Over the past several years I have been a member of several executive leadership teams. While in these environments I have witnessed leaders using several interesting techniques to teach others. I share two of these techniques because I believe others can use them successfully.
The first technique was used by an executive to teach his superiors without “teaching” them. Here’s what happened: The executive called me a few days before a meeting that I was unaware of, and asked me ten to fifteen technical and business questions that were within my area of expertise. I answered the questions, the phone call ended, and I felt good about the interaction. A couple of days later I was invited to a meeting with this individual and three others senior to him. After we dispensed with pleasantries, the first executive steered the conversation in the direction of our previous phone call and began asking me the same questions he had asked a few days earlier. I was a bit puzzled, but simply regurgitated what I had said previously. Since the three other executives considered me expert in this area, they nodded, asked a few questions, drew conclusions, and thanked me for helping them better understand. When the meeting ended, the first executive walked me to the elevator and simply stated, “you just witnessed how you teach your superiors without ‘teaching’ them”. I saw that he had gathered the information he needed prior to the meeting, invited the ‘resident expert’ to talk—already knowing what would be said, and used that expert to drive home principles he felt were needed, but which may not have been accepted if they came directly from him. I remember feeling that not only were his superiors taught, but I was masterfully mentored.
The second technique was used by an executive who was senior to the group being taught, but was not their line leader. In this case I was brought in to make a presentation on a topic I was convinced no one in the room was interested in. At the conclusion of my presentation I asked if there were any questions. The executive asked, “Will you tell us the difference between a need and a want?” Well, my assessment of the interest in my presentation was proved correct, but now my mind raced to come up with something useful to say. I spent five to ten minutes describing our organization’s strategic planning process and how it resulted in us filtering the organizational wants down to real needs. The executive responded by letting me know that I did a bad job of answering his question and asked me to try again. I was invited to try two more times, after which I was told to take a seat. I sat, feeling rejected, and believing that I had completely failed the task given me. At that moment my boss put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, “great job”. I was tempted to respond, “what meeting were you in?”, but resisted. The meeting wrapped up and the executive and a peer of his thanked me for the great answers. It turns out that my explanation of the strategic planning process was exactly what the executive wanted. I was used to teach these important principles (in three different ways) to other executives without their line leaders being present or needing to be involved. The others could now adopt the techniques discussed as their own, impress their line leaders, and accomplish the organization’s goals. I was used, but I learned a lot and felt great about it!
These two techniques were effective in these specific cases, but are more generally applicable. I hesitate sharing them because it might make them less effective in my career, but I think sharing them for others to use is worth that risk.