Dave UlrichGuest AuthorLeadership
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Teaching Tips for Any Leader

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

I discovered I could pay for my Ph.D. at UCLA by teaching 34 courses at three universities over five years. Soon after I started teaching at the University of Michigan, I was privileged to join and observe incredible executive education faculty (C. K. Prahalad, Ray Reilly, Tom Kinnear, Dennis Severance) who were rated by Business Week as the best in the world.

Since then, I have taught thousands of lectures, workshops, and seminars. After nearly every teaching experience, I invite feedback so I can better master my craft. Since nearly every leader will occasionally be a teacher (along with facilitators, trainers, professors, or consultants), let me offer some tips I have gained from my experience (often learned from my mistakes!) that might be useful.

1.    Answer the question, “Why should these participants listen to me?”

This answer may include your credibility, which might come from research, experience, reputation, position, cleverness, or facilitation skills. The answer should also include what you want to accomplish in your presentation, which may vary among four possible outcomes: inspire participants through a great story; inform people with new ideas through something like a TED talkinvolve learners through a facilitated discussion so that they feel part of a community; or implement new personal behaviors or organization systems through learning solutions.

2.   See your material through the eyes of your audience or receivers.

Novice teachers often share what they know. More seasoned teachers focus on what the participants need to learn and take away to improve their work. More mature teachers know their audience and why those participants are at the session. At a recent one-day leadership workshop with about one hundred participants, the room held little initial energy, so I asked each table group to identify “the largest leadership challenge you face.” Their responses opened a tailored dialogue on their concerns. Rather than race through my presentation, we talked about how my ideas might solve the challenges they raised.

3.   Engage participants.

As a rule of thumb, I never go more than about seven to ten minutes without engaging the audience someway: invite participants to ask questions, and when they do, take a chair and sit next to the person who asked the question to answer directly (I have done this is groups of up to two hundred people as a way to personalize the dialogue); have people share answers to questions with each other (do a one-minute teach-each-other drill); do a quick vote assessment (raise hands) on an insight. These participation techniques help participants feel more involved.

4.   Be teachable.

The best teachers model learning. If someone asks a question to which you don’t have a clear answer, respond with, “What do you think?” Soliciting others’ insights allows you to learn and engages the audience to create better answers than the ones you might have. You can also open it up to the group by asking, “Great question; can we generate five responses as a group?” By co-learning, you create a learning community where people share experiences and answer questions with each other.

5.   Use humor.

Obviously, ridiculing, making fun, or denigrating anyone or any organization is inappropriate (I have crossed this line before). But careful humor improves teaching. I have learned to poke fun of myself (“My picture in the brochure is of my younger brother.”). I often tell stories about when something I tried did not work and what I learned from that experience. Humor can often come from life experiences (“Years ago, I drove by the driverless car that had 50,000 miles without an accident, and I was tempted to change that.”)

6.   Emphasize content.

Participants want to be engaged and entertained, so the process of teaching matters, but real impact requires content. I prepare by pondering, “What insights do I want people to leave with at end of my session?” Then I like to organize layers of content to draw from, like a book with a title, chapter headings, section headings, paragraphs of ideas, and specific figures or tables to focus on action. I can then teach by going as deep as participants would like or need to go. I also will often set realistic expectations for the impact of the content by acknowledging that 60 percent of the content will likely reinforce what participants already know; 20 percent is not relevant to them, but 20 percent may be helpful. I find that a pretest and posttest helps gauge the impact (Pretest: “On a scale of 0 to 10, how effective are you or your leaders today?” Posttest: “What did you learn to move you up two or three points from your original rating on the scale?”). Then I often have participants share what they learned with others to reinforce the key learning points.

7.    Have a general outline of the logic so people can see the agenda.

I have been accused of teaching like Robin Williams in the movie Good Morning Vietnam where I wander quickly through ideas that seem disconnected. To avoid this, I like to start by sharing the overall message and four to six bullets that I will cover (like chapters in the above book metaphor). This general outline helps participants see where the session has been and is going. And of course, we can add “chapters” if required to respond to participant questions or interactions as in suggestions 2, 3, and 4 above.

8.   Pay attention to the flow of the session.

Teaching has a predictable flow: an introduction where a story captures the meta-message of the session; the core of the workshop where each teaching idea is covered with content (principle, ideas, research), illustrations (using a mixed pedagogy of cases, stories, table groups activities/discussions, videos, role plays, assessments, fingertip learning, and so forth), and application (personal behavior or organization system change); and the conclusion with a strong emotional and meaningful ending that encourages participants to ponder on what they learned and how they will use it.

9.   Be personal.

Learning is not an isolated event but an ongoing process connecting all parts of our lives. To have sustainable learning, look for daily events that will reinforce key principles. Sometimes these events come from family experiences (“I learned about value being defined by the receiver by how my wife responds to gifts I give her.”), observations (“People don’t leave lines in customs or stores when someone gets in line behind them; to retain employees, involve them in hiring someone else.”), or personal stories (“I learned about leading from behind when I did a three-hundred-mile bike ride with youth.”).

10. Your idea?

What would you add to this list?

Teaching is more art than science, but it also comprises learned skills. Using these tips, I try to change 20 to 25 percent of not only what I teach but how I teach every two 2 years! By so doing, leaders who are good teachers help others learn and improve.

Republished with permission and originally published at Dave Ulrich’s LinkedIn

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