Understanding why great leaders go to great lengths to teach others

Understanding why great leaders go to great lengths to teach others

In the late 1990s, while I was still working in General Electric (GE), Jack Welch, the chief executive officer (CEO) of GE, walked into one of our classrooms at its Crotonville facility and started teaching.

When Jeffrey Robert "Jeff" Immelt replaced him, he continued Welch's teaching legacy. I remember attending a class at the same facility back in 2003 when Immelt walked into our class and started teaching his "teachable point of view."

Both leaders had differing points on how the organisation should be run and managed but they both spent time teaching their truths to their employees and customers.

Not too far away from GE's learning facility in upstate New York, is the PepsiCo main office. Former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Roger Enrico, instituted a programme called "Executive Leadership: Building the Business," which was a five-day off-site programme led by Enrico himself.

Enrico would spend five days fully engaged teaching nine employees. This was followed by a 90-day follow-up where participants would apply what they learnt whilst getting coaching from Enrico. The programme ended at the end of the 90 days with a three-day session where everyone shared their insights.

When I first heard about how Enrico personally spent so much time teaching, I was amazed at his commitment to teaching and wondered how this was a priority for him.

As I studied and got to know more about other great organisations, it became clear: The best leaders teach!

Even in Malaysia, I experienced this clearly. Former CEO of Malakoff Corp Bhd Zainal Abidin Jalil spent countless hours teaching his 3Cs (Competence, Conviction, and Courage) of leadership to his employees consistently.

The late Datuk Dr Mohd Fowzi Bin Hj Razi from Suria Capital Holdings Bhd used to coach and teach his team at every opportunity he had. And recently, I witnessed Lee Lung Nien of Citi Malaysia and Datuk Seri Syed Faisal Albar of DRB-HICOM Group teaching their leaders.

Great leaders consistently teach their teachable point of view. Welch once said: "As a leader, you have to have a teachable point of view."

The teachable point of view

A few months ago, I spent an evening with Noel Tichy. Tichy is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Tichy was asked by Welch in the mid-1980s to lead GE's Crotonville Leadership Centre. Tichy reinforced the lesson that I learnt at GE that the best leaders give the best of themselves through teaching.

He even went on to postulate that the reason why many organisations failed to replicate GE's Crotonville facility was primarily due to its leadership team failing to teach. Welch gave up much of his time and energy to teach. It is a huge sacrifice for a CEO to teach.

As we know, a CEO's most valuable resource is his or her time. There is only a finite amount of it. Everyone wants a part of the CEO's time and usually CEOs guard their calendars tightly. Yet, CEOs who teach, usually end up successful in the long run. But what do these CEOs teach? Their teachable point of view.

During our recent interview, Tichy reinforced this notion that every CEO has to have a teachable point of view. It is the leader's opinion on how to make the organisation successful and what it takes to lead other people. Every leader must have a teachable point of view.

According to Tichy: " . . . acquiring a teachable point of view involved in-depth preparation by the leaders. Once they had a teachable point of view, they thought of creative ways to find teaching and learning opportunities. They tried to turn every interaction with their people into a learning and teaching event and often set aside time to teach leadership outside of scheduled activities."

Once leaders have clarity on their teachable point of view, they start to create stories around them. Tichy adds that these stories create a case for change, a vision of where the organisation is going, and an understanding of how to get there. Once leaders have a story, they take bold actions that bring about massive and lasting change.

In another one of his books, The Cycle of Leadership, Tichy writes, "the very act of creating a Teachable Point of View makes people better leaders . . . as they come to understand their underlying assumptions about themselves, their organisations and business in general."

So, how do you create your teachable point of view?

A teachable point of view is seen through the stories leaders create to define themselves, their values, their vision for tomorrow and their expectations.

Creating your teachable point of view

For me, understanding your teachable point of view is an arduous task. It requires significant reflection, i.e. to look back into your life and connect the dots. As you connect the dots from your past and have clarity on your future goals and purpose, you will start having clarity on your teachable point of view.

Steve Jobs spent a few years in India in reflection and solitude trying to understand his personal purpose and vision. Once he understood it, his teachable point of view became apparent. As a leader, you must take the time to have clarity on your teachable point of view. If not, you will end up teaching many things but with no clarity of purpose.

It takes time, but start developing your own point of view about what it takes to lead, and start sharing it within your organisation.

Great leaders are great teachers

Tichy reiterates that great leaders are great teachers. The leader needs to create a virtuous teaching cycle where both the leader and the students must learn from each other.

The leader shares their teachable point of view and they listen for ideas, doubts and challenges to these teachable point of views.

This helps them to learn from others as much as the participants get from their download.

One of the reasons Welch and Enrico taught so much was because they learnt much more about their organisations than they did during normal business reviews.

They also learnt a lot about their employees and their struggles and mindset which enabled them to devise appropriate interventions and strategies for their business. And teaching enabled them to become mastery in the domain they taught. The more they taught, the deeper their expertise.

Teaching is a skill which has to be learnt. When leaders teach, they receive practice to become better teachers, enabling them to become better leaders.

The power and influence of teaching

According to Tichy, the most effective leadership development programmes have three key ingredients:

1. a proven leader heads up the effort
2. a select group of participants works with the leader over time
3. real business projects put participants at risk as they apply what they learn

All three areas require leaders to teach. Teaching is not only great for the leader in communicating the teachable point of view, it is also an amazing leadership development tool. At PepsiCo, Enrico unearthed current CEO, Indra Nooyi through his teaching programme.

But why does a leader teaching his employees affect the quality of the leadership development? When a leader teaches, we pay attention-if the boss or a senior leader is teaching something, there is less likelihood for someone to be daydreaming or checking e-mails.

Part of this engagement could stem from the fact that employees in classes taught by the leader may realise that their future promotions may likely be determined by what the leader's impression of them may be. So, in classes taught by leaders, employees tend to be more attentive, not wanting to jeopardise their careers. But that is not the only reason.

We tend to find stories shared by leaders who teach more interesting and applicable, and this heightens our engagement in these teaching sessions. Leaders tend to teach in story form by recounting their war stories and lessons learnt.

These accumulated experiences are soon embraced by the employees being taught, enabling them to learn from that experience without having to go through the pain themselves.

Also, when a leader teaches others on how to do their job, it provides a bigger picture of expectations and prioritisations. This helps others to possibly connect the dots on what they need to do to enable the leader to achieve the bigger organisational goals and their own personal roles.

Final thoughts

Thousands of years ago, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught. It became contagious with each leader building upon what they learnt from their leader. It helped build the foundations of the civilisation we now embrace. The same dynamics work in organisations.

'Great leaders teach and leave their legacies for others who follow to build upon and grow. The moment the teaching stops, the learning stops. Growth stops and decay sets in.'

Leadership and growth is about continued teaching and learning. As 16 May was Teachers' Day, I urge everyone-parents, CEOs, managers and even employees-to keep teaching and keep growing.

Teaching is contagious-once the leader starts to teach, everyone in the organisation will start teaching, leading to a teaching and learning organisation. It is tough to teach as it is time-consuming and we are super busy people but it's all worth it.

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