I have long admired teachers. The ability to share knowledge and turn it into learning is a gift that I find rich and rewarding. Let me add another accolade to good teachers — great management skills. I learned this first-hand because I failed at teaching.
For years I have taught in executive and corporate education programs. My work has been judged on the merit of insight and engagement; participants are my evaluators. In fall 2009, however, I had the opportunity to teach in an undergraduate program for a local university. I would be responsible for exams, papers, projects and of course grades. I would also be responsible for taking attendance.
Since my students were adults ("non-traditional" in the collegiate jargon), I let them come and go as they pleased. I didn't bother too much with sign-up sheets for attendance nor did I squawk when students left class early. As a workshop instructor, I am accustomed to participants being called away from class to handle things back at the office. It was annoying when students left without warning, but my attitude was, "It's their nickel and they must have somewhere else important to be."
Wrong! This was brought home to me by a student who told me that she found it very rude that students got up and left and that such things were not tolerated by the university, only by certain instructors like me. Since I like to draw leadership lessons from what I observe, let me share a few things about teaching that apply as well to managers.
Set standards for behavior. My syllabus did put a premium on class attendance, so students were expected to attend class. My failure was to let the words on the page speak for themselves. Good teachers, as well as managers, know you need to be specific and spell things out. This is not micromanagement; it is positive reinforcement.
Insist on those standards. It is up to the teacher, as well as the manager, to make the standards real. When students leave, they deprive the class of their participation in the learning process. I want students to draw conclusions about what I teach based on material I share with them and what they hear from fellow students. When some students don't show up, they hurt the learning of others who do attend class. Likewise, when an employee fails to work productively, he or she hurts team performance.
Hold people accountable. The class I taught is an introduction to leadership; leadership begins with accountability. When people get up to leave early, call them on it. If they don't have an excuse, mark them as absent. Managers do this by docking pay; teachers do it by dinging grades.
Students, like employees, are accountable for results. They do the work and they are graded, compensated, and possibly rewarded. But too often we overlook the human dimension. Managers should insist that employees must abide by the three C's: cooperate with one another, coordinate tasks inside and outside the department, and collaborate with each other for the greater good.
If it is true that physicians make for lousy patients and lawyers make poor advocates for themselves in court, then perhaps consultants doubling as college teachers should pay more attention to the advice they have given others. Having learned this lesson, I resolve to manage my next class better, just as I have counseled so many managers to do the same. I'll pay more attention to my own advice.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 4/13/2011.