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Learning From Our Subordinates

by David Brock on April 18th, 2012

One of the key roles of any leader or executive is to teach, coach, develop our people.  Our people are all too eager to learn from our experience, to learn what we did to be successful, as well as to learn what mistakes we may have made, so they can avoid them.

“Teaching,” whether formally or through coaching or mentoring is a privilege for any executive.  It’s a powerful way, not only to work on specific skills development, but to pass along values, to build the culture, to provide our people a broader context in which to position their contributions.  In growing our people, it’s our number one responsibility.

But often, we forget another key component of teaching/coaching/mentoring our people.  We forget the tremendous value we get in learning from them.

Today, I’ve been carrying on a couple of email conversations.  One with a sales manager in the Far East, another with a sales person in the Midwest.  With each, it became clear a telephone conversation would be valuable.  But each was reluctant to ask me to invest some time in it–not sure if there was a “business outcome” for me.  While I appreciate their sensitivity to my revenue generation, I told each, that I really value these conversations and learn a lot from them.  Each was overly humble in replying, “I can’t possibly imagine what you can learn from me.”

Learning–whether it is formal or through coaching or mentoring is really two ways.  I know what I can share as a sales executive or consultant — what people, whether they are sales people in my organization or clients, can learn from me.  But the value we get from them teaching us can never be over-stated.

It’s an opportunity for any executive to learn what’s really happening in the organization and the world.  We get the privilege to talk to people who are struggling to implement our strategies, to achieve the goals we have set, and who help make us successful.  We get an unfiltered view of what’s really happening–not the sterile numbers or text that may be in a report, but the context, emotions, and color commentary on what’s really happening.

We get much more than that.  For example, in the email conversations I was having with these two individuals, they were asking questions differently than had been posed before.  Each was asking about prospecting, demand generation, and sales process, but they expressed the questions a little differently–the questions were challenging and caused me to really think about my response.  They gave me the opportunity to look at what I thought I already knew, but to look at it a little differently.

The questions didn’t cause me to change my mind or point of view.  They didn’t create an “A-HA” moment, but they caused me to reflect and think about the appropriate response.  They forced me to consider something I thought I knew, but from a slightly different point of view.  It was something I could learn from.

Often, it’s the naive questions we may get from our subordinates.  We tend to think everyone understands things the same way we do, that just because it’s something we “get,” that everyone else does as well.  Then you encounter a sincere, but naive question, that causes you to sit back and realize you’ve been alone, that others simply may not get it.

Or, like any human being, we beome blind.  We don’t see what everyone else sees, we become a little disconnected from what’s really happening.  The questions and discussions with our subordinates or people deep in our organization are often a giant wake up call–but only if we are open to learning.

I, along with others, write often about how critical it is for executives and leaders to teach, coach, and mentor their people.  Almost always, we focus on the importance of it in developing our people and helping them perform at the highest levels.

One of the greatest values of teaching, coaching, and mentoring is what we learn from the person we are coaching.  It helps us grow and to perform at even higher levels.  When you are coaching, don’t cheat yourself of the opportunity to learn from those who you are coaching—that may be where the greatest value lies.

  1. Love the article, but hate the title.

    I know this is how the corporate world works, but I hate that we still think of people that work for us as subordinates. Would love other words–teammates, employees, etc. Subordinate implies, unfortunately, inferiority and promotes the ideas that you know more than they do.

    You can learn a lot from anyone, if you open your mind to it. And that learning can often be translated into added value back to the person you learned from as you work together to make a better idea.

    An example and a test from a friend, take a corporate email (or a blog post, or article) and ask your spouse/significant other, older child, friend in another industry to read it. Their perspective will be eye opening and point out things you may have missed.

    So, absolutely learn from everyone, and stop thinking of people as subordinates, even if they are below you on the real or perceptual org chart.

    • Great comment Hank! I struggled with the title–I really didn’t like it, but used it partly because of the point you made. So many in positions of power think they can’t learn from anyone except those in positions of greater power. It not only displays a huge lack of respect for others, but it demonstrates their lack of insight.

      All of us, regardless of role, can learn from anyone else—sometimes the best lessons come from the most unexpected places. Thanks for pointing this out Hank.

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