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Why the best CEOs are also excellent teachers

Glenys Barton

Talk about teaching in the workplace and you’ll probably think of dedicated training days, annual employee reviews or formal career-planning activities. But the most successful leaders have a much more relaxed and organic approach, according to Sydney Finkelstein, writing for Harvard Business Review.

Finkelstein spent over a decade studying the character traits and methods of some of the top CEOs across a broad spectrum of industries to see how their behaviour and attitudes differ from the norm. He discovered that they were all great, hands-on teachers, making knowledge sharing an instinctive natural priority, often on a one-to-one basis.


Rather than delegating formal training sessions, these leaders took a personal approach. They passed on their skills, tactics, principles – and even broader life lessons – in their day-to-day operations on the frontline, alongside their employees.

The impact of this was clear: “Their teams and organisations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.”


Among those studied was Kundapar Vaman Kamath, former CEO of India’s ICICI Bank who, employees report, took every opportunity to communicate with them as individuals and guide them in a constructive, respectful and appropriate way. This resulted in the creation of “a hothouse of leadership talent” that influenced a whole new generation of bankers.

Others on Finkelstein’s observation list included former hedge fund CEO Julian Robertson, fashion icon Ralph Lauren, real estate CEO and investor Bill Sanders, and Tommy Frist Jr, who was the CEO of Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) – all of whom displayed similar habits for the ongoing education of their staff.

The good news is that their model is one you can easily adopt – and without the need for formal training yourself. It’s simply about following in the footsteps of these “star managers”.


Here are some pointers to get you started:

1) Tailor learning. Don’t demand that employees listen to an arrogant sermon. Tailor the learning you want to impart to individuals’ capability, personality and prior experience.

2) Ask questions. Inform yourself well by asking your employees pertinent questions. Frist was “always asking probing questions to find out what was happening – to educate himself, not to make you feel like you were doing something appropriate or inappropriate. It was an educational venture.”

3) Stay on track. Stick broadly to the three major themes: professionalism, craft and life lessons.

4) Be timely. Always be on the alert for opportunities to share your wisdom whenever the time seems right. Create casual situations where you can teach without it being a planned lecture. One of Kamath’s executives learned many lessons on days his boss gave him a lift home.

5) Be accessible. Make it easier to share your wisdom and spot the gaps of employees’ knowledge by operating an open office – or at least an open-door – policy.

6) Be a role model. Practise what you preach and let employees watch how you achieve your success.

If you are not teaching then you are not really leading, asserts Finkelstein. But when you make the role of teacher integral to your overall job of managing your business, it will boost employee loyalty, strengthen your teams and produce valuable rewards.

Source Article: The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers
Author(s): Sydney Finkelstein