The Leader Becomes the Student

November 10, 2020

The Leader Becomes the Student

Strong leaders are strong teachers too. But the most enlightened leaders also pursue lifelong learning. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, the best leaders recognize that the tools they use today often become ineffective tomorrow. Even for business leaders who are decades into their careers, it is more important than ever to learn new skills. According to Danielle McMahan, Chief People Officer of Wiley, “learning opportunities are a key reason we find satisfaction in our career.” 

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to teach hundreds of students each year as an adjunct professor in New York City. But once a year I shift seats, and the teacher becomes the student. Each January I join 200 other business leaders from around the world for an executive leadership program. All of us become students again for a few weeks of intensive learning. During this process, I’m reminded of the importance of continuous education, and some of the most important lessons that come to mind as a leader.

  1. Lifelong Learning: Leadership development for yourself and your team affords the opportunity to acquire a wider skill set. With more skills, leaders are better equipped to execute strategy and solve problems. The added benefit to leadership training is the fact that learning is a key reason that we find satisfaction in our careers. According to Debra Hreczuck, Head of People at CultureIQ, "the importance of development in the employee experience shouldn't be underestimated. Research has shown that some employees, particularly millennials, value development even more than financial rewards." Leaders should cascade learning opportunities to all members of their teams. This commitment to learning equips employees with the skills needed to weather change and grow with their company. An example of this commitment in action is Air Canada leveraging training to prepare employees for the future. Air Canada provides training in soft skills such as conflict resolution and managing challenging situations, in addition to offering training in to build employee confidence as new technologies are introduced.
  2. Lifelong Teaching: The strongest leaders very often are the strongest teachers too. Leaders should have regular conversations with members of their team to understand their motivations, provide them feedback and coach them in their roles. This teaching approach provides the added benefit of fostering autonomy within your organization. To demonstrate this concept, imagine that an employee goes to her manager for help to solve a problem. If managers use a teaching approach, they will operate under the assumption that their direct report can solve the problem, and the manager’s role is to help the employee uncover the solution. A contrasting method would be to tell them what to do. You can see how teaching employees helps them discover their “aha” moment for solving an issue and fosters autonomy too.   
  3. Mentoring: I’m inspired by the fact that so many leaders mentored me, and these mentors have had a profound impact on my career. I’m always excited to pay it forward and mentor others.  Another innovative way to accomplish learning is to engage in reverse mentoring. In a reverse mentoring program, a junior employee with an area of expertise mentors a more senior leader. For example, my marketing manager is decades younger than I, yet she is much more fluent in the world of social media, and she coaches me on navigating this critical component of my business. Reverse mentoring not only provides valuable learning to senior leaders but also gives young mentors great satisfaction from teaching.

As a leader, my teaching style has been an incredibly rewarding way for me to share my experience and lessons learned, but of course, you don’t need to be a CEO or a professor to be a teacher and a mentor. You can each find someone on our team or in your personal life that is interested in learning from your unique experience. You can also find amazing people in your life that you can learn from, and then the teacher becomes the student.

The Authors: 

Greg Besner is the author of The Culture Quotient: Ten Dimensions of a High-Performance Culture (Ideapress 2020), and an Adjunct Professor on the faculty of New York University, Stern School of Business.