Focus on How They Learn vs. How You Teach

By Liz McBride

If you’ve read an earlier blog of mine on why BHAGs matter, you already know what last night’s tour of my steinbach-56642_1280son, Jack’s, Middle School meant to me. In short, Jack is autistic and will be moving into Middle School in an inclusive environment with lockers, electives, changing classes and boatloads of hormones. The Principal spoke passionately about why this school is different. He said, “We focus on how the children learn rather than how the teachers teach.” He went on to explain how they are incorporating different methods to reach all learning styles, motivators and developmental paths and to tailor the curriculum as much as possible. 

We all know the value of a great teacher. Who were your favorite teachers and why? Mine were Mrs. Pratt in Kindergarten for seeing the inner drama queen in me and giving me the starring role in our class play; Ms. Wexler in 3rd grade for entrusting me with the class guinea pig, Cuddles; and Mr. McCandless in 4th grade for telling me he thought I’d make a great teacher when I grew up. You can tell I wasn’t a huge fan of middle/high school. All of my favorite teachers found unique ways to reward me and to recognize my talents.

You can’t put a price tag on a great teacher, or a great manager for that matter. If I followed the same exercise in thinking back to favorite managers, the “why” would be for reasons such as: writing me a handwritten thank you card, seeing my true potential and fighting for me, providing me the best onboarding experience, and selecting me to represent us at a leadership summit. In the book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham points out: “...employees join companies, but they leave their managers.” There was a direct correlation to the time invested in the companies where I had these special managers. I could easily go back and categorize all of my past managers with a simple good, bad or ugly phrases like, “micromanager, inspiring, control freak, approachable, intimidating or generous.” These labels are easy to come by because many managers are one-dimensional, regardless of who they lead. 

When I was managing a team, I was so in-tune with my Active Positive leadership style and my social yet driven personality as we tend to learn the most from things we teach. I had my own personal style of rewarding my team, which I thought was sufficient. Surely, they were so lucky to be on my team! That is, until I started hiring driven, direct and self-aware Millennials who poured that cold bucket of water over my inflated, swollen head. “John” called me one day and asked how I thought he was doing so far. Caught off guard, as this was outside of my traditional and highly successful bi-weekly team meeting #shoutout with points to the company store, I stammered a bit and then provided him direct and sincere feedback. He informed me: “By the way, this direct feedback is what I need from you going forward….a lot.” I started wondering: What do my other teammates need from me? I made it a part of my next 1:1 meeting with each of them to find out. Interestingly, the Millennials were quick and detailed in what motivates them where Gen X, Ys and Baby Boomers tended to have to think about it more and get back to me with their detailed thoughts in instant message or email. The ways varied with a couple liking the bi-weekly #shoutouts (brown-nosers) to others wanting earned time off from extensive work travel, more development opportunities, more money, etc. The most common, however, was simply wanting more personal and timely feedback from me and/or other leadership.

In Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from MaslowChip Conley explains how you can use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs similarly with your team. In my example, the team member who needed more tangible rewards in form of money/bonus meant that I wasn’t hitting her basic needs. However Conley says “...their wage or salary does pay the rent, so it’s really the tangible and intangible benefits that differentiate you as an employer.” It’s true I’d have to tackle the compensation issue but not stop there, as that would only be a temporary effect in overall motivation. 

I’ve been to both Google and Genentech’s campuses, both of whom trade places as best places to work and are masterful at tangible benefits. I drool a bit over the free food, massages, haircuts, $2 an hour babysitters who come to your home if a child is sick, or the low priced hot meals you can pick up and take home to your family. If you don’t have these options at your fingertips, you can sleep at night knowing, as the philosopher William James says: “The deepest hunger in humans is the desire to be appreciated.” My team wanted more intangible benefits, especially 1:1 time with me. I am pretty terrific company, after all.  

We were a virtual company; so, a special effort was when I’d fly team members into Charlotte and we’d meet around my dining room table. I’d tell them they were the best ever and then make them help my boys with their homework. No, not really. When I couldn’t do face-to-face, a video conference would do nicely. They also appreciated hand-written notes mailed the old fashioned way. Emails and phone calls would do in a pinch as well...although, in today’s world of CYA, if it was a phone call, they’d ask me to follow it up in an email. Chip Conley points out that for formal recognition to be effective it must be:

  1. Sincere and deserved
  2. Specific and individualized (rather than saying they were the best ever before they helped my boys do their homework, I should have explained why I thought so in detail)
  3. Offered on a timely basis

Another important way we can ‘focus on the learner rather than the way we teach’ is if we know what day-to-day tasks energize or drain their batteries, what types of work they’d like to be doing in the future and what we can do to help get them there. I actually think I did a fair job in this arena and did try to align them with projects that either met their current or future desires. Sometimes what they wanted to be better aligned with other roles within the organization, and I’d be their biggest champion to get them where they’d be most happy. There were many times when we just had to get stuff done that they may not want nor feel is in their role to do. It was in these times that I was appreciative of the lessons I’d learned from my own team in the form of recognition and motivation to be able to not ever make them feel as though I was ‘dumping’ things on them but, that I recognize and appreciate the skills they have that would make this unsavory project a success if they were an integral part.

We can easily draw comparisons between school and workplace because we haven’t changed much from childhood: we still need recognition for our unique qualities, need guidance and development opportunities; and, we need to set boundaries (policies and procedures). I’m sure your leadership style is out of this world; but, just to be on the safe side, why don’t you poll your team on what motivates them and what their likes and dislikes are? There’s always room to tweak your style by focusing on how they learn rather than how you teach. Make a list of their motivators and de-motivators and their likes and dislikes in their day-to-day work. You may see gaps in what your team doesn’t want to do. Can you do anything to change this? Buy automation or technology? Hire someone else who digs this sort of thing? The importance is to tailor the way you recognize and develop your team to each individual.

Turns out, my favorite teachers knew me well: I love to be on center stage, teach others and care for furry creatures. I’d love to hear creative ways you’ve motivated your team to action; so, feel free to share.


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Liz McBride


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