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.


The 5 Hat Racks = LATCH


According to architects, writers, designers, and assorted people who take time to jot things down on the Internet, Richard Saul Wurman posited that information can only be organized in one of the 5 Hat Racks (or LATCH).

When I learn something like this, I usually enjoy testing it out to see if it’s true / useful. For a brief time, then, the world will look a little bit different, a little bit more interesting, especially if I start to notice the principle everywhere.

More here.

What Do You Count?

Reshan made this today and posted instructions for how to use it on his blog.

His post reminded me of (a) how simple it is to track aspects of our work and our life and (b) how important it is to stop every now and then to figure out if you’re counting the things that matter.

What are you counting and tracking? Perhaps more important, what are you not counting and tracking that you really should be counting and tracking?

Introducing: Make Yourself Clear

When Reshan and I were working on the cover for our next book (in stores everywhere on May 7!), we showed it to some friends and family members. One of them looked at it and puckered her face a bit — like she had just eaten something a little sour.  

“It’s messing with my brain,” she said.  “There’s the title, about being clear, and that’s clear.  But the cover itself is a little messy.  Shouldn’t it be more . . . clear?”

“Exactly!”  We replied.  

Teachers, as part of their profession, routinely walk into situations where they have to enact understanding in others. Making themselves clear is, therefore, a top priority.

But teaching professionals, and teacher coaches, have changed their view of what that looks like. 

It used to be considered perfectly appropriate for a teacher to walk into a classroom and lecture for an extended period of time. Could that be done in a clear way? Absolutely. But, is that the best way to make one’s self clear? We don’t think so.

Lecturing, even with a good slide deck, doesn’t take into account what’s happening for the recipients of the lecture. The recipients (or audience members) could be daydreaming, could be multitasking, could be asleep, or could be writing down or recording every word that’s being said yet understanding none of the larger significances. 

There’s a paradox at play: to make one’s self clear, as a teacher, sometimes you have to lead others through a path that appears to be, or is, messy. Sometimes you have to lead people through activities that might confuse an onlooker. And yet, with these intentional activities, you are clearing out space for the co-construction of meaning. You are allowing understanding to evolve and sharpen. You are making your message clearer, making yourself clearer, in the minds of your students. 

Made clear, through messy means, your message will be implanted in the minds of your audience. More important, your message will belong to your audience.

Which brings us back to our friend’s (sour faced) reaction to our book’s cover. We loved the feedback; it told us we were right on target.

With our cover, we intentionally tried to create some cognitive dissonance. It’s an expressive artifact, celebrating the “messy to be clear” paradox. The path to understanding is not always clear. It must be made so. That takes time, intention, inventiveness; that takes teaching.

The website for our book (about how teaching can serve as a resource for businesses of all shapes and sizes) is here. It’s still pretty new, but we’d love to keep you updated and involved as we work toward our launch, so please consider signing up for our newsletter.


Steve & Reshan


Here’s a recommendation…

Spend a whole day in someone else’s office. Literally pull up a chair in someone else’s office, with his/her permission of course, and work there. If possible, make sure he/she is in it, doing his/her own work alongside you.

I guarantee:

  • You will see completely new aspects of your organization.
  • You will feel how someone else experiences time, processes inbound, and is or is not interrupted.
  • You will meet new people or at least have different conversations than are typical.
  • You will mix into new and different problems.
  • You, yourself, will be put to different use.

I did — and felt — all of this today. It was my best work day in recent memory.

Showing My TED Masterclass Work

I recently joined a TED x ISTE Masterclass, and today it launched via a really nice looking app.

Heading into the app and clicking around, I was instantly reminded of other experiences I’ve had with self directed, online-style courses. As a student of similar courses, I usually fizzle out.

Before starting this class, which I’m committed to, I tried to think about why I so rarely finish the online classes that I start. I love to write; I read a lot; I interview people when I want to dive deeply into a topic about which they seem to know a lot. So I’m not adverse to “lifelong learning.”

But “online” learning experiences haven’t worked for me, I’m now realizing, because I don’t do a good job of externalizing my learning as I move through them. I don’t “show my work” well. So, for the TED Masterclass, I’m going to aim to be a better student in that one, very specific area to see if it helps. Here goes:

The course begins with three prompts. I’m going to type them out, along with my answers . . .

What’s the best example of public speaking you’ve ever seen?

I’ve seen a lot of amazing speeches in my life. I’m lucky. Just today, I saw Kevin Breel speak, and he was fantastic. As was Rachel Simmons. And then there was a speech that my father gave at his brother’s funeral that has really stuck with me over time.

What is it about those memorable talks that have persisted in your mind for days, months or even years?

Breel was funny and honest and told great stories. As he told them, he seemed to connect with them emotionally even though I’m sure he has told them many, many times. In other words, he seemed to tell them because they still have resonance for him instead of telling them because they’re part of a routine. Simmons was honest and willing to share aspects of her process. I still haven’t forgotten that she said she became a better speaker by saying her speeches out loud in the car. And, finally, my father’s speech was probably the best one I ever saw. He was certainly not the most polished speaker I have ever seen. And he didn’t have much experience. But when he spoke at his brother’s funeral, he said the names of all the children in the family. He didn’t have notes. This was an assignment that he set up for himself in honor of his brother’s spontaneity. His brother was spontaneous, so he himself tried to be that way. Also, saying the names of the children out loud, as part of the spontaneity, served a greater purpose and message, i.e., whenever we gather as a family, we should always be sure to love the children as much as possible. I loved this last part, this purpose, because it really is the most important thing, and so it became the centerpiece of his speech. Finally, his speech was an authentic performance. I wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to remember all of the names. He had no notecard. So there was a bit of drama, and we were right there with him, hoping he would succeed, feeling the speech, flaws and all.

Consider examples of public speaking that you found ineffective. Why did they fall flat?

Based on my answer above, I’m sure this answer will be pretty predictable. I don’t love speeches that seem overly polished, canned, or that work to hide the person underneath. I’ve seen dozens of these, and I can’t really remember a single one. They blur together, and that says it all. I prefer a speech that feels a bit like an adventure rather than a preordained conclusion.