Source: Fast Company – work-life
Author: Monica Foster
As an executive recruiter at an award-winning national search firm that offers both retained and interim search solutions, people are often surprised to learn that I started my career as a kindergarten teacher.
Since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher and I often found myself playing “teacher” as a kid with friends. And while I adored working with children in the classroom, I quickly found myself overwhelmed, underpaid, and frustrated with the challenges that exist within our school system. Even after moving to a new state, I was only making fourteen dollars an hour. I made so little that I had nothing to lose and every opportunity to gain, so I transitioned into corporate America as an executive recruiter.
More than 15 years later, I have built a reputation as a talent matchmaker. I now specialize in connecting high-performing financial executives with organizations seeking new leadership and I have found that the passion and skills that fueled me as a kindergarten teacher serve me every day.
One thing I’ve realized is that many of the guiding principles I taught my youngest students are what set the best professional adults apart. The same lessons we teach kindergarteners still apply to working adults and they’re worth recapping, in case you, like many, have forgotten them along the way. Here are five transferable lessons from kindergarten that can help workers.
The ‘Golden Rule’ never fades
Most of us are familiar with the adage, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Widely considered one of the most universal moral principles, treating others with kindness and respect is one of the first things we teach children—and it is a foundational element to success whether you are just starting your career or you’re a seasoned executive.
Kindergarteners are learning to navigate their emotions while sharing their physical space with others, often for the first time. At the pace and intensity businesses are moving at today, combined with the pressure to drive significant value and results to stakeholders, regulating emotions and protecting a collegial shared space can be challenging. One of the things professionals can forget as they focus on driving business outcomes is that we are all in the people business. We cannot collectively achieve our goals, or a company’s goals, without other people. Remember to be a good person. Think of how your actions and words will make someone feel. If you do this well, you can attract and retain great people.
You are your own best advocate
Kindergartners are notorious for knowing (and sometimes demanding) what they want. Kindergartners’ sense of self can be big and bullish, and while some kids may have big egos, they also maintain a sense of curiosity. Most kindergartners speak up when they want something. And while they might get upset if the answer is “no,” they are also not afraid to be persistent, ask questions, negotiate, and re-negotiate.
For professionals looking to advance in their careers, advocating for yourself isn’t just about being stubborn in the pursuit of what you want. It is also about learning how to represent yourself and negotiate effectively. Break the habit of waiting for people to give you what you want and be tenacious in your pursuit of progress. You might hit a few walls during your career, but your ability to speak up for yourself—and pivot when necessary—will help you navigate these moments with ease.
Keep learning, and never stop asking questions
Most kindergartners enter the classroom on the first day of school feeling intimidated. They have so much to remember like their new bus number, where to hang their backpacks, and new classroom rules. They’re also learning how to navigate new friendships and what it means to be a student. All of this “newness” propels them into an incredible and receptive state of growth—one where they not only anticipate but look forward to learning, adapting, and overcoming all that they are presented with. Their coachability and willingness to learn is foundational to kindergarten.
By the end of the year, most have mastered and embraced what it means to have a growth (versus fixed) mindset. Unfortunately, some adults lose this over time. As young children pioneer the world around them, they are naturally curious, they are explorers, and they love the questions “why” and “how come.” Over time, we, as people, often lose that inquisitiveness—but we don’t have to.
Success requires constant learning at every level. Avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism, especially as you gain competency, and balance confidence with curiosity. Even difficult situations—like receiving negative feedback or facing failure—can be opportunities to gain valuable information. If you avoid learning, you risk stagnation. If you embrace learning, you can change your entire career trajectory.
Show up authentically
One of my favorite things about kindergartners is how authentic they are.
Take the cafeteria at lunchtime, for example. If a kid forgets their lunch at home, some kids will step up, without hesitation, to share bits and pieces from their own lunches. There’s the kid who is so excited to socialize that the entire lunch hour slips away without them ever taking a bite of their food. Then there’s the kid dancing alone in the corner, who always seems to be able to hear the sound of music. And there’s the kid who prefers to read alone and listen in from the sidelines. Everyone is doing what comes naturally to them, and they do it unapologetically.
I love recounting these core memories of my teaching career, because as an executive recruiter, I can see the kindergartner in each of the executives I work with. I can tell those who were likely engaging conversationalists, the analytical thinkers, or the energetic playground enthusiasts. It’s a reminder to never let go of the authentic spirit you had in kindergarten. It’s who you are, and it’s a great thing to be.
Throughout adulthood, people adapt and they often become like chameleons in the workplace. But the best way to be successful isn’t by being a people pleaser, or being like everyone else; it is leaning into what makes you unique. Whether that is a love of networking and talking to people, a specific technical skill, or a quirky personality, these can help differentiate you from others in your field. Not only will this help you find the right team—those who accept you as you are and vice versa—but it can also set you apart as a good business partner.
Focus on winning as a team
While individual academic achievement is often encouraged in the later years of education, kindergarten classrooms operate differently. A kindergarten classroom is a competitive experience where winning happens as a team. Classes are rewarded as a whole, and this helps foster teamwork, collaboration, and community-building.
As professionals, we often forget that teamwork can be just as valuable as talent and should go beyond simply working with others. Winning as a team requires tapping into soft skills like trust, communication, and empathy—sharing the credit and the responsibility—and it is often the difference between a career that stalls at a certain level versus one that rises into the top ranks of leadership.
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