Supporting the learning of the passionate is the other half of the equation.
I’ve talked before about the need to hire for disposition—the questing and connecting dispositions, specifically—and to cultivate these passionate dispositions in the workforce. But attracting and developing passion is only half the battle. What do you do when you already have passionate individuals? Supporting the learning of the passionate is the other half of the equation.
The more we study the changing world and look for patterns in the organizations and individuals who seem to thrive, the more convinced we are of the centrality of learning for success.
In November 2013, the Center for the Edge had the opportunity to host a group of Millennials from around the world as part of the World Merit organization’s Your Big Year (YBY) challenge. These YBY Champions had been selected, from among thousands of young social entrepreneurs who participate in World Merit’s online platform, to spend a week in San Francisco meeting with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, visiting organizations such as Google, StubHub, TCHO, and Teach for America, and competing in daily challenges to win a potentially life-changing year-long journey to work on social impact projects.
The day provided a reminder of the tremendous energy and potential that organizations waste when they don’t explicitly act to develop and use the passionate in the workplace. The YBY Champions didn’t lack for the type of passion we call passion of the Explorer. In their early 20s and taking on issues from redirecting youth violence, to empowering girls in developing countries, to creating an entrepreneurial infrastructure in Iraq, these young people had tapped into their own questing natures to tackle big challenges; they were learning the value of connecting with each other and others who shared their interests in making positive social change, and through this reinforcing their own commitment to make a difference in their communities or in a cause. But that kind of intense and youthful passion could easily burn itself out and result in frustration and disillusionment without opportunities to develop and structures to support and focus it.
Seen through the lens of a professional services firm, these young people were raw, lacking the easily marketable skills of spreadsheets and slides and familiarity with a corporate vocabulary. But they were picking up skills rapidly. Partly through design: Recognizing the crucial value of media and presentation in attracting resources to a venture or effecting change, the World Merit organization makes multimedia documentation, networking, and filmed interviews of community and world leaders part of the application process. The World Merit platform itself is a place where individuals come together to connect, to learn and be inspired from what others are doing, and to attract resources to their own quests. Monthly challenges on the World Merit hub let participants earn “merit points” for helping on a project. This serves two purposes: It draws individuals into challenges where they can develop new skills that may be valuable to their own issues; it also reinforces the value of collaboration and the importance of attracting collaborators to their own projects. Sometimes we can be so committed to our own quests that we forget to make room for others who can help—the disposition to connect and learn is key to the valuable and productive type of passion needed in the workplace.
The Champions' jam-packed week could also be seen as a series of bounded creation spaces for the participants to collaborate and learn in. Each day had its own challenge, defined by the day’s host, which brought the participants together in teams to compete against each other. They were simultaneously learning from and supporting their teammates while also competing as individuals.
“In the past 5 hours, I developed what I’d been trying to wrap my head around for 8 months,” said Marcela, a Champion from Colombia passionate about ending hunger. She had just completed Deloitte’s challenge for the YBY week: presenting a five-day, five-week, five-month (5-5-5) plan based on rapid prototyping and learning to identify and mobilize an ecosystem to make her food-waste initiative a reality. How? We’d like to think the highly interactive workshop based on the Center’s Scaling Edges Lab that the Edge Fellows led helped. In the exercises, the participants were asked to apply new frameworks to their ideas, to expose their passion to an unfamiliar lens, to apply the learning directly onto the goals and passions that had brought them to us.
Passion is contagious in the right kinds of environments. As we watched these people, they were clearly being taken out of their comfort zones and stretched. But they were enjoying it—it was exciting for them. The spirit of play and discovery was apparent. And if others see their excitement, they might be tempted to join in or pursue their own learning through challenges.
And if the passionate aren’t let into environments that excite them, they can become burnt out, frustrated, and disillusioned. Or they may leave to seek out challenges and development elsewhere. The issue in many large companies is just finding out who are the passionate people. They often aren’t very visible. Yet by creating challenges that draw out and encourage the passionate dispositions in the workforce, organizations can support finding, developing, and retaining talent.
The YBY Champions had already demonstrated questing, connecting, and commitment. What the week in San Francisco did was allow them to build rich relationships and learn from each other through exploring a new environment, taking chances, and tackling challenges together. It wasn’t always easy to be outside their comfort zones, but the program’s deliberate design afforded the participants a unique opportunity to rapidly develop the skills and experiences needed to be an effective Millennial leader.