Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned Teaching 7th Grade Math
Bree Groff, Managing Director at NOBL NYC, shares her secrets for knowing your employees and enabling a team
When I tell people my first job out of school was a 7th grade math teacher, they usually cringe, either from the memories of middle school, or of math, or both. But I learned more about leadership in that first job than in many years since.
Don’t treat employees like errant children. In fact, don’t treat errant children like errant children.
I was in the middle of a lesson when I noticed John turning around to talk to his friend. A few other students noticed and started to chatter as well. My instinct was to restore control: “I want everyone’s attention now!” Some students simmered, but not John, and he turned around to finish his story. I decided to escalate. I became visibly angry, threatening the principal’s office. Not wanting to look uncool in front of his friends, John didn’t back down. The whole thing ended with me asking him to leave the classroom and holding back tears in the process. Not my finest moment.
Lesson 1: Foster respect. Compliance through force may have given me the hollow victory of getting kids to sit silently in chairs, but it didn’t mean they were learning. When a class is misbehaving, a new teacher will yell. An experienced teacher will whisper: students will get curious and quiet down to hear what you’re saying. A new teacher will say “Pay attention now!” An experienced teacher will say “Wrap up your discussion in the next 10 seconds.” Why? The experienced teacher believes his students want to pay attention, but understands that students don’t want to be rude to friends.
In all my time as an organizational and team designer, I have never met a person who didn’t want to do good work. Asked what they need to do better in their role, no one has ever answered “I need my manager to crack down on me.” It’s always “I’m not sure I have the right skills since my role changed last year,” or “I don’t think my manager appreciates my conflicting commitments with the other team I support.”
What leaders can do:
- Sit down with your direct reports and listen to their experience of work: what’s going well, where they’re getting stuck, and what they need. The meeting should last 90 minutes, and you should talk less than 20% of the time.
- Teach and model “Assume positive intent.” Instead of presuming your team member is skipping a meeting because she’s lazy, first consider that she may be double-booked, or think that she’s not needed—and then go ask her. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “That’s a nice thought, but you don’t know my people,” I’d argue the opportunity to know your people better lies with you.
Your job is not doing others’ jobs.
I was tutoring after school, and one student was struggling with a new skill—I couldn’t believe how many times I had explained it. I was about to take his pencil and show him, again, when I caught my mentor’s glance—a glance that said, “Back away from the pencil.” I took a breath and said, “Let’s try again. Tell me what you’re thinking for a first step.” I remembered that my job was not to solve trigonometry equations; it was to teach. Unless I wanted to make a career of solving for x, I needed to give the student a chance to learn.
Lesson 2: Encourage autonomy. The first line of a leader’s job description should be about growing the capabilities of his team. He should give away more and more authority as his team levels up their skills, until nearly all work is done by the team, and the leader is left to focus on providing the conditions for team members to do their best work. That is the job of a leader.
What leaders can do
- Create an approvals process for your team, writing down what team members should share with you for approval, and where they have autonomy to send things out the door on their own.
Inferences will fill a knowledge vacuum.
If middle school students are good at one thing, it’s gossip. Who will be asked to dance at the school social? Is Mrs. Jones gaining weight or is she pregnant? Is there a pop quiz today in science? We haven’t had one in a while, and Mr. West had extra papers on his desk this morning.
Lesson 3: Over-communicate. As we grow up, the topics of conversation change, but not the deep-seated need to know what’s going on around us. Some level of gossip can be harmless and even healthy for social bonds, but not once it affects their role and their team. In the absence of information, team members will climb the “ladder of inference”: from the fact, “The boss rescheduled our meeting,” they’ll infer, “She doesn’t value our team” and ultimately, “Why do we even try?” And all because she had a dentist appointment she had forgotten about!
On the other hand, when you, the leader, don’t have information, it may feel safer to say nothing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “We can’t say anything because we don’t know all the details yet. People will ask questions!” or, “We told them already, it’s better not to make this into a thing by saying more about it.” The first time you talk to your people about a change without knowing all the details is terrifying. But the truth is, people are actually pretty understanding with others who trust them enough to be transparent.
What leaders can do:
- Arm yourself to have uncomfortable conversations with this planning for change guide. The more you over-communicate, even when you don’t have all the facts, the more you’ll improve. And when you check in with the leaders you coach, ask, “Are you able to be fully transparent with your team? If not, what’s holding you back?”
As a boss, you can inspire an employee. As a mentor, you can inspire a person.
“Tell me about your goals in trigonometry” inspires a much different (and frankly, a boring and made up) response than “Tell me about your goals for who you want to become.” The more I asked the latter, the more I found myself forging bonds with my students, the more they trusted me, and the more they felt comfortable coming to me and asking for my support when they needed it. And when it came to trig, they wanted to perform well for me.
Lesson 4: Add meaning. At the start of any client engagement, we sit down and listen to what team members have to say about their work. Then we ask, confidentially, “What’s next for your career?” And their entire disposition changes—they take off their “business mask” and talk about balancing family and work, exploring an adjacent industry, or getting energized by a successful project. All of a sudden, they’re human.
At NOBL, the first task of any new employee is to write their obituary (morbid, I know) so we can learn the kind of legacy they want to leave. If we can support them doing the best work of their career, then not only has that employee served our mission, but we’ve served them as well.
What leaders can do:
- If contemplating mortality isn’t your company’s thing, sit down with each team member to ask what drives them, above and beyond their job description. Even better, do it over lunch or drinks.
A lot of these recommendations for leaders are focused on conversation. I wish I had a better secret sauce for you, but the magic is in having the discipline and courage to listen to those you lead, over and over. My students made me proud, but it was a matter of knowing them as humans first, and hormonal tyrants second. Now in my work with leaders across industries, from the Fortune 500 to quickly scaling startups, I’ve found that strategists are a dime a dozen. The truly successful leaders are those who understand that their job is not to lead a company, but rather, to enable a team.
Bree Groff started her career in education, helping schools become places where students are empowered to share their best selves and best work with the world; where learning is personal, essential, and best done with others in pursuit of wildly ambitious goals. Now, Bree does the same for Fortune 500 companies as the Managing Director of NOBL’s NYC practice.
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