Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, encourages leaders to approach their direct reports like teachers. As Finkelstein explains, being a teacher-leader means continually meeting face to face with employees to communicate lessons about professionalism, points of craft, and life. He says it's easy to try and that teaching is one of the best ways to motivate people and improve their performance.
Finkelstein is the author of “The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers” in the January–February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast, from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.
My first job in journalism was research assistant for Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman.
Each week, she’d come up with a list of topics she was thinking about tackling, and ask me to do some digging. Except, when there was a story so attention-grabbing, that the column just seemed to write itself. In those cases, she’d turn to me and say, “Well, Sarah, as an old editor of mine used to say, when you have a fish in a barrel, you might as well shoot it.”
As someone who tended to overthink things, that stuck with me.
Every industry has leaders who see themselves not just as managers, but as teachers. And new research shows that approach strengthens not only the manager-employee bond, but also employee performance.
Sydney Finkelstein has studied how teacher-leaders go above and beyond in mentoring their direct reports.
And he’s here to talk about how it’s an effort that every manager can and should make. Finkelstein’s a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. And he’s the author of the “The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers,” in the January–February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Syd, thank you so much for talking with us today.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: My pleasure. Great to be with you.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, how did these kinds of teacher-leaders approach managing really differently from other managers?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think that they understand that to win, to be successful, you absolutely have to have great talent around you, and they’re willing to invest in that. And that means specifically spending the time working hand in hand, sometimes very personally, and I don’t mean every day. Because if you have five or 10 or 15 direct reports, you can’t possibly be spending all your time with everyone else. But periodically, and they value it, and they recognize it, and at the same time what they’re doing is, they’re pushing people, they’re forcing people, to kind of raise their own game. And so, it’s one of the best ways to not only motivate people but also get them to perhaps a different place and a higher level than they have might otherwise been.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, what are the types of lessons that great leaders should be teaching to their direct reports, like, particular—are you talking more about like life lessons or elements of the work itself? Basic professionalism? What are you talking about here?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Some leaders would teach about general professionalism, about ethics and about what was right and what was wrong and about credibility. Other leaders would focus on what I call points of crafts, so very specific lessons on how to run your business.
Look in the fashion industry: Ralph Lauren and the way he would specifically teach people around him on what it takes to be a great merchandiser. Actually, Mickey Drexler more recently is another good example of that. Larry Ellison, known as a particularly tough boss but one that would constantly be talking about software architecture and the nature of technology. But there’s also life lessons, and by that, I mean maybe some discussion about how to how to manage your time, how to think about your goals.
Bill Frist, longtime CEO of Hospital Corporation America, would tell many of his protégés—and they shared those stories with me when I interviewed them—about how he would have, he’d always have a list of his short-term goals, intermediate goals, and long-term goals, and he’d be updating them on a regular basis, which is, you know, a discipline that maybe we all know that’s not a bad idea. But how many of us actually do that? But when you have someone that you respect, your leader, your boss—in this case, a CEO—explaining how this made such a difference and makes such a difference for him, it’s going to have a little bit more weight I think in how the rest of us might want to manage our time and our careers.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What are some of the benefits that the teacher leader gets out of leading this way?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Benefits are many. No. 1, your team gets better. They’re learning what works and what doesn’t. No. 2, if you’re a leader, presumably you have more experience in doing whatever you’re doing than the people that are under you. And we saw something akin to a master-apprentice type of relationship in some of these situations, where the leader was the master, if you will, who had spent the years to understand the ideas and the challenges in the business, and the people that were on the team were learning and wanted to learn. That’s another benefit. And I think the third thing is—and I’ve seen this as a teacher or professor myself—when you really dedicate yourself to teaching other people, they really appreciate it; and you create a bond, a connection, that is quite meaningful. People inevitably value others that try to help them. That’s what teaching is. And so, you’re not only improving the kind of the content, skillset, of people that are around you. But at the same time, you’re tightening the bonds between them and you and creating a real team.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I’m just wondering if there was an example or a story of people that you studied for this project where you really saw those sort of bonds of loyalty in a dramatic way.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: There were several. But here’s one from a smaller coffee chain whose CEO told me this story about how there was a young team member that actually had a prior criminal record. And then there was a story in the town where one of the coffee shops was in about how someone had stolen something from a local liquor store, and people started to point fingers.
He hadn’t done it, but once you’re guilty, people continue to think that you’re guilty. She spent a lot of time talking to him and then talking to a lot of the other employees, to use it almost as a teaching moment about how we make certain assumptions about other people that could be wrong, that could be, in this case, as you can see, extremely damaging to someone’s life, someone’s livelihood, someone’s self-confidence.
And when she was telling me this story, she talked about how—in this particular coffee shop, probably a rotating group of six or seven people—and she said they were never tighter because people felt like she didn’t jump to conclusions; she didn’t let anyone else jump to conclusions; she had that debate, that discussion; and people respected that.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, it sounds like it’s not just something for knowledge workers, or it’s not just something for, you know, a certain kind of company. It sounds like you’ve seen this in all industries.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Well, I’ve looked at dozens of industries and companies, in different countries as well, and there must be something universal about teaching. That shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, because how much time do we spend in our lives in every country in the world learning and teaching. And in most countries, we spend the first, you know, from age 3 or 4 or 5 to age 18 or 22 or 26 or what-have-you in a form of teaching. Then you go to work, and all of a sudden, it’s all gone? It’s over? You’re assumed to know everything? You can begin to feel—you know, it’s like an impostor syndrome. You know, you’ve been part of a team. You’ve been learning for years and years, and all of a sudden, you’re expected to know everything. And we all know that’s not possible. So, it’s fundamental, I think, to people.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: The people you studied for this are at the top of their career and really experts in their field. But there’s also a lot of us in organizations who are managing people who actually know more about the craft than we do. You know, for example, some young MBAs who are out in the world managing people who are subject-matter experts. How do you lead someone through teaching if you’re managing someone whose job you don’t necessarily fully understand?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: There’s something to be said to reverse-engineering a little bit of this. I have found almost again without exception that these leaders that are great teachers are also great learners. What the means is if you’re the younger person or the MBA or what-have-you that’s supervising someone that has deep specialization, you need to spend the time and provide the respect to learn from that person, because it’s a two-way street.
And it turns out that when you’re open to learning, other people are very often open to learning from you as well.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: One of the things that I think managers do struggle with is finding ways to work this into their workday. How does a good manager sort of find those pivotal moments and intervene in a way that will have an impact down the line?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, I have a couple of specific suggestions. No. 1, take a good look at your calendar. The amount of time that all of us spend in unproductive time is actually rather remarkable. Top of that list is meetings and how many meetings we go to. And then the meetings we go to, how effectively run are they. How much time are we spending—do we need to be there? Do we need to go through all those PowerPoint slides? Can’t we just look ahead of time at some of the data, some of the ideas, and then when you are face to face have a real discussion?
Now, take that idea about when you’re face to face, really engaging in a real discussion, getting into the issues: that’s what teaching really is. It’s taking advantage of the opportunities you already have. So, I would say, it’s not that you have to find all of a sudden an extra 30 minutes or an hour in a day. It’s about repurposing time that’s not being used as effectively as it could.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I mean, there are moments when important lessons can’t necessarily be learned in an efficient way or when they can’t really be talked about openly in an open office, right. Almost none of us have actual office doors anymore. So, how can leaders really create those kinds of moments for sort of deeper learning?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Well, you could go out of your way to create some of those moments. Some of the leaders I looked at were people that actually believe that you can go off campus, so to speak, you know, having somebody over for dinner or going out for dinner, trying to take advantage of that opportunity by engaging, by talking, by pushing, by providing these little hints about what you should be thinking about.
The most extreme cases were people like Renee Redzipee, who’s a famous chef from Noma, in Copenhagen, one of the most highly rated restaurants in the world. And he would take his entire staff, chefs and staff members, to another country for a three- or four-week period of time where they’d open up a pop-up restaurant.
Now, I know you’re not going to easily find an equivalent for most people in a company, but we do that already. If you think about retreats and off-sites, why don’t we use them more, maybe not only more effectively, but let’s be alert; let’s be wise about how we try to use that time.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Syd, one of the things I’ve been wondering about in this environment of many, many, many sexual harassment allegations being publicly made is, I know that even before all these allegations were coming out, some men were just very nervous about mentoring female—younger female colleagues. I worry that one unintended consequence of all this might make some really good men even more hesitant to mentor younger women. And some of this teaching and learning does happen outside of the workplace. And I’m just wondering, like, what are your thoughts on that, and what would your advice to other guys be about how to mentor younger women in a professional way?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, well that is a very challenging concern. And I’ve spoken to a lot of people, a lot of men, that are leaders, and many of them are confused; they’re not quite sure what they could do. So, the off-sites become a little bit more complicated if they’re one on one, and maybe that’s not the right thing to do at this point. Maybe what you need to do is in the office in real time. So, maybe it’s about picking your spots, looking for the opportunities. I do think it’s more challenging, and maybe it needs to be because of everything that happened, but I think it would be a shame if all of this led to women having fewer opportunities to be mentored and taught by great leaders.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Now, how do you get the lessons you’re teaching people to stick, right? Because there is telling someone what to do. Then there’s them actually doing it.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Well, you want to make them as real as possible. When it’s something that you need to do to be more effective on the job, it becomes much more likely something’s going to be part of your repertoire. And by the way, the experts about learning—and these are people that in many walks of life, including K12 education, in universities, and elsewhere—they understand that the best learning is when there’s good content but then you can apply it. It’s critical to apply it to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And then they get feedback on it. Those are the three steps that are essential to any effective learning: great content, application of ideas, and then feedback; and that’s exactly what these leaders do with their one-on-one teaching.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, and how does this approach change the way that we might think about feedback?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: The best way I think about it—I was talking to a former COO of Sotheby’s the other day, and we’re talking about feedback. And he said, you know, everyone knows the rules of feedback: if you have something negative to tell someone, well, you need to say two or three positive things to them, and then you hit them with what you really want. Well, everyone knows that. So why bother with the two or three things that the good people know that you’re just kind of treading water until you get to the good stuff. The best people, the highest aspiration people, they want to know: Tell me what you think. Tell me why. Back it up, and tell me what you think I should do, and I’ll decide whether I want to adopt that or not, but I know that there’s an issue. And so being much more direct, that’s certainly the case for these leaders that I studied and being clear on what you can get better at I think is a big differentiator. Now, having said all that, there are a lot of people that are quite sensitive to feedback. Those are the types of people that I don’t think are going to be the leaders of the future.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: It’s interesting, because I have seen some surveys that really show that managers hate giving critical feedback and try to actually avoid it much more than, like, the recipients of that feedback feel, Like, mostly recipients are interested in receiving, they say it at least that they’re interested in receiving critical feedback. And I just wonder if thinking of it as leading a teaching is a way of getting around some of the awkwardness of giving critical feedback.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: It’s a great insight, Sarah. In fact, if the managers were to say or think, teaching involves, you know, helping people understand new things but also learning what they could do better, it may be a way of reframing feedback that makes it a lot easier. Absolutely.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: How do you know if you are basically good enough at your job to manage that way?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: One thing you’re going to discover—and you’ve got to be alert, self-aware, emotionally intelligent, all those other good things—is pay attention to your class; pay attention to the people that you’re talking to. Are they taking it all in? Does it appear like it’s adding some value? And then maybe, more practically speaking, does it lead to some change in their behavior or their action that you think is useful? So, in a way, it’s a bit of a market test. You may or may not know how good you are at this, and I’m not going to say everyone is automatically going to be great at it. But I also don’t think it’s all that difficult to do, and I know it’s extremely easy to try. It’s just that a mindset shift that says that’s part of my job.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What if your direct reports are, you know, bad students so to speak and just aren’t taking the lessons to heart, don’t seem to be paying attention, aren’t improving? Then what do you do?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Well, No. 1, I’d say, is, well, let’s make sure you’re reasonably effective at teaching. Let’s make sure that you’re teaching reasonably useful ideas. You don’t put the blame on the team members automatically. It could be you; and you could find that out through a coach, by talking to your boss, talking to peers, talking to colleagues.
Putting that to the side, and you’re actually really good at this, are reasonably good at this, and nobody’s taking it well. Well, we have, we have a question ask, and that is, do you have the right team. And not everybody has necessarily the right team, or to be more precise, certain team members might not be as open to learning, as high aspiration, as the best teams need to be.
And then there are a bunch of things you can do about that from a one-on-one conversation where you bring it up, and you ask for feedback on what could I be doing better to share this point of view with you, because we’re not seeing the type of change or adjustment that might be reasonable—maybe I’m missing something. So, some humility goes a long way here. And you know, after you’ve done that a couple of times, you still see no result, then you want to start to think about the bigger picture. Is this person really actually producing? And sometimes changes are going to be needed.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I do wonder about the communication piece of this because I know managers will often say, like, Oh, we had a real come-to-Jesus meeting, and I think we’re on the same page now. And then, you know, the person that they had the meeting with may have no idea that they supposedly have just been given a very strong lesson. They sort of walk out of it thinking, Huh; that was an interesting meeting. But they don’t really get the message. So, sometimes I just wonder, like, how can you just make sure your message is really being received?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: It is actually amazing how often that’s the case. And this is not just about business; this is called life. You think you’ve communicated effectively, and your partner, your business partner, your team members, they’re not getting it.
And there are a lot of things you could do about that. No. 1, again, is well, ask people to share with you what the message is. Have them repeated back in their own words because you may not have communicated as effectively as you think you have. You know, not everything we say is going to be perfect. In fact, you know, there are flaws all the time; but it’s not about that. It’s about doing everything we can to reinforce the message and trying to make it as clear as possible. But I think one of the best ways is asking for feedback directly in real time. And that also gives them an opportunity to add something or extend what you just said, and that’s a great way to get a little bit of feedback from them and allow them to be a little bit more independent and not just parrot back what you said. And then you can continue the conversation.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, we’ve been talking about this teacher-leader approach, and it sounds sort of universally glorious. But I am a little bit of the mind that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Are there cases where either this is really costly or there’s risks involved or some kind of downside or some kind of tradeoff involved? Or is it truly that this is a, like, universally glorious way to manage people?
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: I have a tendency of talking about this as if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s probably being communicated right now. So, the question to ask is, what is the culture and environment of the team. How are they used to working? And if you started all of a sudden to show up and start to do this one-on-one teaching, would they be wondering what the heck is happening? That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea; it means the transition to try to do it a little bit is gonna probably going to be a little bit bumpy or take a little bit longer.
So, one of the things that I think great teachers do—to kind of flip the question a little bit—one of the things great teachers do is they customize their lessons for the people on their team. And so, I would say that you want to customize how you introduce, or begin, the process of thinking about yourself as a teacher if you haven’t done that as much or if you want to increase how often you’re behaving and acting in this way. You want to think about the team you’re in and what’s gonna work and what’s not going to work and kind of think about the sequencing of it.
So, I think if you’re not paying enough attention to the people on your team and how they behave and what they’re doing, then I think that could make this much more difficult than it might otherwise be. As long as you can manage your time, again, as we’ve spoken about, I think there’s gonna be much more upside than the occasional hiccup that might occur.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, Syd, this has been a really fun conversation, and I’ve learned a lot. So, thank you.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: Thank you.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s Sydney Finkelstein. He teaches management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He’s also the director of Tuck’s Center for Leadership. And he’s the author of the “The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers.” Read it in the January–February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review or on HBR.org.
Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.
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