Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten reasons teaching is great training for business in general and marketing in particular

While just about everyone agrees that education is really important for just about everything, teachers don't get much respect in our culture ("if you can't do, etc."), especially our business culture. So as my small public service to the profession I thought I'd list some of the ways that teaching at a bunch of different levels helped train me for a career in marketing.

1) Good teachers know how to break through the clutter: Remember how distracted you were in class? How easily it was to think about something else, like going home and getting high and watching Spongebob? Good teachers knew it too. But it was their job to get your attention anyway. They always knew they had to give you a better reason to be there than because your parents made you go or because someone was paying a lot of money for tuition.

2) Good teachers know that it’s all about engagement: While some old-fashioned teachers still hide behind their lecture notes (just like boring presenters who rely on their power point slides) most good teachers learned long ago that most people learn best by doing: whether that means trying it themselves or merely engaging actively in a debate. One of my former professors (@afilreis) was a pioneer in both creating productive and often heated debates in his classrooms and as well as utilizing new technology to facilitate discussion.

3) Good teachers are good at explaining complex stuff in simple, accessible ways: Unlike the sad (and often unfairly maligned) “expert” who is so wrapped up in his knowledge that he doesn’t know how to relate to people who don’t share his background, good teachers have to find a way to reach the class, whatever level they are at. Then they develop ways—through illuminating examples, frameworks and exercises—to explain a new idea in a way that is relevant and exciting. This is in fact "the work" of teaching, often lacking in seminars--and the dreaded webinar--held in business environments.

4) Good teachers like helping people learn new things: Duh? right. It’s their job after all. Even though businesses know that the most common complaint from dissatisfied employees (usually when they are walking out the door) is that they lack opportunities to grow and develop and learn new skills, most companies have a hard time making ongoing training a priority. Good teachers are naturally attuned to the hunger of young people or any non-lazy people to continually challenge themselves and learn. (Unfortunately, this means more than a few lunch-and-learns!)

5) Good teachers are inspiring: Like most teachers, I had some pretty bad classes when I was first starting out, and later as well. At first I tried way too hard to get the students to like me which obviously didn’t work. And then I tried too hard trying to get them to agree with me. Or understand me. It took a year or two but I finally realized that one of the objectives of teaching, at least in the early classes, is inspiration: getting students excited about thinking in a new way. I'm not claiming I was good at it, but I've found that this aspiration also works pretty well in new business meetings. In their hearts, most potential clients don't want to be told what to do, or even what you know. They want the same things we do. They want someone to help them get excited about their own jobs again, usually by looking at their work in a new way.

6) Good teachers are born facilitators: A great classroom isn’t a “team” in the sports or business sense for the simple reason that not everyone there is trying to accomplish the same thing. Students come in at different levels of ability, background and commitment with different things they want to get out of the class. Which makes it even harder to cultivate an exciting, productive atmosphere. A good teacher knows how to use the different personalities and styles of thinking to create a stimulating atmosphere while still respecting every student’s individual perspective.

7) Good to have an educator on staff: Everyone agrees ongoing education is an essential part of the new economy. The stats are pretty clear: everyone is going to be changing jobs many times in their career. Even when you stay in the same job, rapidly changing technology is constantly making us all learn new things every week if not every day. Everyone also knows how hard it is to find the time to learn new stuff or set up productive, useful programs to educate people in the company. This is what teachers do. It's useful to have someone around who actually knows how to design a class.

8) Good teachers believe in the ability of people to change: Anyone who has experienced, witnessed or helped a student overcome a challenge knows that it is a profound event. That whole “light going on” thing is real, though it often takes a long time and lots of hard work to get to that “moment” of inspiration. People who know me know I’m an incurable skeptic, but as a skeptic, I’m convinced by strong evidence and I have seen students of all levels transformed by the work of great teachers. Teachers know that almost everyone has the capacity to be better at their work than they were before. Isn't that good source of productivity to have around?

9) They are used to being underpaid: Seriously. This is was a bigger advantage a year or so ago, before talent got cheap again. But as a manager, it’s good for everyone when you can double someone’s salary and still get them under market value. You're happy. They’re happy. The CFO is happy.

10) Good teachers often have a sense of perspective--what we once called humility: While business in general and marketing in particular is full of self-proclaimed experts and hyperbolic and unsupported claims, most good teachers have spent a fair amount of time studying a difficult subject, often with really big thinkers. In other words, they've spent time around their betters, and so tend to be a little more sparing with the terms “brilliant” and “genius.” It’s just nice for balance.

I'm sure there are more. There is a site here which claims seven different roles for teachers (actor, writer, manager, salesperson, professional, developer, subject specialist). I invite people to add others below.

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