Pay Attention, Class: Teachers Offer Entrepreneurial Lessons

By Nathan Christensen

May. 5, 2015

Teachers are some of the most entrepreneurial and skilled managers I’ve met. They’re responsible for leading dozens of students through individual and group goals on a finite timeline. I’ve been both a grade school teacher and a CEO, and although CEOs tend to be the subject of management how-to books, there's a lot about management they can learn from teachers. 

In recognition of national Teacher Appreciation Week May 4-8 and the dedicated teachers who build our communities and workforce, here are five management strategies from highly effective teachers that you can adopt in your workplace.

1. Manage Your Employees as Individuals

Teachers learn their students’ individual strengths, interests, weaknesses and worries. They have a plan for each of their students and make sure it fits within the context of each student’s life. Then they tailor daily assignments, long-term goals and everything in-between to each individual’s profile.

Your employees are most likely to succeed when they, too, are managed as individuals. Understand the context within which your employees come to work each day, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Then create a game plan for how each employee will contribute to and grow within your organization, with goals, roles and assignments that are suited for each individual.

2. Set Your Employees Up for Success

A natural extension of learning to see your employees as individuals is actively putting them in a position to succeed. A great teacher selects roles or modifies assignments carefully, so as to put each student in a position to succeed and build momentum. You won’t find a struggling reader assigned the role of the narrator during a read-aloud.

If you have a valuable employee who is struggling, re-examine the role, goals and expectations you have set. For example: A software company had a graphic designer who was brilliant but often showed up late to work. Fed up, the company tightened the screws, demanded strict adherence to the attendance policy and put the employee on a performance improvement plan. The situation got even worse. Not only did the attendance issues not improve, but also the employee’s work product began to suffer, too.

Then the company reversed course. It reassigned the employee as a remote employee with reporting and attendance expectations that he could meet. The employee was positioned to succeed, and his morale improved dramatically. He quickly became one of the most productive employees in the company.

Adapting a role to a particular employee is not always the right course, but analyzing whether your employees are positioned to succeed will help you determine whether they are a good long-term fit and, if so, how to help them thrive.

3. Support Different Learning Styles

Walk into a high-achieving classroom and you will see tools for communicating information in a multitude of ways: an overhead projector, computers, labs, headphones, whiteboards, manipulatives, charts. Progressive businesses are following their lead, incorporating different styles of presentation and collaboration into their workplace based on an understanding that people process information in different ways.

You don’t need to micromanage your employees’ learning styles; just provide tools and flexibility so that your employees can accomplish their work in the way that’s most efficient and productive for them. For instance, equip your conference room for different means of collaboration, including whiteboards, monitors and room to stand. Provide collaboration and diagramming software. Expand your training programs to include not only presentations but also job-shadow or role-playing activities. And include both formal and informal collaboration space in your workplace.

4. Connect the Dots

In fifth grade, I was asked to draw the house of my dreams. I used a ruler, calculator and graph paper to sketch a house that would accommodate not only my family and pets, but also my aspiring (and short-lived) baseball career. The purpose of the assignment was to learn geometry, measurement and scaling. To motivate me, my teacher had connected those lessons to my life and something I cared about.

Decades later, I am still motivated most when a project connects to the things I care about. Aren’t you? The same is true for your employees. They will be more invested in their work and your company’s mission and culture if they can connect it to their own lives, goals, interests and values. A mistake many managers make is framing professional development conversations and incentives solely within the terms of their organization, such as framing a goal solely around the progression toward promotion. Next time, connect the goal to not only the employee’s job, but also that person’s life goals beyond your company, whether it be more flexibility for family or becoming a board member of a favorite nonprofit. The paradox that many managers but few teachers miss is that the more managers show that they and the company are invested in employees’ lives beyond work, the more those workers will feel invested in their work.

5. Track and Evaluate Performance

Both by nature and by necessity, great teachers are great talent evaluators and developers, and they create intricate systems for analyzing and improving student performance.

Executives could learn from their example. Don’t rely solely on the annual performance review, which is often accompanied by feedback that is outdated, based on isolated events and not actionable. Start with a more comprehensive assessment of your employees’ current performance level and potential. Then visualize, with your employees, the steps to reach that potential. Design metrics or milestones to track progress and pair your feedback with strategies or specific work assignments to help your employees grow.

Each of these strategies can be effective on its own, but there is an important string that ties them together. Teachers measure their own performance by what their students accomplish. Executives can do the same, and once they do, they, like teachers, will instinctively develop strategies like the ones above to get the most out of their team.

Nathan Christensen is CEO of Portland, Oregon-based HRAnswerLink and a 2014 Workforce Game Changer winner. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.


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