February 2, 2021

“All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten” applies to leaders

Valentina Coco Website Profile Picture
Valentina Coco
min read

Robert Fulghum’s essay is one of the most quoted at weddings and school commencements. Now that I do have a daughter in kindergarten, I found myself thinking about it and how it has a meaning in business life.

This is my retrospective.

What I learned in the last 10 years, and how I could have avoided some struggles if I had listened to my kindergarten teacher the points in bold text are from Robert’s original speech.

  1. Share everything: Especially the non material items. I make time to share my time and knowledge, my successes and my failures as other did with me, Try it, I am sure you will inspire someone.
  2. Play fair: Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Don’t take advantage of the people under you. I thought I had a strong moral compass, and I realized it was, like many, biased. It took me almost a decade to realize that and become vocal for how much we paid (or how we evaluated) our people. Especially some minorities. Maybe they didn’t negotiate or were not vocal about their achievements. It’s up to us managers to realize and recognize their worth.
  3. Don't hit people: Neither with your first nor your words. Don’t be a bully even if you could. Don’t punch down. I know that I got frustrated, and my tone was harsher than it should have been. I learned to acknowledge it, apologize and improve.
  4. Put things back where you found them: It’s the right thing to do. Do it also to “praise” and ideas. An example? When a colleague mentions something in a meeting and gets ignored, and when you repeat it it gets praised; let the room know it was her idea to begin with.
  5. Clean up your own mess.
  6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours: 10 years ago, I took this to mean “stay in your box”. Don’t venture beyond your job description. Today I put the emphasis is on the verb taking. I wander, try new things and explore by collaborating, offering my curiosity and support. I try as much as I can to not take other people energy, knowledge or successes.
  7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody: See the point on not hitting people. We all make mistakes with the best intention, even if we try to protect our teams. It still can hurt others. I learnt to not be ashamed of my mistakes, apologize openly, and also to not let the guilt consume me. Also: acknowledging your faults upfront will often give you the upper hand in a negotiation (trust Chris Voss, not me).
  8. Wash your hands before you eat: I consider this a key leadership lesson. Flu season is harsh, and open spaces, free snacks, and potlucks are more and more common. Washing hands, and sending people home when sick, is more effective in reducing office sicknesses than vaccinations.
  9. Flush: ‘Nough said.
  10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you: And Chocolate. Coffee. A walk with friends. A run. Make time for breaks and comfort in your daily work. Push your teams to do the same. A team that feels empowered to take a break when needed, will bond, be more productive and more engaged.
  11. Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some: Young me wanted to be a top performer. Work came first, occasionally with a work hard / party harder attitude. If there is one thing I learned, is that balance is the key. Self care, and creativity are not a waste of time. They aren’t even reducing work efficiency. We are better people (and therefore better managers) when we are balanced.
  12. Take a nap every afternoon: In an office environment, I translate this into take a 10' meditation / brain boost break. 90% of the time I have more energy, and get a brilliant idea on how to fix whatever excel spreadsheet issue I had been facing.
  13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together: Watch out for your team, as a leader and a team member. Fight at home, and be united when you face customers and management. Any short win you might get by pushing a colleague under the bus, is a fake win.
  14. Wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Steve Jobs and many others said this better than I ever could.
  15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we. What is the legacy you want to be remembered by? Having delivered at all costs, or having nurtured and developed leaders than went on to develop others? Today this is an easy question for me, 10 years ago my achiever personality made it often harder to chose.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned — the biggest word of all — LOOK.

Valentina Coco Website Profile Picture
Valentina Coco
inclusive leader

I'm a connector, leader, change-maker, mother and coach. My experience of going through many burnouts motivated me to find solutions to improve the culture in the workplace and achieve more.

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