Leaders as Teachers

Leaders as Teachers

Have you ever heard the old adage, “You teach best what you need to learn?” In my career as a human resources manager in charge of leadership development, I have found that this is so true!

I remember a few years back when I was asked to teach a class on performance management, I gave some serious thought as to what our managers needed to know about managing performance.  As I assessed our strengths and weaknesses in the area, I was struck by how even our top leaders didn’t even know how to approach performance management effectively. I developed a set of learning objectives and began to do a review of all the literature. I wanted to be sure I would not be caught off guard with questions I couldn’t answer quickly and appropriately.

I developed the content and designed an audio visual presentation, class activities, and handouts. I then began thinking about teaching strategies. Then a little voice within me reminded me, “You teach best what you need to learn!”  I knew that the senior leadership would not ever attend a class – some not thinking they needed it, others using time as an excuse, and yet others not wanting to admit publicly that they needed to improve their understanding and skills in this area.

So I approached a few of them and said, “I think this topic is so important that having it come from top leadership would give it so much credibility and let the managers know that this is serious.” They agreed. I then asked some of them (that I felt most needed to learn it themselves) to “co-facilitate” the class with me. Surprisingly, they also agreed. I gave them the course materials to study and asked for their feedback.

We met a couple of times to go over the materials and strategies for delivering the classes throughout the organization. As we discussed the content, it gave them an opportunity to clarify some of their own misunderstanding and confusion, and to anchor in their minds some of the important strategies we would be discussing in class. I allowed them to decide how much of the material they would be willing to deliver. Some chose to deliver more of the material and some, less. I asked them to feel free to share their experiences throughout the class. Most did.

After the class was over, I received feedback from the participants that having the managers co-facilitate was a great learning experience. They said it made the managers seem more personable and approachable. It lent a sense of importance to the topic and opened the lines of communication around the topic.

I received feedback from the managers that they were surprised how open the participants were to learning from them. Some of them even admitted a greater comfort with the topic than they had before.

Since then I have used this “leaders as teachers” model over and over again with great success.

Building on the “you-teach-best-what-you-need-to-learn” theory, I began another practice that has been very successful in further developing our leaders. As my staff and I develop training content, we always offer a “field trial” of every class. In that class we judiciously choose managers or participants who are particularly challenged in the topic area, or those who might tend to be more negative in the actual training sessions. We ask them to take part in the field trial class and critique the content, teaching methodologies, and relevance of the material to their specific work group.

After we complete the field trial class we spend about 30 minutes evaluating it. We make notes, “what worked” and “what needs to be revised.” We specifically discuss the best approach for getting the training to each specific work group.


The benefits of these approaches are:

  • Without thinking of themselves as participants in a training class, managers are improving their knowledge and skills in various topic areas.
  • Managers have the opportunity to discuss the content and ask clarifying questions that they might not be willing to ask in an open training with people who are not at the management level.
  • We get early buy-in from some who are typically “skeptics,” because they feel they now have a vested stake in the success of the class. They are often the best supporters and champions of the training classes.
  • We get training that is targeted to the various work groups. Many times we end up with two or three variations of the class depending on the target employee population.

If you are challenged by how to develop leaders who don't think they need to be developed; and if you want to have better outcomes from your training programs, I urge you to try the "leaders as teacher" approach.


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