Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle Revisited?

April 7, 2017

<i>7th April 2017 by Helen Bennett</i>

Last week, I finally realised an ambitious dream I have had for at least five years. 

I managed to persuade a small group of senior business and organisational leaders to sit down for dinner together, in a world class business venue, with a small group of disadvantaged 15year old students from a local school. I was nervous but very excited.

The main purpose of the event was to ensure students understood the crucial nature of excellent communication and interpersonal skills for their future life outside school – with bosses, lecturers and work colleagues. I was also keen to try and tackle the concern among many employers that a significant number of young people are ill prepared socially and behaviourally for the workplace. I wanted to increase confidence, low self-esteem and aspirations among those who struggled; give them a chance to speak to interesting, important and empathetic people in a safe setting that they may never be privileged enough to otherwise enjoy. 

But I had to train them all in those skills first - and I felt a bit like Professor Higgins!

The school I chose was identified as having a particular group of students who would really benefit from this. 25 students were selected by teachers and invited to come to a two hour training session at the school first. Here I would cover topics such as how to shake hands properly, the importance of making eye contact, how to introduce yourself and how to make interesting conversation and ask intelligent career questions, as well as the areas of personal grooming and dining etiquette in a business environment.

The dinner part of the event was to give them an opportunity to practice all these skills.

Incredibly only 10 students actually turned up to the training session – all boys. 

"Where are the girls" I asked? 

"Not interested" came the reply. Actually there was one, but her teacher would not let her miss a class to come to my session, but apparently she would be there half way through. 

To say the session was challenging was an understatement. The boys were overly casual, demonstrated poor body language, they interrupted me, talked to each other as well as over me, threw things at each other, drew on each others’ trainers and were generally disrespectful – in my opinion. The teacher said he had never seen them so engaged or well behaved……… gulp!

After about an hour a girl started hammering on the door wanting to be let in. I had originally said she either had to come to the whole session or not at all, but the insistence of her argument at the door seemed so sincere, I thought it was actually a good sign, so I let her in.

The questions they threw at me were interesting “What if we think the person we’re talking to is boring?” they asked. “I don’t like mushrooms, do I have to eat them if that’s what they give us?” 

They were instructed that unless it was going to kill them they had to eat everything on the plate. They were also told no mobile phones and smart business dress was a must. Oh and they had to read a newspaper the day before so they could have an opinion on current affairs. 

“What have you told these people about us? We don’t want you to tell them anything about us” begged a long haired, ear-ringed, full metal braced but likeable lad. Presumably because they had all sussed out by looking around, why they were there.

“We’re only mucking about because it’s school- we always muck about in school. We won’t mess about on the night.”

Mmm. Ok, I promised them I wouldn’t tell my business leaders …….. another gulp! 

After the session, one of the adults there for safeguarding purposes asked me if I needed a gin and tonic. I said a bottle would be preferable.

The organisation of the dinner part of the event was going splendidly. I have organised many events in my life and this one really was relatively simple as events go. 

Or so I thought.

On the day of the event, the teacher rang me to say that a couple of students had pulled out – apparently suddenly overcome with terror. I was mortified. I had arranged business leaders who were either very important, wealthy, busy or all three, including some well known movers and shakers, who could buy an Aston Martin with the loose change in their pocket. Then they managed to get a couple of replacement students and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then another four dropped out during the day – including one of the replacements! The poor teacher was running around between classes desperately trying to find anyone they could at such short notice to fill the gaps. They didn’t manage it and by 6pm we only had eight students. I had to ring one of the leaders and suggest he did not come; it would have been embarrassing to have more leaders than students, which even with me now acting as a “floater” was still going to be the case.

The table plans were very complicated and had taken me 2 hrs to draw up as there were three tables and the students had to move table for starter, main course and dessert. I had asked for helpful hints on which students not to sit at the same table as each other and I really wanted to make sure that the one female student sat next to all three of the female leaders I had managed to secure. I ended up changing this plan three times, by which time I was feeling a bit sick. I had to reprint and reframe six certificates and even then I only realised when it was too late, that they still had the name of the leader on them who I had asked not to come!

I had gone up into my loft, brought down and ironed shirts and suits that belonged to my two boys, and my husband watched alarmed as I took all his ties and best shoes with me. Many of the students indicated they had no suitable clothing and only fabric shoes, which I had said were not suitable.

At 6.15pm the students arrived (in the event suited and booted) – half of whom I had never met. I praised the half who had the balls to see it through.

I need not have been worried. My "Eliza Doolittles" did me proud all evening – I watched on with joy and relief as they poured water for the leaders, ate their black kale and engaged in interesting conversation. In fact several leaders wrote to me afterwards and said they thought they were a thoroughly interesting group of youngsters but that some were perhaps not sufficiently disadvantaged enough!

OK…. the emergency replacements found by the school probably did not meet my criteria of disadvantaged, but otherwise, the rest of them … phew! That was alright then. Training worked.

I gave out three trophies. Best Dressed, Best Prepared and Best Interpersonal Skills. I felt a lump in my throat as I watched the shocked faces of three young 15yr old “gentlemen” as they received them – grinning from ear to ear. 

I wondered if it was the only award they had ever had.

Roll on next time …….hopefully with a few more girls.

About the contributors

Photo of Helen Bennett

Helen Bennett

Helen is the Baby Boomer founder of Human Reality and Bennett's Business Bash. She has strong views on... well, just about everything! Her blog will cover a range of subjects and aims to give an opinion. She is forthright, no nonsense, sometimes controversial and often seeing the humorous side to working in business.

Photo of Georgia Bennett

Georgia Bennett

Georgia Bennett is the Millennial daughter of Helen. She too has strong views on just about everything! Often they agree but sometimes they don't. Having a degree in Classical Civilisation, Georgia takes the intellectual and often younger generation's perspective on things.