5 Lessons Leaders Can Glean From Their Kids’ K-12 Teachers
Before transitioning into corporate learning and development, I was a classroom teacher in Canada for almost a decade. I spent most of that time teaching Spanish and English to high school students, but I also held stints as a grade coordinator (in the United States, an attendance counselor) and coached both girls and boys in basketball.
When I moved to the private sector, a well-meaning manager advised me to keep my teaching background on the down-low; otherwise, my corporate colleagues might see me as “soft” from having spent so much time around kids. I was also told my teaching experience “didn’t count” in the business world. Ouch, that hurt.
But the irony is that in short order, I found the situation to be just the opposite.
That’s why every day of my corporate life, I’ve applied lessons I learned as a high school educator. I’d even go so far as to say that teaching was the best preparation for the toughest challenges I’ve faced outside the classroom.
Here are just a few of the many relevant skills and strategies teachers use that would benefit leaders, too.
1. Make your feedback honest and constructive
When asked to name a teacher who had a positive impact, most people don’t cite the one who let sloppiness slide, gave hints during a test, or handed out second and third chances liberally. On the contrary, kids respect and thrive most from their exposure to tough but fair teachers who have high but realistic expectations.
It’s the same at work. Employees want to know where they stand and how they can continue improving. They’ll perform best in a culture where it’s safe to make mistakes because they are supported and given the resources to learn and grow.
I worked with a manager earlier in my career who was afraid of seeming “mean” by giving constructive and specific feedback. She wanted to be liked, and if something wasn’t going well with a direct report, she would just change that person’s role a bit and shift the work to someone else. This situation spiraled out of control, and her whole team got so frustrated, they all ended up quitting. The manager herself ended up moving on, too.
Too many managers shy away from giving unvarnished feedback, but that’s exactly what all of us need in order to fuel our best work.
2. Start from a place of empathy
As a teacher, you deal with many different constituencies: administrators, community members, parents, and of course, individual students. These people come from different backgrounds, have different motivators and priorities, and hold different views expressed in different ways. To interact successfully with them, you can’t make assumptions based on your own experiences or tune out what you don’t understand or agree with.
So, too, does every leader need to develop a strong sense of emotional intelligence in order to work effectively with various stakeholders, from investors and partners to employees and customers. You have to take time to listen and respect why other people do or say what they do before you can become a productive collaborator or design a product they’ll love to use.
One of the biggest obstacles to empathy is unconscious bias, and we all have some form of that. Even a company as accomplished as Google has flubbed certain product roll-outs, such as releasing an app that didn’t take into account the needs of left-handed users.
That may seem like a fairly mild case of unconscious bias, but it shows how this kind of blindness can have surprising effects. Now, imagine the negative impact of lacking empathy for people of different races, genders, orientations, and cultures.
3. Adopt a “whatever it takes” mentality
Teachers are often left to solve problems on their own. I’m sure you’ve read about teachers buying their own classroom supplies or putting in hours that go way beyond the regular school day to give kids extra help. I personally once had to enlist some peers to help me assemble new student desks! It wasn’t tough at all: Those teachers readily jumped in to help.
Leaders must be masters of creativity, perseverance, and commitment if they want to realize their visions. Like school teachers, they’re often starved for resources. In startup circles, bootstrapping is common, and it’s how some really successful companies have gotten through their early days.
As a leader, you just have to figure things out, even the unglamorous stuff that no one will ever see or appreciate. Teachers have to be passionate about teaching to meet the demands placed on them; leaders — and especially entrepreneurs — must also be hungry and dedicated, to keep doing what needs to be done, day after day after day. You never get to say “that’s not my job.”
4. Do the right thing, even when it hurts
When I was a grade coordinator, my least favorite part of the job was suspending students. But sometimes, that was our only recourse. I never got comfortable with this task, but it was my responsibility. And, just as happens with giving honest feedback, I knew it wouldn’t help a student to be able to get away with unacceptable behavior. In fact, the failure to call a student on his or her bad behavior could even infect the rest of the school and breed resentment.
Leaders, too, must commit to doing the right thing and stick to their values, no matter how unpleasant or difficult that may be. This could include firing a so-called “brilliant jerk” who does great work but steps on others and contributes to a toxic workplace. Or it could involve choosing not to accept a lucrative partnership opportunity with an organization whose practices are ethically unsound.
Uber attracted unwanted headlines when a former employee shared her story of being sexually harassed by a manager who suffered no consequences because he was a “star performer.” This was only the beginning of additional revelations about Uber’s mishandling of workplace issues and invited further scrutiny of the company’s culture, which ultimately led to the CEO’s resignation.
The damage to Uber’s reputation and position, for not having acted sooner, was immense.
5. Always be ready to pivot
All teachers start the school year with lesson plans and goals. Then they get to know their students as individuals and figure out how to tailor their teaching accordingly. Sometimes this happens right in the middle of a class that’s taken an unexpected turn. Sometimes, events outside the classroom make it necessary to tweak a teaching method: Consider the teacher who scraps a scheduled history lesson to talk about a breaking news event.
Today, when new technologies are constantly changing the way we work, some companies are even discarding the concept of long-term planning. Some of today’s biggest companies have had to pivot from their original visions to survive. Did you know YouTube started as a dating site? Or that Slack began as a video game?
No matter how large your own organization is, you too have got to be ready to switch course. You need to be prepared to adjust to partners, investors, and clients who have different wants and needs. “Adaptability” just might be the most important trait for leaders to possess in the 21st Century.
So, next time you find yourself with a challenge, think about how your favorite teacher would handle it. Then do the exact same thing.
A version of this article first appeared in Entrepreneur.