How to think like a teacher (and grow your company, too)

Imaginative. Passionate. Fearless.

These are the adjectives typically used to describe the late Steve Jobs.

According to his successor, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Jobs was also an incredible teacher — something that Cook believes most profiles of Jobs fail to capture.

In Cook’s words, he was “one of the best mentors in the world.”

Even Mark Zuckerberg turned to Jobs for advice in Facebook’s early days, when the social media company was struggling to find its footing.

When we imagine the qualities that define successful CEOs, we don’t always think of teaching skills. But some of the best leaders are also dedicated teachers.

As the founder of JotForm, I often ask myself whether I’m effectively teaching our 130 employees. I know it’s essential for their personal and professional growth, and it strengthens our entire company.

Plus, teaching employees to tackle new responsibilities frees me up to focus on high-level business strategy — and that’s what really inspires me.

Why a leader-as-teacher approach benefits your company

In today’s world, a multifaceted skill set is often more valuable than a specialty, so ambitious people are drawn to organizations where learning is a priority.

When leaders are also great teachers, the organization can attract top talent.

Recently, a colleague was weighing the pros and cons of leaving a small, scrappy company for a prestigious national media firm. At the smaller company, she had risen through the ranks to a coveted director position. While the larger firm offered her a lower-ranking role, it also offered ongoing education and leadership coaching.

The decision wasn’t easy, but ultimately, she chose the larger company. It offered more concrete learning opportunities, and she felt that would make her more competitive in the long run.

Research shows that strong teachers also boost employees’ performance.

Author Sydney Finkelstein, who has studied the world’s top business leaders for over a decade, writes that,

”Exceptional leaders spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons.”

He discovered that ongoing, extensive teaching had an unmistakable impact: these teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.

When meaningful learning occurs at all levels, it creates a fluid atmosphere for growth and advancement. If a manager is ready to jump to the next level, for example, his or her replacement will be ready to step up.

And when employees have opportunities to grow and advance, they’re more engaged, which promotes a happier, more productive workplace.

Creating a workspace for (non-stop) learning

Teaching should be ongoing. Instead of sticking to structured presentations and formal reviews, I try to create an atmosphere of continual learning.

Simple ways to reinforce a learning culture include an open-door office policy and leading by example. That’s because employees often learn as much through listening and observation as they do through formal training.

For example, I’m a big fan of walking meetings. When I work from our San Francisco office, I often take new hires on a lunchtime stroll around the Embarcadero.

We can relax, get to know each other, and I can check in on their progress. We also chat about anything that’s on their minds. It’s an informal way to share knowledge — and I usually learn as much as they do (or more).

Which leads to another point:

You don’t have to stick to the job requirements.

According to Finkelstein, the best leaders offer life lessons, professional advice, and industry insights based on their knowledge and experience.

Mike Gamson, a senior vice president at LinkedIn, said that during his first meeting with the company’s new CEO, Jeff Weiner, the two had an hours-long discussion of Buddhist principles. Though it wasn’t part of the VP’s job description, they explored the differences between being an empathetic and a compassionate leader.

Apparently, real estate and banking mogul William “Bill” Sanders regularly gave his employees advice about professional conduct — from preparing for meetings to selling a vision.

This kind of “extracurricular” knowledge might feel like common sense when you have deep experience, or you’ve been in a role for several years. But, we rarely get (or give) enough of it. And it can help employees to reach the next level in their careers.

Additionally, we often expect people to speak up when they have questions or need extra training.

But cross-industry studies show that people are actually “unconsciously incompetent” in 20% to 40% of their role.

When people don’t know their blind spots, they can’t be expected to seek help. The onus is on managers to ensure employees receive the education they need.

Adapt to your team’s needs

We managers shouldn’t wait for critical moments to start delegating.

At JotForm, we use a method I call “co-piloting” to share new skills. For example, I might sit with an employee and provide step-by-step instructions, then I let them try it on their own.

I’ve found that people learn better by actually doing the task, and I’m there to offer feedback and answer any questions that pop up. Afterward, I can depend on them to take full ownership of the task.

Photo from JotForm offices

Professor Art Markman of UT Austin writes that by constantly seeking opportunities to add more responsibility, you’ll broaden your team’s skills.

You can provide one-on-one training before the need arises, rather than frantically offloading tasks to someone with little-to-no training.

A work culture of teaching

When knowledge flows freely, employees typically perform better and feel more engaged. Your organization can attract ambitious talent while offering the kind of multifaceted training that today’s teams need.

It’s equally important to remember that we don’t have to schedule formal seminars to foster a culture of teaching. Even small, informal moments — during a walk, through observation, or one-on-one training — can be just as valuable to your team.

We’re often advised to “never stop learning.” I think it’s good to remember the flip side, too.

Just like the late, great Steve Jobs, we should also think of ourselves as lifelong teachers.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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