Lead Like a Teacher

Like teachers, managers give assignments every week. A good teacher, and a good teaching-manager, knows that a good assignment benefits the recipient (the teacher or manager who receives the work) and the person who produces the work (the student or direct report). We often forget about the latter when we’re designing assignments because we’re focused on what we’re going to receive. We’re focused on how the product will shape our own work instead of the way the product will shape its producer moving forward.

One of my managers runs a weekly meeting with a leadership team. At many of these meetings, he asks us to “report out succinctly” to the rest of the group.

Certainly these reports serve two obvious functions:

First, they keep the manager apprised of what is going on in the organization so that he can either follow up or build his awareness around things about which he needs to know more.

Second, they improve the kinds of cross-department or cross-divisional communication that helps organizations to function smoothly and to spread good ideas. (It’s helpful, for example, if the head of marketing know that there’s something really interesting happening in a certain division, so that she can be sure to cover it appropriately. And it’s useful, from an innovation standpoint, when one division borrows a good, and tested, idea from another.)

When I started on this team, and I met with the manager, he told me that I should always expect to report at our team meetings. When I asked him what would happen if I didn’t have anything to report, he said that one of his pet peeves is when someone says they have nothing to report.

Though somewhat artificial, he admitted, reporting succinctly forces people to think very deeply about the work that they’re doing. If you’re going to report “at the right level” and with enough, but not too much, detail, you have to take the time to reflect on your work, to synthesize what you’re learning, to identify trends and themes, and to communicate in a manner that others can understand you well enough that they can then act on the information.

That’s a great, though simple, assignment because it’s built on sound teaching — it encourages depth of thought, reflection, synthesis, consolidation, communication, sharing, and ultimately, accountability.

It’s no surprise that this manager started as a classroom teacher; what’s possibly surprising is that, even as he’s ascended as a leader, he’s never really lost his teaching instinct or his best teaching moves. In fact, his teaching makes him the effective leader that he so clearly is.

Even in something as simple as a weekly report, he recognizes that the right assignment, properly applied, can help the learner-practitioner to grow and learn over time . . . can change the learner-practitioner over time. That’s why it’s a pet peeve for him if someone doesn’t report. To him, that’s the equivalent of saying, “I didn’t learn” or “I chose not to learn.”

If you manage others, you will frequently have to design assignments for them. When you do, don’t simply think about what it is that you want from the assignment and don’t simply think about the preferred output. Think also about how even very basic and routine assignments can and do shape the person completing them. And design accordingly.

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