One of my best experiences last year was doing a week's unpaid work experience for Kerrang! radio. Working in a real radio station, and hanging out with the DJs (I was sat next to Johnny Doom) gave me a sense of possibility around working in radio that had seemed fleeting previously.
I didn't feel out of place being roughly twice the age of previous work experience students. I chalk that up to the fact that inside I still think I'm 16 (and I don't see that changing any time soon). One of the regular employees James noticed it before I did. "You're the first intern I can actually have a conversation with", he remarked.
How interesting! Being able to chat with people is a skill that I was very proud to learn as part of my career (I even talk about it sometimes) but yet I'd forgotten that I'd changed. Thinking back to my 16 year old self, I would have been so terrified of everyone in the station I probably wouldn't have even found saying "hi" to the gig guide editor easy.
There was another learnt skill that I found myself using. This one I noticed because I still find it hard. In my day job at Softwire, I've been with the same company for 14 years. I've built up 14 years' worth of skills and expertise in technology, sales and management so that I rarely have to take on a task where I feel completely out of my depth.
Not so at Kerrang! I was given a lot of freedom to contribute at the station, for which I'm really grateful. Once the station manager realised that I could do some rudimentary editing, I was given an amazing job of making the next in a series of competitions to go out on the station. The premise was simple - edit together phrases from five celebrity interviews to make a single (funny) sentence. This was then played on air and listeners had to phone in and guess who the speakers were.
Having received permission to edit in any way I liked as long as it sounded fine (phew!), I picked some phrases and got going. After proudly submitting my work to the producer, I got a shock. "It doesn't sound right", he said and seeing that I looked a bit confused about how to fix this, he added "It doesn't hang together."
Panic coursed through me. I don't like to get things wrong full stop, but that's nothing compared to the terror I feel when I've got something wrong and I don't know what to do about it. I immediately remembered starting out in my career and feeling crushed by this exact feeling. My response was to shut down and blame my manager for not giving me enough feedback.
It turns out that the most useful skill that I have learnt in my 14 years at work isn't leadership, or time management or esoteric coding languages. It's perseverence. Unlike my 16, 18 or 21 year old self, I responded to being confronted with an unknown task by sitting down and getting on with doing my best to make it right. Yes, even when the producer sent it back a second time.
I used this skill at other times to get the most out of my work experience. It's a difficult balance, when you don't want to pester people but you need their help in order to be able to do something useful. I know I got opportunities that my 16 year old self would have missed.
Overall I really appreciated the chance to go back to the bottom of an organisation. There is so much that you can miss when you are at the top - we all know that people are often afraid to speak truth to power (however hard we try to encourage it as leaders). Being the work experience chap gave me a valuable insight into the workplace and helped me realise how to best help others in my organisation.