While never done here before, the excited CEO thought it was a good idea. His savvy senior management team played along. And when I got the call to help out, I knew it was going to be quite a learning experience.
Replace the faculty of our proven executive development courses with our own senior officers. This was during my GE Crotonville days, way before ‘leaders teaching leader” became popular. Then CEO Jack Welch was convinced that some early internal teacher efforts by Pepsi and others proved a superior way of grooming future stars.
- To the students, credible lessons learned from successful leaders inside the organization, rare chance to interact with a senior leader in a (mostly) open forum to exchange ideas, entertaining stories in the life of an executive.
- To the executives, the opportunity to deliver a message and lesson they passionately believe matters for the organization and the future executives, direct contact with an important talent layer in the organization normal circumstances would not allow with the chance to hear business reality directly from the troops in a (mostly) open forum rather than filtered through the chain of command. Furthermore, the teaching executive was also learning – about different ways of influencing and about the practical application of the subject matter.
- To the talent management leader, a chance to transform a set executive development course into a dynamic forum where the all the potential benefits for the students and executives would be realized. But to make it all happen, I had to first learn about tailoring.
A Question of Fit
In the month leading up to the first program, I spent a good deal of time helping the half dozen senior executives designated by the CEO (good to have sponsorship) to be the inaugural faculty. What I quickly realized is that some did see the benefits early and enthusiastically dove into the task of preparing their material and method for the course. Others proved more challenging as their schedules were very demanding and their interest in a new classroom assignment questionable.
One executive in particular stands out as challenging me to come up with something he could teach. After rejecting the standard offerings I gave him, in desperation I asked him to consider teaching something that was sitting on his deck. Surely there is an interesting story or case study somewhere in the inbox or stack of reports, I said, that would fit nicely with the financial section of the course. Lucky for me (and the next class), he was in a forgiving mood and did find a recently closed acquisition that because prime material and soon became a highly rated session.
The lessons I learned helping the first six exec become valued teachers have been repeated in the years that followed as ‘leaders teaching leaders’ became a proven standard in the talent development field. The most important lesson was to manage the fit among the purpose of the course as well as the assets and preferences of the executive. As program leader, I had to move beyond the initial instinct to please the executive and hold true to the objectives of the course. Executives had to align their message to the program learning goals and not hijack the class for their own purposes (although it still happened occasionally).
A Sample of Six Choices for Leaders Teaching
I had to stay attuned to the abilities and comfort level of each executive. Some were natural teachers, Socratic facilitators and wonderful storytellers. Others were just good business people and not the former. Overtime, we expanded the definition of ‘leaders to teaching leaders’ to a wider meaning with impact. A dozen different choices emerged that I still use today in enticing line leaders into the classroom.
- Joe brought the ‘full steam ahead’ style into the classroom by presenting a passionate and straightforward presentation and engaged the audience with his excitement (and expectation) that the stars in the audience would reciprocate with their reactions and ideas.
- Steve, on the other hand, humbly taught by example, sharing highlights and lowlights from his own 360 and quite transparently revealed what he was trying to improve.
- Paula had a fully though-out theory of her work and use the class as an opportunity to air out her thinking, encouraging others to help her prove out her thinking.
- Ben taught by question, raising an intriguing and ambiguous situation and respectfully playing the differing student opinions off each other as a way of deepening executive thinking skills.
- Chris enjoyed throwing a topic into breakout groups and then molding the report-back recommendations to balance risk taking innovation and practical execution reality.
- Eunice was not really at her best in front of the classroom but masterful as a coach helping teams navigate through a business simulation.
Teachable Moments When the Teacher Arrives
Today it is not uncommon to find an executive serving as teaching faculty in an organization’s training curriculum. Moreover, the formal setting of teaching has evolved into more informal occasions where a line leader will take advantage of a ‘teachable moment’ in the normal course of business and provide valuable ‘lessons learned’ for the employee or team present. All in all, the big lesson of internal executives teaching is that it takes a star to make a star.
© Kevin D. Wilde