Having organizational leaders teach employees seems like a wonderful idea, and generally speaking, it is. But to be a truly effective means for instruction, it has to be applied at certain times and in certain ways.
To CEOs, teaching may sound like a genteel retirement activity, though in fact, today’s organizations have little choice: To keep their pipelines healthy, they need their seniormost talent to teach as well as lead. Given global demographics, it will be more difficult to fill senior positions as people retire, so today’s leaders are increasingly pressed to pass on their accumulated knowledge and wisdom before they leave.
Is it even possible to claim the title of leader without being a teacher? Management guru Noel Tichy writes in The Leadership Engine, “For winning leaders, teaching is not a now-and-then sideline activity. It is how they lead and at the heart of everything they do.” Companies want more than mentoring, coaching and being a role model. They believe that at least some of their top executives ought to be seen as teachers in a more traditional sense, taking a turn at the front of a class of senior colleagues.
Expectations tend to run high for a leaders-as-teachers (LAT) initiative, but good planning trumps good luck: In short, there are plenty of ways to get it wrong.
One example of an organization using LAT successfully as a leadership development tool is Bangalore-headquartered Infosys Technologies Ltd. Infosys’ LAT initiative, called the Leaders Teach Series, is anchored by the Infosys Leadership Institute, which has organized and conducted more than 50 LAT offerings around the world.
At Infosys, as elsewhere, three principal considerations drive the LAT approach to employee development:
• Companies want to access tacit knowledge locked away in the minds of leaders. This knowledge, while often critical to business success, is wrapped in unique, hard-to-replicate experiences and a leader’s professional context. Familiarity with customer requirements, sales methodologies, techniques for achieving operational excellence and processes for driving innovation are subjects that often are career-specific, rather than industry-specific or company-specific. Firms want to access and transfer this deep background in a way that it can be reapplied to new problems.
• Companies hope to leverage the benefit of linking the medium with the message. By bringing leaders to the forefront of the process of developing other leaders, it sends a powerful signal to the organization about the value of specific insights and the importance of the development process itself. How might you, as a program attendee, prioritize an educational intervention taught by an outside expert as opposed to one taught by your boss?
• Embracing LAT offers hope to organizations frustrated by the chasm between HR and the business. Engaging leaders in teaching leaves little room for disagreements on learning priorities between learning and development professionals and top dogs. To fully deliver the messages, frameworks and tools, leaders must be fully part of the process and supportive of the content. In such an environment, true partnership between HR and the line leaders should be much easier to achieve.
The way of LAT, however, is fraught with peril. Certain factors weigh heavily in deciding whether LAT is the right tool for the job. Let’s consider the tradeoffs:
• LAT is like world peace. Who would argue it could be a bad thing? Shouldn’t leaders always be the ones who convey the most important messages, strategies and knowledge?
But think carefully about why this approach is required. Putting leaders in front of their people as educators makes sense to participants only when this role reinforces the explicit strategic learning outcomes for which the program was designed. Three reasons stand out:
1. You cannot separate the teacher from the content. Alignment around goals, priorities and practices is central to the learning outcomes. Whether you like it or not, bringing leaders to the front of the room signals to participants that their messages should shift people’s focus or that they should change their emphasis on content areas on which leaders present. What happens, though, if you didn’t intend for your people to change focus? Maybe you just wanted to humor a certain executive.
2. You cannot separate what is being taught from its context. If a finance organization has turned to a new profit model to help managers evaluate projects and wants to socialize the model through a decision-making toolkit, perhaps the person best-suited to teach is the finance executive who led the effort, not an outsider — and not the CFO who was two stages removed. Find the intersection at which your organization’s unique expertise and knowledge meets the right senior leader.
3. Leaders must engage actively, not passively. Remember the old paradigm, “There is no better way to learn than to teach”? Having leaders prepare, engage and dialogue with participants puts them in the midst of developing organizational capability. They become part of the change that the educational program is pursuing. Not only will leaders learn more about how to articulate core concepts, frameworks and practices, but through teaching, they become champions and supporters of such change.
• Great teaching involves the co-creation of knowledge. When leaders teach, the stakes are higher and the risks greater. Being a good presenter does not mean an executive will make a good teacher. Teaching is not telling. It is asking great questions that set the learning agenda and get people thinking and talking.
It is not enough to “transmit” knowledge from one mind to another. (To be sure, teaching would be an expensive way to do this; reading a book or paper is more efficient.) Rather, teaching involves both the teacher and the student — in the creation of new meanings, in finding applications and examples and in stretching the learner’s and the teacher’s imaginations.
A benefit of teaching by questioning is that executives-cum-teachers inevitably engage in a process of assumption-checking as part of their preparation, thinking through their actions and beliefs at a deeper level than they might have done while busy implementing their strategies in the first place, or when they were immersed in a welter of daily tasks.
At the same time, people vary in their teaching ability. Some are naturals. Some respond well to coaching or practice. Some are not naturals and have no stomach for coaching or practice. Given this variability, the learning organization must minimize the risks while enabling leaders to take their place at the front of the classroom.
• Consider the opportunity cost. LAT requires leaders to invest a lot of time preparing so participants come away with new knowledge, behaviors and beliefs. One Fortune 100 company that employed LAT experienced extreme difficulty getting its top management to understand the time required. Management would say, “Sure, I’d love to do the session. When do you want me to show up?” In their minds, this would be like any other talking-head session: fly in, whip out some slides, speak and leave. That’s not “Leaders as Teachers;” it’s “Leaders as Communicators.”
To pull off LAT, senior leaders have to work closely with internal learning and development professionals — and often outside consultants and educators — to build learning outcomes and design the content, refine the materials and design, and rehearse the delivery. They may not be prepared to invest the time.
• Don’t think about it as an all-or-nothing approach. Still, there’s no cause for despair: Sometimes the right answer is a more manageable blend of methods and teachers. To use finance as an example, outside educators might best deliver theory and generic example — such as setting up “Finance 101” concepts necessary to understand the logic behind the new profit-evaluation scheme — while an internal executive could teach its application to company-specific situations.
• Scalability costs more, not less. Senior leaders may find it difficult to deliver multiple programs in multiple locations for multiple levels. In order to scale LAT throughout the organization, the task of teaching must be spread among many educators, an internal cadre that follows the program as it cascades.
Happily, there is a significant side benefit: the alignment of executive teaching staff at every level around common frameworks, tools and messages. Doing your LAT program on a large scale does, however, mean significant time and energy to “train the trainer” — several times more than for an ordinary program in which the educator pool is relatively fixed.
Those Who Can, Do — and Teach
To sum it up, we are seeing that more and more companies are focused on enhancing their organizations’ capability to execute strategy. Indeed, today more than ever, building alignment around strategy has become a critical task for senior leaders. Although it’s subject to several important caveats, if the strategy is important and the leaders willing and capable, they should teach.
Sustainable alignment comes not when leaders talk at their people about what needs to get done, but when they engage real issues, work with them directly and teach from experience. LAT programs, done well, can be an extraordinarily valuable tool to build the leadership bench. Institutional memory and organizational wisdom shouldn’t have to retire when the leader does.
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