From Executive to Professor… and Back Again

Published October 11, 2018

Bernard Shaw is known to have said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I beg to differ. In my experience those who teach, learn to “do” better.  Over the course of my career, I’ve been both a university professor and have held executive positions at several different healthcare companies. Before joining CareCentrix as President and Chief Operating Officer, I taught management and entrepreneurship at Yeshiva University. Unlike most business experiences, teaching provides very immediate results and feedback on your successes and failures. If you see students’ eyes glazed over or they’re nodding off, you know you’re not doing a good job engaging them. If your students don’t do well on an exam, you know that you may not be doing a good job educating them. Teaching forces you to rethink your approach in ways that can also be applied to being an effective leader in industry. Building on my TEDtalk “Recalculate: From Professor to Executive and Back”, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from teaching that have made me a better executive.

Engage; Don’t dictate

Being a good professor means engaging my students in thought and discussion rather than dictating a lesson and having students spend their class time taking notes and then memorizing that information. A good leader follows a similar approach. While leadership requires that you guide employees, good leadership requires you to engage others in decision making and hear their point of view rather than just telling employees what to do. This achieves two positive outcomes: it gives consideration to other voices and improves your own decision making, while teaching employees to be problem solvers rather than simply yes-men and women.

Build confidence to maximize potential

An effective professor will find a way to engage students in healthy dialogue, giving them the confidence to speak their minds even if their initial answer may be wrong. The best teachers also care about all of their students, not just the ones that rise to the top of the class. It’s no different in the workplace. To maximize employees’ potential, a good leader will hire the right people and then recognize the potential of each and every employee and not just give attention to the top performers. It is a manager’s job to help build their employees’ confidence so that they believe in their own ideas and their ability to make good decisions. If you have employees who lack confidence, they will waste time second guessing themselves or they’ll make suboptimal decisions that are not in the best interest of the company.

Encourage enthusiasm

Students who love learning often start a new class with unbridled enthusiasm and optimism about what they will learn. It’s no different for new employees. It’s up to the teacher in the classroom and the leader in the workplace to make sure not to quash that excitement and eagerness. Too often in the business world we quickly squelch that flame of passion with a hard dose of reality. Instead, a good leader will carefully balance the two by providing a reality check when needed while fostering an employees’ energy and enthusiasm so that it lasts long past their first few days at work.

Speak their language

Different generations vary in their ways of communicating. It’s common for the older generation to expect their juniors to communicate on their terms, but if your aim is to be an effective educator, you’ll acknowledge that it’s as much the teacher’s role to understand how to best communicate with students as it is the other way around. Similarly in the workplace, it’s incumbent upon leaders to understand the different ways their employees communicate and find a happy medium so that everyone is participating in the same conversation.

Let them teach you

I was teaching a class recently on disruptive innovations, and during the lesson I realized that my students had far more experience and know-how when it came to these technologies and innovations than I did. It is important as a professor and a leader to recognize that while you may have more years of experience, others in the room may have more understanding and practical knowledge than you. It is to your advantage to listen to and learn from them, and harness their expertise. Seniority does not make you the smartest one in the room.

While I further my professional career, I hope to continue to educate both at CareCentrix and Yeshiva University. So as you may have gathered, I disagree with Bernard Shaw. Fortunately, I am backed up by Aristotle: “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach” and do.