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Blog : Progression through challenge: a wide-ranging, low-cost solution to developing your people


Progression through challenge: a wide-ranging, low-cost solution to developing your people

By Jane Sunley - CEO

Providing a challenge and pushing people out of their comfort zones, is a key part of developing and progressing your people. With the necessary support, individuals can achieve amazing things, though challenges must be posed for this to happen. By delegating stretching assignments and projects or tasking people to work out their own solutions, they will grow. Conversely, keeping people safely within the scope of their own experience is a sure fire way to miss out on valuable opportunities.

In Craig Taylor’s excellent book ‘Londoners’, Nicola Owen, a teacher in a tough South East London school, speaks about her highly successful debating club. 

Her own experience of being forced into debating at school ultimately made her apply, successfully, to Oxford University. She said, “I would never have applied to Oxford before, but I’d been there and I’d debated there and I’d beaten boys from Eton who had really expensive ties, so I thought OK, I’ll try”.

Nicola’s experience at a ‘normal comprehensive school’ inspired her to start a debating club within her own challenging and diverse teaching group. The club includes a bright girl, whose mother was 14 when she had her and was kicked out of school as a result, who harbours aspirations to become a lawyer; utilising her new found debating skills. And at the other end of the spectrum, a middle-class girl with teacher parents. 

These two beautiful girls are good friends and debate as a pair. With their heavy Eltham accents and flowing blonde hair, they are often viewed as a pushover by their debating opponents. That is, until the debate begins.

Nicola’s tactics are to push these year 10s - 15 years olds into tough situations so they can learn and grow: “I’m going to take you to loads of competitions and you’re going to be beaten by sixth formers. You’re going to be beaten by kids much older and posher than you, all the time you’ve just got to keep going.”

At first they were continually defeated and generally had a horrible time. Nicola would take them out afterwards, buy them pizza and keep building up their resilience and self-esteem; promising them it would get better.  By the end of the year they’d won a major debating competition for all the state schools in London. Since then, with their newfound confidence, they’ve continued to thrive and grow, even appearing on TV.

Aside from the obvious contribution this one teacher has made, it is interesting to look at the way she’s placed them into unfamiliar and perhaps even threatening territory. By continued support, encouragement and belief, she enabled them to triumph and transform themselves. Imagine the pride, self-assurance and poise this has created.

This is why people need to be challenged and stretched. Maintaining the status quo and allowing people to do ‘more of the same’ ultimately does no one any favours. Taking on something new and stimulating, perhaps even perplexing, can be inspiring, exciting and fulfilling. Challenge provides individuals and teams with an opportunity to make a contribution, to progress, to achieve; all major motivators. Of course, these challenges must be thought through so that adequate guidance and support are made available.

You’d be surprised what people can achieve given the chance. What are your experiences?

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