What Can CEOs Learn from Urban Children?

by Paula Moran

Success at a new job can hinge on your ability to assimilate to the cultural norms of your new organization. Is cussing permissible  What is "business casual"? Can you call the CEO by her first name? Learning those cultural norms can take some time. Hopefully you won't commit political suicide before you learn them.

Working in an urban school requires knowledge of a culture that can be very foreign and complex to outsiders. Success as an urban teacher is dependent upon your ability to navigate this culture and build relationships within it.

The Urban Teacher Cohort program out of Miami University has taken a new approach to teacher education through cultural mentor-ship. The Miami University student body is predominantly white and most come from families who can afford to send their children to college. The Urban Teacher Cohort operates in a predominantly black and poor community called Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, Ohio. While members of the Urban Teacher Cohort may have a passion to help the children of Over the Rhine, they initially lack the skills to navigate the culture of Over the Rhine. To address these barriers the program assigns each cohort member both a student and community member mentor. The student attends a public school in the community. These two mentors are responsible for teaching local cultural knowledge to the Miami Student.

It is a humbling and rewarding experience for a college student to be mentored by a middle schooler and a blue collar worker. But this mentorship is essential to the sucesss of the Urban Teacher Cohort program. It has been so successful that the program is expanding into other cities.

What can business leaders learn from this? Teachers are brought into classroom to enable students to do more through education just as managers are brought in to improve performance of their reports. Just as a teacher needs to be able to navigate the culture of his or her students, a manager needs to understand the culture of his or her subordinate team. That cultural knowledge will enable a manager to effect change quicker and easier within the organization.

An organization can hand a new manager the tools to succeed by proving them a cultural mentor from the population the manager is charged to lead. It is probably best the mentor not be a direct report, perhaps someone from a different team or department. This mentorship is not a long term commitment. It is a finite indoctrination mentorship. It is also not evaluative, nor part of a 360 degree evaluation. The mentorship is purely educational and supportive.

Such a mentorship has an added value to the organization through quicker onboarding and greater employee engagement. It empowers employees because it shows their organization cares about their knowledge and opinions. There is the potential for longer employee retention. If you take the time to mentor someone of influence you are more likely to stay around to watch their success. 

If urban children can mentor their teachers to improve the school, think what your employees can do to mentor their management and improve the organization's performance.