by Michael Schrage
“My top performers ended up pushing me harder than I pushed them,” Woodward said, adding that you can’t help but learn from watching top athletes perfecting their craft.
This mutuality of professional development was a theme of his. Back in the late-nineties, Woodward was arguably the first coach of a national squad to give a laptop to every single player, insisting they be as world-class as IT users as they were as athletes. “Simply using it as a tool wasn’t good enough,” he insisted. “We wanted to be the best using IT.” That squad won a world championship.
Needless to say, Woodward learned a great deal observing how his players used their laptops to learn and make themselves more competitive. Those lessons, of course, made him an even better coach.
That truly great players make everyone around them play better is one of sports’ better championship clichés. But arguments that great players actually educate their coaches are considerably rarer. They’re just as rare in the managerial literature. Woodward and I were on a panel for Tech Mahindra’s European customer event in the U.K. In the panel’s aftermath, I messaged a few friends and colleagues. I asked them to name employees — not colleagues or bosses! — who had dramatically improved them as leaders and/or managers. The most common response was that they’d never been asked before. (One colleague who’d helped grow a start-up to a nine-figure sale responded with the name of a particularly gifted software development project leader who blew him away with his standards of excellence and expectations management.)
Clearly, there’s a “turning bugs into features” quality to this question. Often, coaches and managers learn the most from their most difficult, recalcitrant, or challenging charges. Not to diminish the importance of managing “talented temperamentals,” but that explicitly wasn’t Woodward’s focus. He thought it critical for his own professional development to learn from his players. Do most managers and executives similarly believe it critical to learn from their direct reports? The data suggest not.
Not a single member of my network — nor the organizations I’ve worked with — have a performance review question assessing whether — and how well — bosses improve their own performances by learning from their employees. That seems odd. Reverse mentoring by millennials (and talented college students) to help their 40+ elders acquire better Internet and social media expertise has become more common. Certainly, project managers and new product leaders observe best practices worth sharing.
But how well — and how often — do they monitor how their own management style and insight have been improved by their best people and performers? Our human capital and professional development conversations and evaluations should be more symmetrical. Yes, everybody can recall that boss that made a huge difference. But who celebrates the one or two employees that dramatically improved managerial verve and effectiveness?
Which employee had the biggest positive impact on who you are today?