. The power of a little bit of positive feedback, you see. Not only was it nice to be noticed but it also reaffirmed to me that I have the necessary skills. Working for myself, I’m missing out on the feedback loop I had as an employee. So I really appreciated her taking a moment to tell me. I’m involved in two more heats next year – I can’t wait!