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Growing Future Leaders: Why Western Parents Need to Adopt an Emerging-Market Mind-Set

We are raising our children to thrive in a bygone era.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

I remember the lazy days of my childhood summers, languishing in the grass, bored but too tired to move after spending most of the day in the community pool. No summer school for me. When I applied to college, anything above a 3.2 grade point average gained automatic admittance to a University of California school. Nobody asked, or cared, about my (nonexistent) extracurricular activities. And, even amid a recession, I left graduate school with a good-paying job and little concern about security.

The world isn’t so simple now. Although many of us—especially those raised in the U.S.—grew up in a world full of choice, our children are growing up in a world full of competition. We can’t give our children our past, but we can help them create a future by adopting an emerging-market mind-set that creates choices by making them more competitive.

I received a quick schooling in this mind-set recently when I talked to the CIO of a large multinational corporation with operations in more than 70 countries. The executive’s company now sources 65 percent of his technology organization out of Latin America. With the technology market tightening, he has limited options. For the more in-demand technology positions, U.S. talent can expect compensation three times the going rate in Central America. And, get this, he often has to negotiate with U.S. talent through an agent or career coach. At the same time, he views talent from Latin America as “productive and hungry” in contrast with the U.S. millennials who, at times, are overparented, lack “innate spirit,” and, in general, are “wimpy and disrespectful.” All in all, the case for Latin American technology talent is close to overwhelming.

The world has been flat for quite a while now, with companies transforming their operating models to access global talent. Most leaders in the U.S. have witnessed this upheaval firsthand in their companies, but have not transformed their parenting models in kind. My friend the CIO sees American parents obsessing over getting their kids into college but glossing over skills that would earn their kids a job. Meanwhile, in developing countries, parents are much more apt to:

• Raise their kids up with the expectation that they will go into STEM fields, just as parents in the old economy pushed their kids into medicine and law.

• Ensure that their children speak at least three languages. This CIO recounted a story of a family sending their middle-school student from Taiwan to Costa Rica to live with an uncle. This student attended an English-speaking school within a Spanish-speaking country. Upon graduation, he was fluent in the three predominant business languages and culturally astute.

• Instill a value of lifetime learning by encouraging their adult children to pursue their master’s degree in the evenings and read technical manuals and take online courses over the weekends.

The CIO believes “the rest of the world is kicking our butts” because American parents have lost perspective—they encourage their kids to “follow their dreams,” while forgetting to prepare them to compete in a world market. He advises parents not to let their children’s “avocations get in the way of their vocations” and to shift their investments from back flips and ball handling to developing “life skills” that will help them get, and keep, a job.

Reflecting back on my conversation with this executive, I realize that the issue is, first and foremost, about expectations, not education. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have to teach me how to manage money because we had no money. I didn’t have the luxury of a nonpaying internship, because I needed a paying job. When I finished my education, I took a job where, despite far less-than-ideal working conditions for the first couple of years, I never considered looking for employment elsewhere. My parents were raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression and were taught that anybody who had a job was considered blessed because many did not.

In contrast, many parents in the U.S. today expect their kids to play elite-level sports in high school and college rather than hold down a job, investing thousands of dollars a year helping them do so. As a result, a lot of students graduate out of college with little, if any, work experience, and when they finally enter the workplace, it’s a letdown. I have seen graduates walk away from good jobs after a year or two and move back in with their parents to pursue their dreams. I have recently heard a 24-year-old complain about a high-paying job with a great company because he doesn’t like the industry and the work hours are too long.

My conversation with this CIO shook me up. Like many parents, I have been living in the past. Up to now, I have successfully ignored the pockets of “emerging-market mind-set” that exist in our melting pot: Alice attending Korean school on the weekends or Johnny spending his summer learning how to code. And when my daughter’s principal recommended that students be allowed to choose their own electives, I cringed when my daughter selected photography over robotics, but I did little to influence her to change her mind. Like many parents, I squelched my concerns by paying copious amounts of tuition, in effect, outsourcing the strategic leadership of my daughter’s education and future to some (presumably) more qualified.

We all want what is best for our children, but our best isn’t our past. We need to help our children create their future by transforming our parenting to embrace the emerging-market mind-set of pragmatism, hard work, gratitude, and lifelong learning.

As Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson, said, “The world’s not so simple anymore, I guess it never was. We ignored it, now we can’t.”

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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