Columba Leadership programmes enable executives and 15-year-olds from poor schools to team up. Picture: SUPPLIED
Columba Leadership programmes enable executives and 15-year-olds from poor schools to team up. Picture: SUPPLIED

Corporate leaders looking to grow their skills and improve their management style often enrol at a business school or find a professional mentor. What they don’t do is spend a week on a residential course with 15-year-olds from poor schools with dire academic results and high drop-out rates. But they should, because what a hopeful and ambitious teenager can teach an established and perhaps jaded executive is astonishing.

“It’s a mind-shifting, extraordinary experience,” says Peter Gent, the head of sales and marketing for Columba Leadership. “I went assuming I had some value to share from my experience and to give these young people some insights they may not have.”

Instead, he was learning from them. He realised two things instantly: the dreadful hardship that many South Africans face, and that most young people have the energy and desire to define a new path to uplift themselves and their communities.

“These kids come with stories of neglect, absent parents, abuse and alcoholism and you realise that in their short lives they have experienced far more than you have ever experienced. Yet they have energy and optimism and an enormous desire to make something of themselves and to serve their community, and that’s truly humbling,” Gent says. “It puts into perspective all the petty nonsense and jealousies and politics in the workplace. An essential ingredient in any leader is humility, and many high-flying executives lose that on the way. This brings you back in touch with it.”

People often derive their self-esteem from what they can contribute to others, and even kids from tough backgrounds were excited when they discussed what issues were holding back their school and community and how they could address them, Gent says. “You have no idea what they can achieve if they are just given the opportunity.”

Columba Leadership works with underprivileged schools to help the teachers and students unite to drive changes from the inside, tackling issues such as absenteeism, high drop-out rates, poor academic results and bullying.

The programme begins with the week-long course where 12 students and three teachers go through practical exercises designed by behavioural experts and psychologists to demonstrate values like integrity and awareness. Another value is perseverance, so the participants have to repeat an activity until they get it right, demonstrating that things worth achieving don’t always happen easily.

Peter Gent interacting with learners. Picture: SUPPLIED
Peter Gent interacting with learners. Picture: SUPPLIED

Columba relies entirely on donations, and companies that sponsor its work can send four of their own executives on the leadership course. Executives often balk at the idea of spending a week with a bunch of schoolkids, but independent research proves it has a hugely beneficial effect on their own leadership skills.

Sponsorship costs R350,000 for a three-year programme. “The corporate representatives arrive thinking they have to teach the young people,” says Rob Taylor, a former director of Dimension Data who brought Columba to SA after seeing the changes it ignited in Scottish schools. “It’s experiential — you are learning from activities the whole week and at the end you have a group of people determined to make changes. So as a sponsoring company you are giving, but you gain more because the impact of sending your own leaders comes for free.”

Gent believes the delegates likely to benefit most are up-and-coming stars who have achieved some success in the workplace but need to hone their interpersonal skills. They return with enormous insight into the potential that exists within every individual and a better understanding of the value of partnering with and empowering people.

“They learn that their role is not to manage and instruct people but to help them realise their potential. Leadership is far more about mentoring and support than giving instructions and using authority,” Gent says.

Business leaders also worry about the challenges of managing multicultural organisations, and the course helps them to identify common values and use those to align people to achieve the goals. Then diversity becomes an asset, generating more creativity and broader ideas than from a homogeneous group.

A change in attitude also occurs in the teachers and school principals, who learn to better engage with their students and build relationships based on trust. On returning to the school, they assist the group to identify specific problems and recruit other students onto committees to tackle them. Some have organised extramural coaching, run anti-bullying campaigns, raised funds for new equipment or started a visiting scheme to look after elderly people in the neighbourhood.

As an additional benefit, the executives get to know teenagers who might be their target market or future employees, and gain insights into their ways of thinking. Columba graduates tend to significantly outperform the average school leaver in academic grades and social skills thanks to the three-year programme, creating a pipeline of highly employable young people for the sponsors.

“I’ve had the privilege of attending world-class business schools and you are not going to get an experience like this at Harvard or the London Business School,” Gent says. “Those may teach you the latest theories in digital marketing, but in terms of understanding the power of the human spirit nothing I have witnessed compares with this.”

And if you really want to know about digital marketing, you can ask the 15-year-olds over supper.