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Teaching from the Top

July 27, 2012

Lessons from Breakers of the Glass Ceiling

While it is true that only 12 of the current Fortune Global 500 CEOs are women, it’s interesting to hear what those barrier-breaking women have to say about what, exactly, they do.  It’s particularly interesting to me because so much of what they do involves teaching and learning.

For example, Virginia Rometty, the first female (and current) CEO of IBM, notes that leaders have to be uncomfortable, have to constantly live in a place of discomfort–otherwise, they’re not learning and moving forward.  “Growth and comfort,” as she puts it, “do not coexist.”  For those of my readers who have studied psychology or learning theory, this probably seems reminiscent of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” the period during which one is aware of a deficit in one’s current knowledge or skills, is moving toward new knowledge, but has not yet acquired what is needed.

Perhaps even more important, the “zone of proximal development” is always one in which we feel discomfort; we may even wish to return to our safe ignorance.  So it is a period, a space, in which we need others.  Good leaders, then, know how to keep themselves in a learning space, to overcome the discomfort–and to seek out others who can help them move to the next stage.

The CEO as Teacher

Although none of the female CEOs featured in this week’s article “Career Advice from Fortune 500’s Women CEOs” explicitly claim that the CEO is a teacher, their statements about what makes them good leaders sound an awful lot like what makes a good teacher (in addition to the fact that most of them mention constant learning as a necessity for the role).

Several of them mention, for example, that what they really do is model good behavior.  As Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, puts it, “The fastest way to create cultural change is to start acting the way you wish the company would start to act, and very soon it starts to catch on.”  In a similar vein, Angela Braly of WellPoint argues that “To move an organization forward, to get it from where it is to where it needs to be, you have to live the change you want to see in the organization.”

Sound familiar, teachers?  Put “students” in place of “organization” in Braly’s statement, and you have the manifesto of the dedicated and successful instructor.

Another aspect of the CEO’s job that might sound eerily familiar to teachers is these leaders’ sense that they can never be the ones to relax, that they always have to be thinking through the possibilities, planning the next move, and pushing toward the next idea or change.  Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland is one CEO who takes this kind of contingency thinking very seriously.  As she puts it, as a CEO you have to “stay on the edge of your seat, even if it’s tempting to lean back.”  CEOs–like teachers–can never be the passive recipients of the activities, changes, or new directions in the company; these leaders must always be thinking about what will need to happen next, what can be built on what’s already been accomplished.

For those of you who have a teaching background, this starts to sound like scaffolding, right?  Scaffolding, the process of building each lesson, activity, or concept as a basis or foundation for the next, so that that one can serve as a foundation for the next, and so on, requires a great deal of planning, as well as constant evaluation of whether the scaffold is working and whether students are ready for the next level.  No rest for the weary teacher, indeed–or for the effective CEO either, apparently.

Not too surprisingly, leadership looks similar, whether it’s at the top of a Fortune 500 company or in the relative calm of the classroom.  Looking ahead, modeling good behavior, and not letting anyone get too comfortable are the hallmarks of learning and teaching at any level, and it turns out–yet again–that learning and teaching are what top-level managers are all about.

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