Published on: August 2, 2010Sometimes, we learn things from the most chance encounters. It is all a matter of being open to the moment.
For me, the most recent example of this came on Saturday night, in San Francisco. I was there for my second time in a week, having been asked to give a speech in Squaw Valley. I brought my 16-year-old daughter with me, thinking she would be good company and it would be an opportunity to show her some of Northern California.
I’ve written here numerous times of how much I liked Cafe Zoetrope, and I decided on Saturday night to bring my daughter there. We found ourselves sitting to a very nice couple, and engaged in conversation with the husband, Alejandro de la Loza, a Southern California sculptor who makes a living as a high school art teacher.
Here is what I learned...and it is a wonderful metaphor for business.
Alejandro described for us the challenges of teaching high school art, that the skill abilities and interest levels can be all over the map. His goal is to engage each of his students in a way that works for them, not for him. That’s incredibly important, I think, and I’m not just speaking here as a pundit, but as someone who has seen both good and bad teachers over the years. My eldest son, now almost 24, put it succinctly a decade ago when he had a teacher he liked: “He teaches the kids, not the subject,” he said.
In all of our organizations, that’s something we need to integrate into our leadership strategies - that each employee is a different person, with different skill levels and different ways of learning. To treat them all the same, to talk to them all the same way, may seem like the most efficient way to do things. But I’m betting in the vast majority of cases, it is far from the least effective.
Alejandro also told us about how he teaches art, and how he integrates writing into his approach. Often, he tells the kids that they are going to make a book - an interesting notion all by itself in a digital world - and provide both the copy and the art. Beyond finding that kids often connect in some primal way to the notion of paper and ink (which will be encouraging to those who believe that physical books will never be replaced by Kindles and iPads), Alejandro encourages them to cut loose as much as possible.
And he doesn’t worry about mistakes. In fact, he told me, “Mistakes get extra credit!” He wants the students to be as innovative and free-thinking as possible, and sees it as his job to get out of the way of all that creativity. Now, there are a lot of people in business leadership positions who say that they encourage people to make mistakes, but I suspect that the recession has cut down on their number; I also think that “the freedom to make mistakes” is a vastly overworked cliche that gets a lot more lip service than actual adherents. But “mistakes get extra credit”? Now that’s the kind of message that could fundamentally change an organization. Think about it.
Finally, Alejandro said something extremely meaningful during out conversation, which took place as the waiters were cleaning away the dishes and I was sipping at the end of my Coppola Shiraz. Even people who are not that intelligent will behave more intelligently “if you tell them they are,” he said.
Another wonderful metaphor that ties into my general feeling that people and companies that refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator will be rewarded. Treat people as intelligent and aspirational and they actually will behave that way.
So that’s why I learned on Saturday night. Great chilaquiles, wonderful wine, and words to live by.
Thanks to Cafe Zoetrope for the first two, and to Alejandro de la Loza for the last. (I’d love to take an art class from him, but I’m probably a little old...)
That’s my Monday morning Eye-Opener.
- Kevin Coupe
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