ATD Blog

A Manager, a Teacher

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

No Amount of Genius Can Replace an Attention to Detail.

Every good manager must also be a teacher—in both senses of the term. A teacher is someone who has expertise and knowledge, and a teacher is someone who knows how to instruct others.

A manager must be good at his job, act professional, and possess technical competence. Formal authority must be preceded and accompanied by expertise. If you work better than I, you’ll have authority over me. The day you’re no longer able to teach something to those who depend on you—the day you stop surprising them—is the day you will lose your credibility as a manager.

Regardless of how much you emphasize the importance of attitude in leadership, it is undeniable that no one can be an effective leader if he fails to excel in his job functions or does not know his trade.

When managers want to lead people in a company, it is essential for them to stand out in the trade or business of that company. For instance, you can’t direct films without knowing about movies, or lead a band without having a good ear. That is why, for many years, engineers are primarily the ones who lead industrial management; account managers in advertising are typically very creative; chemists and pharmacologists hold key positions in the pharmaceutical industry; computer companies are led by people who are talented with computers, and newspapers are often headed by prominent journalists.

My company, my school

Teaching is essential to being an effective boss. Leading does not mean telling people what to do and waiting to see what they accomplish. Instead, it is in large part guiding them through a process. It would be very easy to simply engage in acquiring skills and then apply them to the job at hand, as if you were putting a puzzle together.


But leading people requires a more hands-on approach, regardless of their level of education. You must train employees on the skills you expect them to know. This is the only way to grow in-house talent, and it goes beyond simply managing existing talent.

However, teaching is seldom found among the skills considered essential for leadership. No one records or even remembers the number of employees who have been promoted due to careful, continual training by a hands-on manager. Do we teach our managers how to teach? Do we choose them and promote them by this criterion? Or do we just promote employees who sell or produce the most?

Going from knowing something, to knowing how to teach it, is not easy. Knowing how to teach requires knowledge of the subject first and foremost. But many wise people totally lack the attitude and skills required for teaching their wisdom to others. Interestingly, we think people are very smart when we don’t understand them at all.

We must look at the workspace as an educational space. Rodrigo Uria, one of the most salient lawyers in Spain, comments on the role of education in law firms: “The lack of teaching practices in university forces lawyers to have to learn our business on a day-to-day basis at the law firm. Law firms, large and small, medium or large, are true educational institutions that teach young law graduates how to become lawyers. A law firm that does not teach becomes a poorly developed, gloomy, bureaucratic group of legal analysts oblivious to the two cardinal functions of an attorney: counsel and the trial defense.”


Master the technical aspect of your business

You need to know the technical details of your business, and to master the techniques that make you excellent at your craft. We speak little about micro-skills, the technical aspects of a job, and the craft associated with each position. Without mastery of and appreciation for these techniques, it is difficult to achieve excellence, and it is difficult to truly enjoy and take pride in your work.

We must understand each business in its concrete specificity. The heir of Cafés de Veracruz knew that in coffee, the most important thing is the process (of how it is harvested, cleaned, dried, and so forth), and the raw material is less important.

Each company has a unique customer base, brand, and assets, and a unique way to buy, sell, trade, hire, and strategize that should differentiate it from other competitors. We must grasp the critical points of our business. We often relegate the micro-skills, the specific tasks, and mastery of the techniques that make us good at we do, to the lower levels of the company.

In the popular TV program Undercover Boss, we can see how vice presidents of the bigger companies in the United States ignore the core of the little task that makes their businesses successful. We can all learn from this.

About the Author

Gabriel Ginebra Serrabou began his career as a professor at the Institute of Higher Business Studies (IESE) School of Business at the University of Navarra, and later taught at academic institutions throughout Spain. He has an MBA and a doctoral degree in workplace organization. He has directed consulting projects for companies in a wide range of industries, including finance, pharmacy, healthcare, logistics, and media. Currently, Gabriel is a professor of management skills at the University of Abat Oliba CEU. He directed the Nicomachean project, which combines classical thought with management competencies.

Read Ginebra's blog (in Spanish).
Watch the Managing Incompetence book presentation at EOI Madrid (in Spanish).  

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