Did you see Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in the House of Commons recently? God, I love a good orator. Mhairi caught the nation’s mood and was the most articulate voice in a sea of silence opposing George Osborne’s budget. So what? I’ll tell you what: she’s twenty. The youngest MP in nearly three centuries. Mhairi made the headlines because she is a fresh voice with fresh ideas. She combined the fire of righteousness indignation at the unfairness she sees every day in her constituency with the statesmanship, compassion and grace of one who wants her party, the SNP, to join in a united opposition with the Labour Party to create a voice the government cannot ignore. Older heads should heed this latter-day Joan of Arc. She has ideas. And a young person with ideas can change the world.
If she was in a corporation, she’d be making tea and photocopying documents along with all the other 20 year old graduate trainees.
This is the great tragedy of business. Youth is not a prized asset. But look around at academia, music, television, art, politics – the pace is being made by the young. By contrast, graduate programmes in most corporations are designed to compress the brightest minds coming out of universities into a mould of conformity so they can be “productive” (and billable) as quickly as possible. They are trained to pedal the same stuff their bosses peddle in an unending progression up the promotional ladder. This is to squander the intellect, energy and idealism that creates movements, ideas and breakthroughs. What we need in business is radicalism, outspoken-ism, iconoclasm. What corporations say they want – the much vaunted ‘thinking outside of the box’. In reality, what corporations mean by this is a document imploring square people to think outside of their square – the square that the company put them in in the first place.
Mhairi Black spoke of “weathervanes and signposts” – an analogy lifted from her political hero Tony Benn.
Weathervanes point the way of the prevailing wind; signposts point the way. In corporate terms, these epithets could be substituted by “careerists” or “awkward visionaries”. Which are you employing? And how is your organisation encouraging or stifling the young, visionary voices? At Caffeine we believe the Mhairi Blacks of this world are incredibly valuable assets. They are leaders, just at the wrong end of the hierarchy. So if you have Mhairi-like firebrands in your organisation, help them to flourish. Don’t put them in a straitjacket and make them scared to say “Boo!”. In the words of Al Pacino in the film ‘The scent of a woman’, if you help these people shine “they’ll make you proud one day“.