Real Leaders

7 Ways Business Leaders Should Keep Learning and Teaching

In the past month, it’s been back to school time again. For many of us that last happened many, many years ago. That’s a shame because business leaders should never stop “going to back school”.

Why? Well, for the simplest of reasons…so they can continue to learn. And as a CEO, entrepreneur, founder or manager gets older and assumes leadership roles, they are seven ways they should keep learning and teaching to be able to successfully grow and scale a business.

1. Study your “Best” Teacher

Many of us can readily recall our favorite teachers. I can. They taught us lessons that resonate to this day. Perhaps it was because of who they were, or maybe it was what they said, but we learned something, that gave us a sense of achievement then, and that maybe today still helps us navigate life’s challenges. Take a minute to think about who was your favorite teacher, and why?

2. Become a Successful Learner 

To teach your employees, you must first know how to be a successful learner. This holds true for business managers and leaders. The best leaders are in part “the best” because they’re excellent teachers. And they are excellent teachers because they are accomplished learners. They know how to learn, what to learn, and where to learn it from. It is these skills that entrepreneurs trying to scale a business on a rapidly changing playing field must develop. I know this to be true, because we’ve all experienced what can go wrong when leaders assume what they know is most important, or when they have the wrong information, or worse, when they over-rely on management scorecards and reports. These are learning mistakes that can cripple a young company making the leap from startup to managed enterprise. You always want to be open to learning more.

3. Learn to shift into a Leadership Role

When we started our company, in a short period of time, we went from launch pad to earth orbit ready to strike out for the moon. Things happened very fast. As a result, my role changed dramatically. As a consultant for many years, I conceptually knew this shift was necessary, but doing it “for real” was a very different animal than talking about it. I went from making tactical departmental decisions to making company-wide strategic investment decisions. In short, I went from the sales guy to a leadership guy.

4. Start “Walking the Factory Floor”

As a result of this shift to a leadership role, I spent much more time with product development, client service, and finance. I needed to learn about these things to keep us all on the same page and executing effectively and efficiently. One of the things I did was to employ a decidedly low-tech approach in a high-tech business, that as a consultant I called, “walking the factory floor”. 

As a consultant, I consistently found that many company’s problems were rooted in the decisions that were made based on faulty or incomplete information by executives who rarely left the corner office to walk the production line or go out on sales calls (walking the factory floor). They instead relied on what subordinates told them, their own assumptions, or PowerPoint presentations. All of these are good sources of information, but they provide little first-hand knowledge of what employees and customers are really experiencing doing their jobs or using the product.  

As we hired more people and improved the product, I made it part of my daily duties to drop in on people, say hello, and talk. I’d ask questions and listen. During one such visit, I asked an engineer who was writing code for our software if he would screenshot a picture of the code he was working on and email it to me. He looked at me funny, and I said, I want to show my wife what we do every day and where we spend all that capital we raised. He thought that was “cool”. By walking the factory floor, I learned a lot about how we actually made and delivered our product. I got to see real-life details that never showed up on management reports or were voiced in group meetings (more on this later).

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5. Learn directly from Customers

I did something similar to learn from our customers. I’d pick up the phone and call them. Yes, as a co-founder, I reviewed NPS (net promoter scores) reports. I also drilled down to the remarks and complaints associated with the NPS scores. And just as I did with our employees, I learned a lot about our customer’s experience using our product. Ultimately, I began to integrate these learnings from our employees and customers to form a big picture snapshot of our weaknesses and opportunities.  

This direct contact was valuable, but I also noticed that our employees and customers not only appreciated the visits, they learned a lot about our vision, values and strategies first hand. So, while leadership retreats to develop vision and values are useful, behaviors like walking the factory floor demonstrates more forcefully core values like the pursuit of knowledge, and how that led to new methods and innovation in production, service and product development. It also reinforced the kind of character we hoped our people would aspire too.  

Identifying and defining values is an essential process, and doing it thoughtfully really matters. For example, it’s not uncommon for a company to state “innovation” as a core value. This is good. But when there’s little demonstration of learning and teaching on the job, innovation just feels like another vague concept…. Like how do we know we’re doing it? In my mind, innovation isn’t really a value. It’s a condition that exists when certain behaviors are practiced consistently. Specifically, practices like learning and teaching are behaviors one can actually see and reinforce.

6. Develop and teach Real Teamwork

Another common value is teamwork. In my business book titled “One Hit Wonder”, I share several stories about teamwork and what can happen when leaders aren’t clear on the definition…often to the detriment of real teamwork itself. Developing teamwork is especially important for young companies as roles are often blurred, systems are absent and deep relationships have yet to be established. As a result, there are often many disagreements among people and departments, where many are inadequately resolved. And since small companies don’t have the luxury of talking things to death, rapid decisions often result in someone not being happy. Like innovation, I believe that teamwork isn’t a value. It’s a condition that exists when certain behaviors are routinely practiced (and taught) by leaders.  

7. Learn to facilitate Constructive Conflict 

One definition of teamwork involves the idea of harmony, and the other involves the concept of synergy. When teamwork is defined as (the search for) harmony, being nice and avoiding arguments become the valued behaviors. So much so that those who offer a different opinion can be accused of not being nice, argumentative, or worse, as being poor team players. This exact wording will even show up on performance evaluations. Worse, these people can be shunned and, in frustration, self-censor simply to go along to get along (and keep their jobs). The overall result is that deadliest of diseases, “group think”.  

On the other hand, if teamwork is defined as synergy, then different ideas are not just allowed, they are encouraged, and conflict is expected. And to make this approach work, it requires the rarest of behaviors, the art of facilitation. When synergy is the behavior we want to develop, constructive conflict becomes a core value. This definition produces an entirely different kind of teamwork. One where disagreement is encouraged as the path to agreement, and where discussion is facilitated based on facts, not opinions or positions of power. In my experience the pursuit of synergy is far better than the pursuit of harmony. 

These learning and teaching tips and examples are lessons that business leaders should reflect upon as millions go back to school, and companies enter one of their busiest times of the year. In summary, here are a few more practices that leaders can hone to raise the level of their game when growing and scaling a business.

  • Always be learning, but be sure to check your sources.
  • Always be teaching, by demonstrating behaviors consistent with your values.
  • Teach more than just methods, teach and develop for character.
  • And remember just when you think you know something, consider the possibility that you don’t.

So there you have it – consider these leadership success tips during this back to school season. And if you practice some of these skills, who knows, maybe one day you become someone’s favorite teacher.

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