If you’re a leader, you’re also a teacher – whether you realize it or not. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Best Leaders are Great Teachers” by Sydney Finkelstein (Jan/Feb 2018) made me think more about this important role leaders share. For many of us, teaching others happens simply by setting examples (good or bad). That’s powerful and important, but taking an intentional approach is worth the time and effort too. In fact, Finkelstein, faculty director for the Center for Leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, argues that taking an intentional approach to teaching within your organization will strengthen your staff and drive superior business performance.
This makes sense but how do you go about it? Organizational leaders are busy people and adding “teaching” to your already groaning “to do” list might sound daunting. But Finkelstein, who has studied world-class leaders for more than a decade, has found that it’s easier than you might suspect. He found that “teaching” can be defined broadly, falling into three main categories:
- Pointers on professionalism
- Technical knowledge
- Broader life lessons
He also found that many looked for opportunities on the fly, in addition to formal scheduled opportunities (such as annual reviews). Many also created teaching moments, often by taking protégés off-site for informal conversations in less stressful situations. I’m a big believer in setting a schedule, like meeting every quarter, to ensure consistency. And when it comes to teaching by example, nothing beats sticking to your scheduled appointments and respecting everyone’s time by starting and stopping as scheduled. I’ve developed a few teaching tips and mentoring techniques of my own over the years:
- If you’re an introvert, let the voice in your head come out (they can’t read your mind!).
- Recommend other thought leaders that can positively influence thinking. Whether it’s a book, course or other coaches, I always try to provide additional resources to inspire those I’m coaching or advising.
- Help other people in their network when possible, such as people who may report up to the person you’re coaching or teaching.
- Use your network and frequently ask, “who in my network might be able to help this person with what her or she is trying to achieve?”
- Remember that no relationship lasts forever. Know when you’ve imparted most of what you have to offer and be on the lookout for someone else who may be able to teach/inspire your mentee in new ways.
Finkelstein notes that leaders in his extensive study helped to make lessons “stick” by (1) customizing instruction to the needs, personality and development path of each individual, (2) asking pertinent questions to deepen learning, and (3) modeling the behavior they want others to practice.”
Here’s my practical advice to those seeking to maximize the benefits of a mentoring relationship:
- Listen and don’t be defensive.
- Take notes. It shows you’re taking things seriously.
- Follow-up on action items.
- Do what you promise or clearly explain why you did not.
- Say thank you in a meaningful way. In most cases, your mentor has more than enough money and doesn’t need a gift. Most people, however, are hoping to make an impact. Let your mentor know that he or she did and how that is making a difference in your life or career.
- Pay it forward. Look for someone you can teach or mentor and pass along the valuable lessons you’ve learned yourself!