Build a team of workplace teachers

"You must know what you want to achieve, be certain of your aims, and have these goals constantly in mind… You must educate your (people) … And since the world never stops for a moment… you must constantly reassess chosen policies towards the achievement of your aims.” ~ David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel

Much has been written about how 21st century leaders differ from their 20th century counterparts. Today’s leaders must guide complex organizations that are more virtual and multinational in nature than ever before. They must nimbly navigate through a fast-paced marketplace that is in continuous flux and determine the proper course forward from a myriad of options. They also need to recruit and retain a millennial workforce that has different interests, needs, and working habits than their elders.

In such a demanding business environment, leaders would be wise to develop a strong learning environment at the workplace. The celebrated CEO of General Electric Jack Welch famously said that “an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Continuous learning and successful implementation of that learning is crucial to the success of today’s organizations.

But learning alone is not enough. Leaders that want to stay ahead must make sure that their companies also place a premium on teaching.

To be a learner is to engage in a one-way (receiving) process of understanding followed by action. The learning originates from an outside source: consultant, seminar presentation, book, etc. Even if the organization chooses to integrate the learning, it never really owns it.

In contrast, teaching organizations go one meaningful step further. They emphasize teaching over learning, placing the learning onus on internal personnel who are expected to learn and master ideas that they will then pass along to others in the workplace.

Research clearly shows that we remember more when we teach than when we listen. This is because the need to teach material forces us to master content to the point where we can deliver it clearly to others. As my ninth-grade teacher used to say, “If you can’t say (or teach) it, then you don’t know it.”

It may sound all nice and good to add teaching responsibilities to the mix, but we know that most workplaces are not filled with experienced teachers and presenters. How can leaders expect to implement a teaching culture if they don’t have a stable of instructors on hand to advance learning?

As a former principal who has observed countless teachers, I can attest that the best teachers are the ones who can make learning clear, interesting and relevant. This ability stems mainly from a deep quest for personal learning as well as the ability to ask tough questions and present answers in a way that others can to process and understand.

When preparing their talks or meetings, have your “teachers” think in terms of these “five p’s”:

  1. Paint a picture. Create a vision of what others will do as the result of this learning process. Give them something vivid and exciting to wrap their heads around.
  2. Personal. Let others know what’s in it for them by learning this. How will it change and enhance their jobs? How will it help the company grow and become stronger?
  3. Positive praise. Encourage them with lots of praise and recognition of their achievements as well as their willingness to take risks.
  4. Perseverance. This can be the hardest part for both teacher and pupil. Challenges will invariably arise, particularly after the opening enthusiasm has waned. Be ready to work even harder mid-process so as to not lose steam.
  5. Perform. It’s not enough to share ideas and preach compliance. Good teachers know that they achieve so much through modeling. Show them what you want and then “walk the walk.” That will do so much for your credibility while also reinforcing desired behaviors and thought processes.

In summary, I present to you the words of Noel Tichy, author of “The Leadership Engine and Cycle of Leadership“:

“We have looked at winning companies—those that consistently outperform competitors and reward shareholders—and found that they’ve moved beyond being learning organizations to become teaching organizations. … That’s because teaching organizations are more agile, come up with better strategies, and are able to implement them more effectively. … Teaching organizations do share with learning organizations the goal that everyone continually acquire new knowledge and skills. But to do that, they add the more critical goal that everyone pass their learning on to others. … In a teaching organization, leaders benefit just by preparing to teach others. Because the teachers are people with hands-on experience within the organization—rather than outside consultants—the people being taught learn relevant, immediately useful concepts and skills. Teaching organizations are better able to achieve success and maintain it because their constant focus is on developing people to become leaders.”

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership.