5 Ways To Transform Your Team Into Rock Stars

In the average workplace, "professional development" is often a yawn-inducing waste of time. Don't be average.

Everyone thinks training is a great idea. But in the workplace, professional development often takes the form of pointless webinars or workshops that have much in common with our high-school trigonometry lessons. You’re bored the whole time and forget everything you learned soon afterwards.

But some people take a more rigorous approach. The U.S. Army, for instance. Or Match Education, a nonprofit in Boston that runs both the Sposato Graduate School of Education and several high-performing charter schools (at Match High School, for instance, 100% of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the MCAS, one of the harder state tests). The teachers Match trains tend to get several job offers. I asked Match CEO Stig Leschly, who in a previous career founded Exchange.com before selling it to Amazon in 1999 for around $200 million, for his tips on training—a few that work in the education world and the corporate world too.

1. Hire people who want to learn

“We hire for attitude and fire for attitude,” says Leschly. You want people with a growth mind-set. Carol Dweck’s famous research (http://mindsetonline.com/) has found that people who believe they are capable of improving with hard work do, in fact, work harder and achieve more. Whereas a “fixed” mind-set—believing that you are good or bad at things—limits human possibility. Match is enormously selective. It takes fewer than 10% of the people who apply. But one of the things they’re looking for is candidates who won’t think they’ve arrived just because they survived the process. “Whether you’re a teacher or an engineer, when you start in year one of your career, you know a tiny fraction of what you’re going to know in year 10,” says Leschly. He wants employees who want to get better.

2. Focus on the practical

In the software world, says Leschly, many employers “are not interested in formal training anymore. If you literally taught yourself in your basement how to write code, they’re just as interested.” Teaching is obviously a different beast, with various state licensure requirements. Nonetheless, good teaching is a skill, like playing the violin. You can and should learn about the wonderful history of music, but you also need to know how to hold the bow and place your fingers. For teachers, “We think they ought to worry a lot about classroom management and focus a lot on the delivery of basic lessons,” says Leschly. So that’s what Match classes cover. As teachers master that, they can graduate to deeper theoretical questions. In any industry, training that deals primarily with the skills people use daily will stick more than training that doesn’t.

3. Practice—a lot

At Exchange.com and Amazon, Leschly saw that people got better at writing code as they wrote more code. Likewise, at Match, “a lot of the way we train teachers is through enormous quantities of simulations,” he says. A prospective teacher delivers a lesson to test subjects, and a “student” gets up and walks out. What do you do? How do you handle it? The teacher tries different approaches. Practice lessons are videotaped and replayed. A lot of Match teachers also work as tutors in Match schools during the week. They teach lessons to small groups, seeing what works and what doesn’t, so that by the time they have full classes, the skills of checking for understanding, or using an economy of words, are automatic.

4. Show what good looks like

After selling his company to Amazon, Leschly shadowed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for a while. He describes the experience as “priceless”—seeing how Bezos ran a meeting or communicated with people. “Where I still learn is by watching people do,” Leschly says, and that happens at Match as well. Prospective teachers watch master teachers. How did that master teacher keep everyone on task? Why did she call on a child whose hand wasn’t raised? Have new hires observe your top performers and—just as important—make sure those top performers talk through what they’re doing. When we’re just starting out, sometimes we don’t even know exactly what’s working and what’s not.

5. Create a culture of feedback

Forget annual reviews. You want daily reviews. You want reviews after every meeting. What went well and what could go better? At Match, “people are completely socialized to the idea that they have no privacy, and so what could otherwise be perceived as very high stakes becomes commonplace,” he says. Of course your lesson will be videotaped. Of course you should share your lesson plans with everyone. At the charter schools, “even with existing teachers, we’re in their classrooms two to three times per week,” Leschly says.

What that culture leads to is this belief: “Don’t take it personally. We all get feedback.” When it’s constant, it’s not as fraught, and hence everyone can be more direct. “Release the happy talk,” Leschly says. “It’s very difficult for humans to be direct on things we’re not doing well,” but when feedback is “actionable, bite-sized, delivered quickly and repetitively,” it can improve results.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

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