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Everything I Need to Know About Managing People I Learned as a Middle School Teacher

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article originally appeared in Talent Economy, Why Managing People is Like Teaching Middle School.

When I walked into an office for my first-ever corporate job, I was already 25 years into the workforce. For my entire career, my "office" had been a classroom. Now, after more than two decades as an educator, I was dubbed "director of learning" at an international company — and, truth be told, I had no idea what to expect.

At the time, because I’d never worked in a corporate environment, I didn’t realize quite how high a "director" was in an organization. I was the head of an entire department. I had a team of six direct reports, 30 indirect field-based training managers and an international franchise community. I was in charge of helping them lead their teams. And I had zero management experience.

Thankfully, my career in education had prepared me for management more than I knew. My first team meeting immediately reminded me of a first day at school, and it didn’t take long before I began to notice other parallels between managing a middle school classroom and managing a team of employees.

When it came to delegating, team-building or giving feedback, my reference points were the same guiding lights I used as a teacher: Understand personalities and build effective processes for all personalities to succeed. Now, as a senior director of corporate learning, I still rely on those middle school lessons when it comes to managing my department.

Here are some of the lessons I learned.

Understand Employees as Individuals

When the rubber hits the road, managers are really just people managers. As a teacher, I always invested time in getting to know what made my students tick and how I could motivate them to not only pursue their natural interests, but also succeed in areas they were less than thrilled about. I tried to instill a growth mindset in my students, considering every moment as an opportunity to improve and further define the intersection of their interests and skills. Now, I take a similar approach when it comes to managing my team and helping them plan their career paths.

This person-first approach isn’t just for niceties — it can benefit your company when it comes to retention and engagement. A study by my company, Cornerstone OnDemand, found that nearly 90 percent of American employees would consider a lateral career move with no financial incentive if it meant finding satisfaction and fulfillment in their careers. But employers often have "career ladder" blinders on: Only 32 percent of respondents said their employers encourage working in different departments.

Instead, managers should embrace personalized career mobility by talking to team members and trying to align their skills with their interests. This might be as simple as creating a custom title. A study published in Academy of Management Journal found that 85 percent of employees said a new title helped them cope with the emotional exhaustion of their job.

Build a Supportive (and Flexible) Environment

Recognizing employees (or students) as individuals isn’t enough; you also need to understand how the individuals operate as a group and individually within that group. As a teacher, my role was to make sure everyone felt seen and heard in their own way.

This started with a seemingly simply choice: a seating chart. If you have the class clown sitting next to the quietest kid in class, the latter likely won’t speak up. If you think the same principle doesn’t apply in the workplace, think again: A report from Cornerstone and Harvard Business School found that placing the right type of workers in close proximity to each other generated up to a 15 percent increase in organizational performance.

At a higher level, making people feel heard requires creating an environment where it’s okay to be wrong. I believe a lot of our work habits are established in middle school, and our consistent fear of raising our hand with the wrong idea is one of the most pervasive ones. As a teacher, I always encouraged my students to guess even if they weren’t sure of the answer, and always asked to hear their explanation rather than shutting them down on the spot.

I use the same discussion method in team meetings and management trainings, and it actually helps everyone remember the "right" response. In fact, according to Bersin by Deloitte, learners retain only five percent of what they hear and 10 percent of what they read, but they remember more than 50 percent of what they learn through discussion and interaction.

By creating an environment not only conducive to individual growth but positive collaboration, you’re creating a true learning culture. And I firmly believe, from both my years in the classroom and in an office, that’s the key to successful management.

I’ll leave you with two questions: Do you have the best interest of your people at heart? And, more important, are you empowering them to get to where they need to be?

If the answer is yes and yes, you’re well on your way to a bright future.

Photo: Creative Commons

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