June 2017

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I am excited with my first coaching lesson with group 4 female youths. Outwardly they looked young and fresh, smiling broadly and eager to meet with me. I was equally eager but for a different reason. I was coaching, not mentoring. I told them I was not there to offer any answers. On the contrary, they had all the answers and through our chatting, they were going to find those answers by themselves and pursue them! They were still not deterred by this seeming lack of ‘commitment’ on my part and just wanted to have my attention.

I asked the first question: ‘What is it that they wanted to discuss with me?’ The first respondent typically went into the usual ‘as a youth I want to be empowered’. It’s almost a cliché these days that when youth or women speak or anyone speaking on their behalf, will make that statement…. that they want or need or expect to be empowered or to empower someone! I have never taken the time to examine that statement until that morning. I asked the question, ‘What do you mean by the word ‘empowerment’?’ We went through the motions of identifying the operative words and settling on some definitions. I kept hearing this word in all their submissions. Interestingly, after some deliberations, it turned out that empowerment is in their hands. It starts from where they are. It is not something that is bestowed on them from out there, it is something they own and can control. It is about harnessing their talents into something meaningful and beneficial to themselves and others. It was about identifying opportunities and pursuing them. It was settled then that ‘empowerment’ was actually an internal and not external phenomenon.

After this successful process I then wanted to know what it is they wanted to do? Typically, they started off by complaining about the difficulties of being youth. No money, no opportunities no trust and no one listening. “Okay”, I said, “that seems to be your current reality, but from where you are sitting, let’s look at what is there, more like a SWOT analysis.” During this conversation, we turned the narrative around and they could see that something was possible, no matter how small, if they own it. Secondly, it was also evident that peer to peer collaborations were possible if only they opened up communication channels. This was also easier and better than them looking up to the adults to deal with their issues.

Thirdly they accepted that to get things done, they needed to work together with like-minded individuals. Lastly, they agreed that there were some projects that they could pursue immediately and some which needed to wait until another time. After this phase we focused in on what they felt they could pursue almost immediately. They had not come to me as a team but the sharing of ideas started a collaborative idea generation process. The first idea was pitched and rejected on the basis of some identified risks. The second and third ideas gained some traction and the fourth idea seemed to be acceptable.

Unknown to them, they rejected the ideas on the basis of risk, lack of skill set, and availability of time to commit to the business. Later when they arrived at the business they liked, they agreed that it was for the short term only, and they would review the matter in the shortest possible time to extend the plan for a little while longer. I discovered that one of them had a master’s degree and was working for a bank. Two were college students studying art and HR respectively. The fourth one, who in my view was the due diligence and risk person, recently left secondary school but was not enrolled in college. During the conversation she was the one who brought out all the risk issues that others did not consider. The girl from the bank kept saying, I can put up the money when you are ready. The girl who had the business idea also had the marketing strategy and sales strategy all thought out. She seemed quite conversant with this idea. Clearly, because of their complementary skills the group were speaking as a team. They could see the advantage of working with others. All those skills came at zero cost, except it required understanding and acceptance and willingness to participate. The only loss to them, if things did not work out, would be the disappointment of unrealized dreams. Of course the one who puts up the money stands to lose the investment but that is the risk that all investors face. Where there is no risk, there is no reward. The upside is that everyone gains and there is overall satisfaction of a successful endeavor.

The closing to this session was an assignment of tasks and putting the pegs in the ground as to what they needed to do and by when. In the next few weeks I will check on them again to see what they have done since the last meeting. I took my leave after a good 45 minutes.

Looking back at my mentor self, I realized that I would not have been able to satisfactorily solve the empowerment dilemma of those girls. I would not have had the money or motivation to ‘invest’ in their business plans. They were much too small, unproven and would not have trusted them to pull it off. Even the networks that I have would not have solved their problems for the same reasons. Too small, unproven and therefore too risky. The other issue is that they had come in as individuals but ended up thinking as a team. As a mentor, I would have been dealing with each individually. No matter which way I would have looked at it, there is no way those girls would have had a happy day.

My own change of style from mentor to coach helped them to see the opportunities available around them. I allowed them to openly speak to each other, instead of speaking to me, and share their ideas. They relied on each other to examine the same question and at the end they had the solution to which they all saw and owned a part. I hope that going forward, they will realise that the need to hold on to their part and deliver until the whole is achieved is actually the empowerment they talk about. Working with others is ‘empowerment’. It means you allow others to contribute and strengthen you through their different perspectives which maybe even better perspective than what you are currently seeing. Working collectively should be the new narrative for women or youth everywhere.

Recently, I attended a women’s training. Unlike the youths, these women are already doing something, running their businesses in various sectors. Their coming to this training was more for networking, information sharing and other skills in order to grow and strengthen their businesses. I sat in on one of their break-out sessions. From their submissions, it was quite evident that people still struggle with professionalism by detaching themselves as individual owners from the business; They still cannot draw the line with the staff, some of whom maybe relatives. Goal setting and delivery commitments are also difficult for many. They have been unable to use social media effectively to project their offering and attract new business.

Why you are in business is to serve a need. Serving that need must be a daily mantra to all. Entrepreneurs must keep that in mind because the competition you face on a daily basis; the business decisions you make and the risks you take must propel the business to higher heights. The assets available will determine the risks you take. Obviously, risk is something most entrepreneurs would rather avoid but you cannot run a business without it, the business needs it. It is a necessary evil, that bitter pill to the business that is good and bad. Bad if the risk materializes and good if the upside is realized. Entrepreneurs therefore need a coach to walk them through the various decision nodes. Why certain decisions must wait while some cannot wait. So, keeping the bigger picture is critical and marrying that with the regular decisions is necessary.

In conclusion, having a coach is a necessity. I heard ‘mentor’ a few times from the ladies but I sincerely hope they meant coach. Coaching invariably helps the coached to realise that not every opportunity that comes along is for you, even if it is within your grasp. It must answer to why you are in business.



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