education.govt.nz

Incubating the business leaders of tomorrow

Issue: Volume 93, Number 18

Posted: 13 October 2014
Reference #: 1H9csW

Students on tour in factory

Business Boot Camp students on a tour of the Chelsea Sugar plant.

Avondale College director of commerce David Farquhar earlier this year realised his ambition to expose his senior business students to the real world of commerce, and in partnership with Massey University, his school held its first ‘Business Boot Camp’ (BBC) in June. David says that the idea was to connect students with the reality of the world of enterprise and demonstrate that there’s more to business than suits and spread sheets.

“We felt that there hadn’t been a programme to expose kids to successful businesses across the range, from the small business to the large corporate to the niche market enterprise. We wanted primarily to expose our students to career paths, whether that’s creating their own business or working for someone else.”

The format of BBC was a week-long camp, in the true sense of the word: the 56-strong group of Year 13 students from schools around the Auckland region were hosted entirely on the Massey campus. David says that the point of keeping everyone together over the week was to ensure that learning could be organically consolidated by discussion and interaction in the evenings. Networking – itself an important part of the business world – was also something that a ‘live-in’ camp helped to engender.

“We see these 50-odd students as leaders of the future; so why wouldn’t we want them, five or 10 years in the future, to be still connected, still helping each other, still sharing ideas?”

The students participated in a wide range of activities, themed games, presentations from business leaders, and site visits to prominent and successful businesses. David says that the businesses he approached leapt at the chance to bridge the knowledge gap they felt can be prevalent in graduates, who have all the theoretical background, but not necessarily a grounded idea of the reality of the business world.

“The businesses that we approached were attracted to the idea because they could see potential for dialogue; almost like closing the gap in terms of what businesses were wanting in employees, and what kids thought that business actually is.

“It seems that a lot of people don’t actually talk about what they do at work with their children. Work is just work. By getting students going into actual workplaces, they were able to see what a cubicle is, for example, they saw what ‘open plan’ means, what a factory environment looks like. You could see the pieces falling into place as they were able to put the textbooks into context. So it was like ‘oh ok, now I can see what human resources could involve, what production actually means, I can see that planning, strategy and finance are necessary for success.”

For David, one of the key learning outcomes students took from BBC was one that he hadn’t necessarily anticipated. He says that lots of students turn out to have been oblivious to the risk element in business: they tended to think that ‘it will always turn out ok‘. This illusion was thoroughly dispelled in the students’ minds by the business leaders that participated, who reinforced the idea that businesses must work very hard to succeed, and that ‘business by the numbers’ isn’t always a recipe for success. It was also explicitly demonstrated to students that those businesses that succeed tend to have one notable aspect in common: they know their customers.

“In terms of what I anticipated the students taking away from the whole exercise, there were definitely some surprises. There were a lot of students that I think had a feeling that they might like to go off into some facet of the business world, via a Bachelor of Commerce degree or similar, but they really had no solid idea of where that could lead to. They had the perception that ‘ok, if I do it right, I will end up with some kind of good income.’ What they suddenly realised through their exposure to business people was that those that are successful are invariably passionate about their business, and they realised that they could have a career that could make work not like work at all.”

Helping to make the week run smoothly were an army of Massey University students – David reports a volunteer-to-student ratio approaching one-to-one – who were invaluable in helping to better connect young people to the business world. David says that school-age students can easily see business as something that’s just for parents and ‘other people’.

“Most were graduates: there were about 55 volunteers, which was just amazing. They did everything from being drivers to doing the dishes after lunch! The kids had to do the dinner dishes, of course. We can’t have them waited on hand and foot!

“Having that contact between the graduates and the students was just so valuable because they’d all been there; they’d been there six years previously, and so they were young enough to be able to connect with the students, and say to them, ‘well, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in first year; but I went down this path because I had a tendency toward the business-oriented subjects.’”

Soft skills

Lots of the activities and skills-based learning that happened at BBC were around ‘soft skills’ says David, meaning the inter-personal abilities that are such a crucial part of the business world. Topics like giving effective presentation techniques and negotiation skills were explored in depth, which David reports the students found enjoyable, but which also opened their eyes to the fact that the ability to communicate, work harmoniously with others, and inspire others with one’s own vision aren’t just desirable, but crucial.

“The key learning for the students was that these aren’t just good skills to have, or theoretical exercises – these things are critical to the operation of any business. They realised that these skills are used every day in the real world.

“They hadn’t seen all that previously. They thought you did your job, you filled in your spreadsheet, you made your product, and that’s your work day. They didn’t realise that communication and presentation is vital.

“The students realised there’s a reason that graduates, with all the theoretical knowledge in the world, get paid substantially less than people who have experience in all the stuff that school and university can’t easily teach.

“It’s my experience that the kids who decide to go down the entrepreneurship path are generally the ones that are a little bit ahead in their presentation skills. Getting a business up and running, you’re having to pitch from day one. That was brought home to the students.”

In the flesh

At the core of the week were the visits to a range of successful New Zealand businesses. Getting students in front of the people who in some cases had created brands and organisations that everyone knows was invaluable, says David, in showing students that ‘business’ cannot be pigeonholed into one set of attributes.

Stand-outs for David included BNZ, which he says had a sophisticated human resources department. This helped to demonstrate for students that the best business model in the world can’t function as it might without everyone from janitors to CEOs pulling in the same direction; therefore, a focus on the wellbeing of employees is crucial.

At Chelsea Sugar, students were able to see how a business that’s been producing since the late 19th century can’t ever allow itself to stagnate but must keep learning about its customers. The mechanics of commodity production were also examined.

Risk management at Air New Zealand also opened some eyes, says David.

“We saw their ‘crash room’ – or whatever they actually call it! – where, if there’s a major issue, emergency plans are enacted. Students had never even thought about risk mitigation being part of business.

“The New Zealand Stock Exchange was really interesting, too, and brought home for the students the impact that technology has on business. I’ve visited the Shanghai Stock Exchange, which is now a huge empty building, because their operation happens almost entirely online. [The NZS] is nothing like the stereotypical picture we have of the chaotic trading floor, with yelling traders making all kinds of weird hand signals at each other. It’s just screens everywhere now.”

Impact

David says that in terms of the lasting learning that Business Boot Camp was able to impart, the number of parents that had nothing but positive feedback says it all.

“One parent came to me and said they really found it valuable because their son was torn between a sporting and a business career. He had been offered a contract to play football overseas, but that’s risky. His parents felt that after the camp, he was in a much better position to make a decision because he could weigh a lot more of the factors involved. His decision was actually to turn down the contract, which I thought was incredibly brave, but he made that decision, and I think BBC helped him to get some clarity around his thinking.

“Many students said that the intensity of the week, without the distraction of a revolving timetable, meant that they felt they got a great insight into a career that they thought was for their parents or other people but they now wanted to rush forward with. The diversity of possible career paths linked to business was something that the camp helped open their eyes to.”

Related resources

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 7:47 am, 13 October 2014

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