In the last post I made a case that too many business leaders ignore the vitally important skill of teaching, coaching and guiding the development of future leaders. They may feel they lack the skill to teach others, or they feel that experience is after all the best teacher. Or they may simply be focused on other demands of leadership.
The problem is, ignoring the pro-active, intentional development of future leaders has many detriments:
- Thin Depth Chart – What happens if a key “player” leaves or is incapacitated? Companies that depend too heavily on their top executives are vulnerable in the event of a sudden change.
- Higher Costs – Acquiring talented executives in the “free agency market” is expensive. Proven leaders will justifiably demand bigger paychecks and benefits.
- Negative Mood – What is the impact on those with aspirations to rise up in the company when that company hires outsiders for the top jobs? Mostly, it’s a negative impact that will lead those with the best potential to leave, while others may simply act out their resentment in other ways.
- A Culture Resistant to Change – It really does not work so well for leaders to say, as my old football coach liked to declare, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Employees look to their leaders as role models. If those leaders are not themselves learning and teaching, then why should the employees invest in learning and change? A system that is not learning and growing is stagnating and declining. Which do you prefer?
I contend that even without natural teaching abilities, executives and managers can become effective leader-teachers. There are two facets of developing as a leader-teacher, Being and Doing. While there are many techniques (i.e., ways of doing) for teaching and coaching, the most power comes from your essence, your intention, your way of being.
Some ideas on Being…
Be a Beginner. My first attempts at snow skiing were miserable. Somehow, cold, bruised, wet and incompetent left me eager to exit the sport. I gave it another shot a couple years later when a buddy dared me. With better equipment, better conditions and a bit of friendly coaching, I made rapid progress and was bitten by the bug. Similarly, few people in business are child prodigies who instinctively know what to do. Most learned the hard way. Encounter future leaders where they are today, where you were earlier in your career, and work from there. Think back to your own early challenges when you tripped and stumbled. Have compassion, for them as leader wannabes and for yourself as someone who may not yet be a skilled teacher and mentor.
Be Curious. In the first place, curiosity will help you become a better teacher as you search for and experiment with new processes, approaches, and methods. Ask other leaders. Ask coaches. Ask your mentors. Ask those you are teaching. Equally important is finding genuine curiosity about each person you teach. Allow yourself the wonderment (and yes, sometimes frustration) of the unique blend of talents and eccentricities in each individual. Be curious about how to understand their perspective on the world, how to unlock their potential, how to get through.
Be Patient. Learning new skills takes time and practice. We know this about taking up a new sport or hobby, but in business we often forget this truth. This does not mean you must be infinitely patient. If the person you are teaching refuses your advice and support, fails after many attempts, or simply lacks the ability, there comes a time to call it quits.
Be Positive. The way many people house train their pets is to yell and scold them when they do something wrong. Turns out, this is bad training technique. While the technique might control some behaviors, it does it in a mood of fear and dominance, which is not constructive, especially with people. Animal, and human, behaviorists understand you get much better results by rewarding and recognizing positive behaviors. Even when faced with negative results or other mistakes, you can offer positive expectancy, i.e., “I know you can do this.”
Be Transparent. Followers often see their leaders through idealized glasses. When the leader speaks, everyone listens. When the company needs to make a strategic decision, the leader acts with clarity and conviction. The truth is that leaders are often not decisive, clear or effective. Or if they do something with apparent ease, it may be because they have handled similar situations many times. All of this is great material for the teacher-student relationship. When the leader-teacher reveals her past mistakes and conflicted thoughts it provides a powerful perspective to the student. Too many business books and case studies ignore or over-simplify the emotional elements of a decision, or the shades of gray that had to be considered, or the inner flip-flopping that occurred behind the facade. In real life, students need to see and understand the hows and whys in order to get the most powerful learning.
While the BE’s are of utmost importance, there are a few “DO’s” to consider as well:
Do Make Time. It’s kind of like being a good parent: you may not have available all the hours you would like to spend with the kids, but you can largely make up for that with good quality time, being completely present with your children when possible. Likewise, managers blossom when you join them in their world.
Do Ask Questions. It’s unfortunate and ironic: When you are old enough to have acquired experience and wisdom, the younger generation of workers tend to ignore that wisdom as old-fashioned or irrelevant. So rather than tell your protégés how to do things correctly, spend a disproportionate amount of time asking them how they plan to do something, or why they did what they did. As Covey says, seek first to understand. By listening you might: a) learn something new (yes, it is possible); and b) you make them more amenable to eventually listening to your perspective.
Do Encourage Experimentation. These days, with the pace of change, it’s understandable that managers want to avoid mistakes – their own and those of their direct reports. But if you think about how you learned, it was mainly from doing things, making mistakes, correcting things on the next attempt, and iterating your way forward. Guess what? That’s exactly what is needed by the next generation of leaders. So rather than preventing mistakes by disempowering underlings with burdensome processes and micromanagement, give them some rope. You can surely afford a few small losses if it produces powerful learning and helps boost leadership confidence in the long run. They need to feel psychologically safe to make mistakes, admit those mistakes, ask questions and share their views. This element of culture is a far more compelling environment for quality workers than one where people are punished for mistakes, and shushed when they offer a contrary point of view.
Of course, there is plenty more to think about and apply in becoming a better teacher. But these ideas should get you started.