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Insights from the business world

Ten lessons educators can learn from business

6 min read




Without question, there are several significant differences between the roles and goals of educators and those who ply their trade in the business world. Perhaps most significant is how the two groups measure success.

Educators are focused primarily on student learning and development. To them, a healthy fiscal bottom line is a means through which they can achieve their goals, not an end to itself. Business people, in contrast, are mainly interested in developing successful, profitable enterprises. Learning and development are viewed as necessary to help businesses and their people grow, but do not constitute a primary objective for most businesses.

The fundamental difference of purpose that separates schools from businesses often leads members of each camp to think that there is little to be learned from the other. This, in my view, is particularly true for educators. As a former teacher and principal, I felt a fundamental disconnect from what was occurring in the for-profit world. Many of my peers and colleagues expressed similar sentiment. Any time that I heard of some lay leader or governmental initiative to make schools more like businesses, I became suspicious. “What do they know about education anyway?” I would ask.

But after five years leading a coaching and consulting outfit that supports both for-profit and non-for-profit leaders and their organizations, my attitude has shifted. As I have become more familiar with the principles of good business and the leadership that drives it, I believe that educators and educational leaders in particular have much to glean from the attitudes and actions of their peers in the business world.

Here is a list of business lessons that, if practiced regularly in our educational halls, will strengthen student learning and improve the overall quality of our educational product. 

  1. Engage, engage, engage. Workplace engagement is challenging companies and organizations throughout the world. Research has shown that the best way to drive engagement is to assign tasks and responsibilities that “fit” a worker’s passions, interests and skill sets. This often requires out of the box thinking and flexibility within existing reporting structures, something which for-profit enterprises are wising up to. Engagement is a critical element in teacher performance and student learning as well. Finding ways to help our teachers remain motivated to deliver high-quality instruction that engages students’ minds and drives learning should be the single-highest agenda item of every school leader. 
  2. Focus on the customer / client. Successful businesses place their primary focus on the customer. Customer behavior, engagement and satisfaction is a key driver to all company decisions. School leaders also need to put their customers’ (students’ and parents’) needs first, by prioritizing student learning and wellbeing above all other considerations.
  3. Make goal-setting a central practice. Every good business is driven by goals. These include goals for “bottom line” objectives such as sales, growth and profitability, but also are developed for such things as employee and customer retention, efficiency and customer service. Schools, too, need to set goals that drive performance. These should include academic (test scores, instruction-related data, etc.) as well as non-academic goals (teacher and student retention, customer service).
  4. Hold your team accountable. Once goals have been set, effective leaders track efforts and projects to ensure they’re meeting benchmarks while staying on schedule and budget. Effective leaders quickly troubleshoot issues as needed and then steer everyone back on track. For long term projects, ask for regular evidence of progress to avoid missed deadlines and unpleasant surprises.
  5. Keep learning. Today’s business leaders know that they must continue to learn new skills if they are to remain one step ahead. School leaders must keep learning as well. New demands and educational paradigms mean that yesterday’s training is not enough to stay current on new research and educational tools.
  6. Make retention a priority. Millennials represent a very different kind of worker than the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers that preceded them. Business leaders are grappling with this new reality, trying to figure out how to best work with this shifting labor pool. Millennials have different skill sets, values and professional expectations. They will walk – or not start – if they do not like the work environment or value its mission. If principals are to recruit and retain younger teachers, they must understand the needs and wants of these Gen-Y teachers, so they can get the most out of them.
  7. Embrace (or at least develop a working knowledge of) all aspects of school function. Effective workplace leaders may not have intimate knowledge of every aspect of their company, but they understand that basic fluency of all its components — production, R&D, IT support, etc. — is necessary for them to provide focused leadership. So often, school leaders fall into the mindset of being instructional leaders only, to the exclusion of the other aspects of school function. School leaders must be institutional leaders as well as instructional leaders to help their schools succeed in a competitive era with growing constituent expectations.
  8. Break down silos. Silos and territorialism can be huge problems for companies, inhibiting collaboration and stymieing communication. The same holds true for schools, and perhaps even more so. Because teachers ply their craft in independent classrooms, teachers must be even more conscientious of, and open to, the need to collaborate with their colleagues for the benefit of the students. When adults work together to support a child’s growth, great things typically happen.
  9. Build a leadership pipeline. No matter how well a business is performing, great leadership keeps its mind on the future. Who are our future leaders and what are we doing to prepare them to assume leadership roles? The same should hold true for our schools. Principals and board presidents need to continually think about grooming future leaders on both sides (professional and lay) or the leadership 
  10. Embrace change as normal and healthy. Perhaps the most challenging item in this list is this last one. Change is not easy for anyone and can cause unrest on many levels. Yet, businesses know that in our fast-moving world, it’s change or perish. Schools have historically been slower to adopt change, for a myriad of reasons. But just like the world at large is forced to continually adjust its thinking to meet new needs and demands, our veteran educators in particular must think similarly and be willing to re-write older lesson plans and update materials (including increased technological integration) if they are to truly meet the needs of their students in the years ahead.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”


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