How Teaching Tech Can Make You a Better Innovator and Leader

Screenshot 2015-10-23 17.47.20*https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryantylersmith/

This past summer I decided to teach a part-time course at General Assembly.

I love mentoring and coaching others, and public speaking, so I wasn’t surprised to realize how rewarding and fun teaching can be.

But what I didn’t expect was how much this new experience would teach me about leadership and innovation.

Being Prepared Really Helps

When I first started teaching, I thought I could quickly throw together my lesson plans the day before class.

Boy, was I wrong.

I needed three to four hours to prepare for each class, even though I already knew the content. I had to develop the primary lesson content, supporting personal stories, plus extra alternative points in case the other content didn’t land well.

Takeaway: This preparation style is equally useful for training and teaching your team outside the classroom.

Now when I prepare a meeting or workshop with my team, I think about:

  • weaving a story that team members can connect and relate to
  • knowing alternative paths ahead of time
  • having facts and personal stories on hand as examples

My favorite feedback from my students was when they told me: “Michael seems so well prepared to help us understand each lesson.”

You should strive to have your team feel that way about you as a leader.

Check for Understanding to Avoid Mistakes

You can give hours of lectures with supporting examples, but there is no guarantee that your listeners have understood and absorbed the information given to them.

The students at General Assembly had to comprehend each topic if they were going to have a shot at completing their projects.

I learned to check for that comprehension.

The best way to do this was to frequently ask questions during my lectures, get students to verbally fill in the blanks, and just outright ask if anyone needs further clarification on a topic.

Takeaway: To effectively and efficiently convey information when training or instructing your team, you have to make sure your team members understand what you are asking them to do by actively confirming that understanding.

When I’m training my team, here’s what I do:

  • regularly ask questions to see whether what I’m saying makes sense to them
  • use prepared alternative points to back up and reinforce content if there is a lack of understanding
  • make sure they get the nuances of the topic

Investing this time up front will save you more time and avoid mistakes in the long run.

Teaching by Example: Clarify Expectations

One way I teach students is through the “I Do, We Do, You Do” framework.

The idea is:

  • You (the teacher) show the students how to perform a specific task
  • You perform that same task with the students’ participation
  • You ask the students to perform the task on their own

I’ve found this method works brilliantly for both simple and complex topics in the classroom – like our lesson on calculating the Lifetime Value (LTV) of a customer.

Takeaway: This is an effective way to teach new concepts, processes, or frameworks to your team. It ensures team members know exactly what you expect of them.

To make this model work at ThinkingPhones, I encourage all of the managers on my team, myself included, to routinely “get into the trenches” and do the work our product managers do – build a competitive deck, write PRDs, or do market analysis.

This gives all our managers the tools and skills to use the I, We, You model, so we can train and get new product managers up to speed.

How This Applies to Innovation

Overall, teaching reinforces the importance of communicating effectively to your team through:

  • being more prepared than you think you need to be
  • actively checking to make sure your team members understand what they need to do
  • demonstrating tasks so your team members know what is expected of them

Do this well and less time will be spend on re-explaining concepts, or rectifying problems.

Then, when your team is performing their jobs efficiently, and without mistakes, you’ll have more room and time for innovation.

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In the early days of LearnVest, von Tobel put everything involving her business before her own health and needs. A lifestyle that’s based on little sleep, long workdays of drinking nothing but coffee, and forgetting to squeeze in doctors visits obviously isn’t sustainable for the long term. Now that von Tobel has been running a business for four years, she says she goes to the gym almost everyday and stays healthy.

“Advice for startups from LearnVest founder Alex Tobel” via Business Insider.

Maintaining a healthy and somewhat-balanced lifestyle while working at an early-stage company is hard. I use my calendar to make sure I block off time for crossfit, date nights, and spending time with my family. It never feels like enough time, but by regularly blocking off time and only cancelling if it’s absolutely necessary, I find I can maintain the energy needed to put in the time at the office.

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I still remember many of the lessons my first manager at Microsoft, Aaron, taught me during our first tour of duty together in Office. The one I remember the most? Having him stop by on a casual “drive by” during the day to say thanks for something small, like a successful meeting, a solid email, or kudos for helping out a co-worker.  

Never underestimate the power of simply saying “Thanks, nice work.”

10 Signs You Have (Or Are) A Great Boss

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Just remember this: VCs need you as much as you need them. Level the playing field by becoming a man/woman of value. Find your swagger. Be memorable. Be insatiable. Let the world know why you are the best entrepreneur out there.

How To Approach VC’s Like a Pickup Artist” via AlleyWatch

Even though I read the Pickup Artist book after I was married, it was still equal amounts hysterical and repulsive, with some very useful tips sprinkled throughout for how to talk to other people (not just women).