I’ve had an interesting phase at work over the last months where I’ve done a lot more teaching than ever before. Some of that teaching was during onboarding. The rest has been a result of an initiative to establish a stronger feedback culture in the pursuit of elevating the quality of our work, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re trying to get better. It’s been some of the most challenging and the most fun time I’ve ever spent at work.
It’s been an interesting development because I spent a long period of time in my early career practically terrified by the idea of trying to teach anyone anything. One of my first projects in my first management job was to develop workshops, at a time when workshop design felt like an intensely complex topic that I knew absolutely nothing about. I remember feeling that my self-doubt was really holding me back then. Some part of that was down to pure experience and the confidence that comes with that but the largest part was this question: How exactly can I package soft skills in a way that’s practical? So many of the skills involved in my day-to-day work are subjective, hard to define, and very hard to train. What does good communication look like? How do you give feedback in a way that’s helpful and constructive? How do you address things that bother you without irritating other people? I wasn’t sure that I could handle those things properly myself, never mind trying to explain to someone else how to handle them.
None of these is an easy question to answer and the skills themselves haven’t really become easier to teach but what I have learned with experience is how to conceptualise and approach them differently than before. It’s the awareness that they are teachable skills and they can be approached in a systematic way. All you need to do to make the lessons practical is to apply them directly to the job. Applying them to the job means picking apart typical challenges and situations that someone doing that job will face and finding a toolkit of ways to handle those. It isn’t easy, by any means, but it is doable with enough time and effort.
The concrete outcomes have been a series of workshops with my team tackling different types of soft skills and setting direction for us as a group. This has been a truly joyful experience. I’m so excited, motivated, and inspired by it that I want to encourage everyone to look for their own opportunities to do at least some teaching in their work. I use the term teaching rather than coaching because coaching is fundamentally about helping someone else realise what they know by guiding them through their own problem-solving. This is great fun too! But it isn’t really the same as teaching, which is rather about imparting your own knowledge in such a way that someone else is able to apply it. So here are some of the aspects about teaching that make it so much fun and why you should give it a shot, should you come across an opportunity to.
Deepening your own knowledge
The most obvious win is that having to explain to someone else anything at all, no matter how well you know it, means your understanding of it has to be on point. Just going through the process of figuring out exactly how to explain it and how to make sure the other person can retain it will deepen your own knowledge and understanding until it’s bulletproof. That’s the ultimate way to consolidate your own knowledge. It’s also how you actually get good at something too and start feeling confident in your ability to do it because it forces you to identify all of the current gaps you have, the parts that you naturally gloss over. There’s a huge gap between listening to something, applying it, and explaining it. Once you get to the point of being able to explain it well, that’s something you’ll probably remember and know forever.
Developing a new skill
Teaching is such an incredibly difficult skill to develop. Think back to your high school days: Do you remember how many good teachers you had? What were your favourite teachers like? What were the least popular teachers like? I can count the great teachers I had throughout my entire academic life, from very early school to university, on one hand. Everyone I know would say the same. You can’t be a good teacher if you don’t approach it on the individual’s level. Trying to get good at it will teach you so much more about what motivates people, how they learn, and your own biases. It’ll also force you to learn different methods, tools, philosophies and so much more. It’s a great skill to have in your repertoire and will definitely open opportunities for you in the future.
Having an impact
Having an impact is a motivator in and of itself. A lot of people will say that the largest thing that drives them is the feeling that the work they do has some kind of visible, meaningful impact. I’m one of those people, so that part works for me. What’s also great about it is the best employees to have and the best colleagues to work with are the ones that inspire and influence the people around them. Have you ever had that experience where someone in your team answered one of your questions so well that it felt like something clicked in your head, like the picture you have is a more complete one and in higher resolution? Those are the types of moments that are worth chasing, because they’re how you, as an individual, can contribute way more value to the company.
Rewarded through the success of others
There’s a great saying “the greater the effort, the sweeter the reward.” This is very true here as well. Because it’s so hard to get right and because it depends on the other person and the extent to which they’re able to learn from you, you have to approach it with a lot of care and attention. It’s a challenge! And the harder you have to work at something, the more rewarding it is if you finally succeed. The moment you start noticing that the people around you are applying what you taught them with no difficulty, you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. If you’re really lucky, whatever you taught them will influence them in the long term as well, not just in the immediate task you were working on. That’s when teaching becomes the most rewarding.
Teaching is essentially the biggest way to grow in seniority and expertise in your current role, whatever that looks like. If the opportunity comes your way, even if it’s scary and even if you aren’t sure you’re the best person for it, try it out. Take it seriously and see how it goes. Chances are, you’ll be grateful for the experience.