How to pass along crucial business knowledge from one head to many is one of a manager’s greatest challenges. How do you distill years of experience into useful lessons, and how do you make those lessons stick?
In Deep Smarts: How to cultivate and transfer enduring business wisdom, Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap present the four ascending levels at which you can help your staff learn what they need to know:
- Tell ’em what to do: The simplest type of coaching is the lecture, telling people exactly how to proceed. You might explain how to meet a sales target by buiding a sales funnel: “If your sales target is $5 million this year and you already have $2 million, you need $10 million worth of opportunity in the pipeline. Once you reach 90% of that, go to a new projection of $10 million to $30 million.” This method at least introduces the protÃ©gÃ©s to the concept of a sales funnel and starts them thinking about how one works. But they’ll only truly learn how to create one by doing it themselves.
- Offer rules of thumb: People are what psychologists call cognitive misers: we simplify a complex world by taking mental shortcuts. That’s why experts often rely on rules of thumb: shorthand statements stripped of context that summarize a great many patterns into a simple, memorable and (usually) reliable rule. Sometimes these are as pithy as advising chess players to “control the centre of the board.” Other times they’re presented in a less explicit form that still offers hard-earned wisdom. One coach told a manager who had suggested that “adding resources” was the best way to find more customers that “I’m always nervous when the solution to a problem starts with the word hire.”
- The moral of the story is¦: You can go a long way with a good anecdote. People are more likely to remember and heed a lesson drawn from a vivid story than if it’s presented in isolation. When a new executive at a company suggested putting some of the firm’s free cash into a high-yield, high-risk investment, his coach recalled a CFO he knew who had wanted to do the same thing at his firm. Fortunately, said the coach, a senior board member told him, “No one will remember the extra 1.5% you made. But they will remember your losing $10 million.”
- Be like Socrates: Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher realized that his students would learn far more if he nudged them to come up with the answers themselves rather than simply telling them what they needed to know. Socratic questioning forced his students to clarify vague wording and thinking, as well as to challenge their own assumptions. One coach asks entrepreneurs to explain their company’s purpose in a one-line pitch, then asks a series of questions to force them to refine that pitch. These include “What can you offer a potential customer that will make them write a cheque to you rather than another company?” This can be a humbling experience for the entrepreneur, but there’s no missing the learning that takes place.
© 2005 Rogers Media Inc