When it comes to developing people for executive positions, the number one thing leaders have to know is when to teach versus when to tell. Leaders teach by asking questions so that others can figure out the answer themselves. Conversely, leaders tell when there is no clear-cut answer that everyone will agree to. In other words, students will never figure out the correct answer because there is not one. The critical success factor is a leader’s ability to know the difference between a problem versus a dilemma; specifically, teach with problems; tell with dilemmas.
I see leaders make the mistake of knowing when to teach and when to tell all of the time. It was the most difficult skill I had to develop. Reason being, most leaders are problem solvers. Bring us a problem and you can count on us to get it resolved. We do by taking control, much to the dismay of our direct and indirect reports because we do it in a manner that circumvents their leadership position. For example, I found out—much to my disappointment--that my team had stopped telling me about the problems they were dealing with because I would immediately get involved telling everyone what to do, including their direct reports. All they were doing was giving me a heads up. They didn’t need my direct involvement. However, when it’s a dilemma, they did need my involvement. Here’s the key: Sometimes they think it is a problem when it is actually a dilemma. They do because they are at a stage in their development where they can’t spot the difference between the two. The difference is a big one because dilemmas always, always involve politics—politics at a level higher than they are. With problems there are answers; with dilemmas there are agendas.
Here’s how I learned how to determine when to tell versus teach: Whenever a person or your team makes you aware of a situation, discipline yourself to ask three questions:
Is there agreement with all of the key stakeholders on what success looks like?
Do you think they will agree with what you feel the solution to the situation is?
If not, why?
If you feel there is clarity in the answers, then let the person know to keep you updated and to call whenever there is disagreement. If you feel otherwise, you have to get involved by getting a detailed understanding of who the key stakeholders are and what their respective agendas are. You have to operate at a higher level. Let the person know why you are getting involved and encourage them to watch how you go about getting the alignment needed to move forward. By telling her them what you do, you are also teaching the most important skill they will need to master to operate as an executive; for executives deal with dilemmas and have their teams deal with problems.
In closing, I take great pride in knowing that there are now ten people who I mentored and sponsored who are operating at the executive level. As you plan your leadership legacy and develop people for executive leadership, consider teaching vs. telling.