Among the Igbos of southeast Nigeria, there is a popular model for learning a trade or business. BellaNaija Contributor, Chisom Winifred wrote about it HERE. This is how it works: a young lad, in his teens or twenties, leaves home to become attached to an older man: an extended family member or a friend of the family. Such a man runs an established business; therefore, the lad apprentices under him. The apprentice will live with his master, work for him and learn, but will receive no tangible pay. After seven years of service, the master bears the obligation to settle the apprentice by setting up the same style of business that he has taught all the years. In this way, the partnership ends and both persons go their way.
In today’s capitalist driven world, it would be difficult to accept this same model in its entirety. Businesses and trades are often looking for the best hands for themselves, to maximise profits while steering off competition. These objectives are more dicey than they seem, for where there are capable hands to hire, there is always an urge for the employees to work toward their own setup, rather than work for the master endlessly. A school of thought puts it that the smartest employees become the downfall of a business, as they would eventually learn the secret ingredients from the current model, and set up theirs as a better alternative.
Is your business in safe hands?
When companies boast of having the best employees, they are really saying: “We’ve got the best hands to plan a mutiny!” That’s too harsh a statement — maybe exaggerated. But the truth is that the most brilliant of employees are too innovative to remain fixed in the niche of apprenticeship. They learn the rudiments of the work, improve on it, and bolt off to live their own dream. Again, this is not an absolute statement, but it tends to go that way most of the time. On the other hand, sticking with employees who are “less ambitious” will reduce the risk of emerging rivals, but push the same business toward mediocrity.
This dilemma over choice of employees could make employers opt for a mixture of workaholics and lukewarm workers. This, too, is ineffective, as the burden of work will naturally shift toward a few select persons, creating lesser efficiency, poor inter-employee relationship, and a drop in profits. There seems to be no way out of the difficult choice employers have to make — unless they understand what it means to learn in a work environment.
Forget about genius material! Everyone learns by imitation and repetition; everyone learns by being an apprentice. From the professions of Medicine and Law to anything worth learning, the process remains the same. When apprentices or employees are at work, they are performing the same process — imitate, do, repeat — but they have an advantage. There is an option of learning by the books, but also the option to try out new things. This is where the problem lies.
The difference between brilliant and lukewarm employees is the second option. While brilliant employees are looking for ways to improve, the lukewarm ones will push the status quo no further. Employers will have to make a choice between those who challenge the status quo and those who keep it in check, but fall toward mediocrity and decline. Typically, no one wants a lukewarm employee, but it is ironic that many employers loathe “ambitious” employees too. But why would anyone dislike a person trying to bring innovation to a business or trade? Why do brilliant employees become the black sheep of a corporation?
What happens when an apprentice becomes a competitor?
A feud between master and apprentice over innovation indicates an underlying problem. Employers often make the mistake to personalize a business structure, to the point where a questioning of the system goes for questioning their own personality. They are quick to label hardworking employees as ambitious, arrogant, or proud. But this is a myopic perspective. The world changes, and so too its systems. In the business world, there is no guarantee that a winning team or formula would always win. Success depends on a combination of knowledge, foresight, and the right gut feeling. But when innovators are seen as the enemies, there is a big problem.
Again, there is the mistake of assuming that the emergence of a new competitor spells doom for a business. This only shows that many employers are afraid of change and new tests. They throw away years of experience, and are comfortable with a system that has been proven to work. They do nothing to add to the growth, and are skeptical about innovation. Funny enough, competition comes from within and without. A good example of an external competition is the advent of video conferencing that has reduced the numbers of business partners who would have patronized airline services for travel. A fear of competition is a fear of growth itself. Yet, the questions raised in this article have not been answered. Why do the Igbos ply this path of a parental guidance in business, and still succeed? What happens to the dilemma of choice of employees?
If a business structure is really the life of an employer, it is only natural that he/she should be prepared to live out such as a vocation. Business without profit-making is no business, and business without fulfilment is no business. To learn from parenting, no one would take on such a lifelong job if it wasn’t fulfilling. But what’s fulfilling about being a parent? What part of raising children makes one crave for babies?
It is the part where children grow up to become better adults than their parents ever were. Bearing in mind that no child can fully pay back a parent, no apprentice can fully pay back a master. But it is an opportunity for both parties to learn and grow.
Growth comes not only from knowledge obtained by an apprentice from a master, but also vice versa. There is a lot that the master learns from an apprentice. It is, therefore, certain that the master who trains more, gains more. Coming full circle to the academics of the capitalist driven world, we must realise that our humanity supersedes any theory, system or structure. Another’s candle, lit, will not dim ours.