Everything I know about being a CEO, I learned being a teacher

jessteaching

“How can you be a CEO when you were just a teacher?”

This is one of the most common questions I have fielded as the CEO and founder of Allovue, an early-stage financial analytics company. Initially the question offended me; I prickled at the insinuation of all the worst teacher stereotypes: teachers aren’t as smart or shrewd as other professionals, teachers are lazy, teachers are fluffy.

Now, I’m amused by the question. After all, teachers are the unsung CEOs of the world. Teachers manage hundreds of people every day (who are not paid to show up!) Teachers prepare and present 4–6 hours of unique content every day, and are evaluated based on those hundreds of students’ ability to process and retain this new content. Teachers make all their own agendas, PowerPoints, and reading materials. They often buy their own presentation tools and office supplies — for over a hundred people. Sorry, no T&E reimbursements! They make their own photocopies of materials they created or purchased themselves. They give individualized feedback to over a hundred people on a regular basis. Hey, CEOs — when was the last time you reviewed and evaluated the daily work of +100 employees after doing all your own work and meetings for the day? And don’t forget to call all of your employees’ parents at least once a week to let them know how they’re doing at work! Great teachers are virtually superhuman masters of management and logistics.

I’ve come to realize that most of my favorite management strategies were fire-tested in the classroom, not a boardroom. Having taught students from kindergarten age up to the graduate level, I’ll let you in a little secret: managing adults is not all that different from managing children.

Public praise, private punishment

This is a staple of classroom management. Can you remember a time that you were called out in front of your peers for doing or saying something wrong? Can you feel your cheeks getting warm just thinking about it? Now, think about a time that someone praised you for a job well-done in front of all your colleagues. I bet your chest is still swelling with pride. This is a pretty basic tenet of human psychology: most people appreciate public recognition for good work, but feel humiliated by screwing up in front of their pals. Publicly chastising people for mistakes might create results in the short term, but it’s no way to build a strong culture in the long term.

As often as possible, we make an effort to let our team know about all the awesome things their teammates are doing — we also share a weekly newsletter with team shout-outs and appreciations, ranging from small helps (“Thanks for giving me a ride home”) to big wins (“Great job closing that sale! Coffee for everyone!”)

On the contrary, if something is going awry with process or performance, we address these issues privately with team members, and we focus on figuring out why something isn’t working and what steps need to be taken to fix the problem. It is difficult to consistently do this without egos and finger-pointing. We are not perfect at it, but couching these discussions in terms of finding solutions instead of allocating blame goes a long way.

Give credit, take blame

As a general rule, when something good happens, my team did it. When something goes wrong, it’s my fault. As the CEO, you have little to lose by accepting blame. It takes pressure off the team and frees up their mental space to focus on solving the problem. Are you sensing a theme here? People don’t function well when they’re embarrassed or scared.

As for giving credit, let’s harken back to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” decree. No matter how much of a 10x-programmer-visionary-wünderkind you are, it’s extremely unlikely that you built something great alone. Give credit where credit is due — and then some. Elevating others does not diminish you. Take every opportunity to credit your team, investors, advisors, and customers because this is an all-ships-rise-win-win situation.

Bring cupcakes

I don’t care if you are 5 or 50 — people love cupcakes. I have studied this extensively, and the effects of cupcakes on a classroom or office are the same: good cheer and a burst of productivity. We are lucky enough to have the gourmet cupcake shop La Cakerie down the street from our office and we are frequent patrons. Birthday? Cupcakes! Engagement? Cupcakes! Good press? Cupcakes! Thursday? Cupcakes! Celebrate each other. Celebrate wins, big or small. Celebrate just because you are all in this together, doing the hard things, fighting the good fight, and goddamit, you deserve a cupcake.

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