Last summer I was invited to be a guest lecturer in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos University here in San Diego. Those first two classes allowed me to fulfill a longtime goal of teaching at the college level, and it is as challenging and fulfilling as I hoped it would be. I accepted two more class assignments this spring, eager for the chance to apply my lessons learned from the first semester and to see the experience less from the narrow perspective of survival and more from the advantaged point of view of having come this way before.
As the school year comes to a close and I anticipate continuing my affiliation with the University in semesters ahead, I find myself thinking about one interaction – one conversation – this spring that helped me to get fundamentally clear about my “why?” for teaching.
I am a leadership coach and consultant by trade. My “day job” allows me to work with leaders to help them become more effective in leading their teams and growing their organizations. It is challenging and humbling work. Progress comes in fits and starts and change is tough to measure in the speed and impatience of the modern company. If I had an agenda for my teaching at the beginning of the fall semester it was to bring this reality – the necessity of continuous learning amidst the demands of organizational life – to my students in a way that would bring urgency to our collaboration and focus to our work.
If I hadn’t physically bumped into a student at a campus event earlier this semester this would likely still be my point of view.
The College of Business takes seriously the opportunity and responsibility it has to prepare its students for career success. One example of this is an “etiquette dinner” for sophomore students who are on the cusp of pursuing and interviewing for internships. The evening is exactly what you are imagining: a facilitated dining experience, course by course, designed to equip students to succeed at the all-important professional lunch or dinner. I was invited to serve as a table moderator, tasked with keeping the conversation flowing amidst instructions for eating soup (spoon it away from, not towards you) and selecting the correct water glass (it’s on your right).
Before entering the dining room, students, faculty and staff were encouraged to “network” in a reception area too small for our group. It was a nervous, crowded room and if you wanted a drink of water you had to work for it. When I finally made it to the self-serve beverage station, I proceeded to bump into one of the students as I was reaching for a glass. I quickly apologized and noticed right away that he was hesitant to engage in any further conversation. Like many of the students that night he had a “fish out of water” sense about him, making it perfectly clear why an event like this is such an essential opportunity.
Just as I was retreating back into the crowd, this young man stepped toward me with unexpected composure and simply said: “Can you help me?”
Surprised at first, I replied, “Of course. What do you need?”
He said, “I don’t know how to do this. What do I say?”
“This” was the small talk of networking. He was out of his depth, nervous and intimidated and, in the swirl of all of those feelings, was still willing to ask for help! He made an affirmative choice to learn from the situation he was in when so many of his peers were shrinking from the opportunity. He could have stayed on the sidelines or just melted into the larger group but he chose a different path.
So we talked it over. I asked him a few questions and encouraged him to ask a few of me. I made some suggestions, shared some ideas and wished him well before we went our separate ways. It took five minutes. I think that I helped him, like he asked me to.
I still want my students to bring their energy and commitment to learning to our modern workplaces that are so in need of meaningful, sustainable change. I still want them to meet the crazy demands of the business world with a maturity and mindfulness that expands the conversation beyond the balance sheet.
But that’s my agenda. It’s not why I teach.
I teach because I want to be around people who, from time to time will courageously remind me that one of the bravest and most important things we can ever do is ask for help.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.