It’s one of the most important coaching tips I give leaders and aspiring leaders who wish to improve themselves and their job performance: start teaching. I don’t mean change careers, but set aside some time once or twice a year to teach about a subject you know a lot about, whether it be leading a team, overcoming difficulties, building a brand, making tough decisions or launching a successful innovation. Not so much to fulfill your social responsibility to develop others – although that does add to the equation – but mainly for your own success as a leader. Because it will get you some magical results.
I experienced the transformational effects of teaching first-hand. In my almost twenty-year long career as a boardroom strategist, and now associate at various business schools, I first delved into the world of executive education some eight years ago. A colleague asked me to step in and run a day session for him in a leadership program at a business school because he could not make the date. Flattered by the opportunity, I somewhat impulsively agreed on the spot. Weeks later, as the day neared, I caught up with him to ask for his materials. He told me he had none. He always improvised based on the needs and questions of the group. Now, he had twenty-five years of experience in leadership development to fall back on, and would be able to speak passionately and charismatically about the topic for days. I, on the other hand, would not. I did have some materials, but not a full-fledged eight hour educational experience, and I could definitely not ‘just improvise’ myself through the day.
So I was forced to figure out a way to prepare a full-day program for an eager audience of thirty or so seasoned leaders who had paid good money to learn something— from me. It was one of those nerve-racking opportunities life throws at you from time to time. In retrospect they not only make great anecdotes, but also prove to be transformational in your own development.
Three life-enriching things happen when you re-cast yourself as an educator and step up to the challenge to teach:
Once you have run your day, make sure to get feedback. In writing, anonymously if needed. People tend to be brutally honest in written evaluations, so this will be a great learning opportunity for you, although possibly confronting. If your audience was confused, you probably do not have clarity of thought yourself yet. If they were bored, you probably need to find more intriguing hooks or improve your capability of hosting dynamic sessions. If they were unconvinced, you should work on broadening your understanding; you were probably unable to hide your limited perspective over the day, which undoubtedly holds you back in your day job as well.
Harvard Business School Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer speaks of mindfulness when she discusses the art of being open-minded. “Mindfulness is a remarkably simple process of noticing new things”, according to her definition. “Most important, it reveals that we don’t know that thing as well as we thought we did.” We become mindless when we work with the assumption that we know it all and operate on automatic pilot. With your teaching, you deliberately and mindfully develop yourself. This will help you re-categorize your own thinking, reframe your own assumptions, increase your curiosity and makes you conscious of other valid perspectives that exist on the topic you’re so passionate about.
So this is my coaching tip: find yourself a nearby business school and negotiate a full day in one of their programs. These schools typically run programs on a vast range of topics, from innovation to decision making, from basic management skills to advanced leadership reflection. And most of them love having practitioners teach in their programs, as real-life business experience is not something their professors typically excel at. In preparation, ask yourself what you would teach if there were twenty people in front of you today, eagerly awaiting eight hours of learning - from you. Knowing what you will do and how you will take them through the day is one of the best investments you could possibly make in your own development toward excellence.