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Leaders as Teachers

Expatriate leaders, recently returned from an international assignment, spoke on a panel to their colleagues participating in a Working Globally course. The real-life stories and links to business cases added significant value to the program. When we have seen panels like this implemented, expats are so interested in participating that there is a waiting list to speak. Further, an unexpected consequence of such panels is an increased number of applicants for overseas assignments. 

With tightened budgets and leaner staff sizes, organizations have to find increasingly innovative methods to provide training to their global workforce. One such method is to use leaders as teachers, popularized by Ed Betof in his book of the same name. Betof is a senior fellow at The Conference Board, president of Betof Associates, former senior fellow and academic director of the executive program in workplace learning leadership at Wharton, and former worldwide vice president of talent management and chief learning officer, at Becton, Dickinson, and company (BD). 

According to Noel Tichy, the author of the Leadership Engine, implementing a leaders-as-teachers strategy in an organization creates a learning organization, which provides many benefits, including making those organizations more agile, better able to develop strategies, and more effective when implementing those strategies. 

According to Betof, in addition to teaching change processes and other business imperatives as leaders tie concepts to actual business imperatives, there are several organizational benefits to the leaders-as-teachers strategy.

  • Process helps drive the overall business agenda and increases communication flow.
  • Leaders help clarify the values and mission of the organization.
  • The method is highly cost effective, enabling external experts to be brought in only when needed.
  • Collaboration is improved by using the latest technology for immediate feedback.
  • New ideas can be taught via blogs and online streaming of points of view. 

In addition, leaders

  • gain hands-on experience and reinforce past learnings
  • become better developed as professionals by gaining new skills and knowledge from experiences of participants
  • learn to be better leaders and team members
  • become more self-aware, which leads to self-improvement and better solutions to business problems
  • encounter information and networking opportunities to which they would not otherwise be exposed
  • can ask critical questions and hold up a mirror—the power of teaching in the moment. 

Meanwhile, participants

  • gain increased cultural sensitivity
  • learn relevant information tied to the organization’s goals and strategies
  • meet leaders they might not have met otherwise.

It is important to remember that a key principle behind the leaders-as-teachers approach is that no group has greater responsibility to drive the agenda of an organization than its leaders. 


Preparing leaders to teach

Some leaders are coached in teaching methods, while others partner with internal instructors. The courseware is designed by professionals. There are several ways in which leaders can teach:

  • co-teaching a course
  • speaking about leadership experiences
  • lunch-and-learn sessions
  • town hall meetings
  • coaching offline during breaks. 

Successful implementation

The leaders-as-teachers approach has been successfully implemented at many organizations, with BD often cited as influential. 

For example, Johnson & Johnson started a project to introduce a diversity and inclusion initiative in Latin America. It hired an independent company to prepare a presentation and a script, then rehearsed it with several of J&J’s top Latin American leaders who taught three 20-minute sessions on Micro-inequities, Unconscious Bias, and What Diversity Means to Me to attendees of town hall meetings across South America. This demonstration of the leaders’ commitment to promote and discuss diversity and inclusion was much more powerful than if the course had been delivered by internal or external trainers.  

I would enjoy hearing from any of you who are using a leaders-as-teachers approach to discuss best practices and experiences. Those who would like to try this approach will benefit from Ed Betof’s book and are free to contact me for additional information. 


© 2014 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized authority on globalization, global mindset development, and cultural competence for global corporations. His programs have helped hundreds of thousands of corporate executives to be more effective in international settings by learning how to apply a global mindset. Global Dynamics, the company he co-founded in 1983, designs, organizes, and implements programs that support global mindset development, cultural competence, global team building, global leadership, virtual workforce effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion in leading Fortune 500 companies that wish to succeed in the global arena. As CEO of GDI, he leads a team of more than 400 innovative, cross-cultural experts from around the globe to create in-person, blended, and web-based solutions for his clients.
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