Those Who Manage, Teach

Bosses who teach skills and habits to employees drive higher individual productivity and elevate team performance.

There’s an old saying that those who can, do and those who can’t, teach. But in business, as it turns out, those bosses who can, in terms of generating higher productivity, are in fact teachers.

According to a study by economics researchers from Stanford and the University of Utah, replacing a low-performing boss with a high-performing one boosts productivity by 12 percent, which is better than adding a 10th worker to a nine-person team. The researchers call it the “boss effect,” and they identified it by examining the productivity of workers who change bosses.

“If the worker’s skills don’t really change with the move, then you see that there’s a productivity gain or loss that can be attributed to the change in bosses,” said Kathryn Shaw, a professor of economics at Stanford University and one of the study’s authors.

About two-thirds of the productivity boost workers generate from working with a good boss persists even after they switch to a new boss, according to the study, which examined 23,878 workers matched with 1,940 bosses in a technology-based business over a five year period. The effect on a worker’s output does eventually depreciate, but it can last up to several months, Shaw said.

What Makes a Good Boss?
The differentiator between a poor boss and a good one isn’t necessarily the quality of supervision or ability to motivate. Instead, the researchers say it’s the ability of the boss to teach a worker.

“If he leaves a good boss, we looked to see how long his productivity remains high … and if that productivity gain he gets from working for a good boss is persistent, we believe that’s teaching,” said Shaw, who co-authored the study with Stanford colleague Edward Lazear and Christopher Stanton from the University of Utah.

Shaw said teaching can be a combination of things, such as teaching about a product, instruction and advice on how to work better with customers and peers, or guidance and coaching toward individual career goals and promotion.

As CLOs look to tap into this proven resource for employee education, it’s important to remember that bosses don’t need to be the best presenters, facilitators or educators to be effective. It’s more important that they be authentic and credible.

Stephen B. King, vice president of talent and leadership effectiveness at Allstate Insurance, said a boss’ “ability to talk about company-specific issues and experiences they’ve had … resonates in a different way with audiences than either an internal professional facilitator or an external professional facilitator.”

At Allstate, leaders take part in a variety of instructional situations from town hall meetings to business presentations and targeted leadership development programs. Those lessons are also captured on video and produced and distributed by King’s team to the organization at large.

Relying on anecdotes and experience to deliver the message may work for executives but when the teachers are line-level managers, the CLO may need to play a more active role.

“There’s more of a focus on the content versus the individual’s experiences they’re sharing, so the nature of the content and the program lends itself to more preparation and certification,” King said.

Helping Bosses Be Teachers
First-line leaders at Allstate go through an extensive preparation and certification process for teaching, starting with a train-the-trainer course, and then co-teaching with a facilitator before going it alone. Even then, depending on need, they’ll receive ongoing coaching from the learning and development team.

“As they move along that competency path, they become more proficient and self-sufficient,” King said. “Some people get up that curve faster than others.”

Preparing managers to be teachers is one key to success, but King said there are additional things the learning and development team should do to improve the success and sustainability of a leaders-as-teachers program.

The first is to provide logistical support, such as initial scheduling, communication and marketing to the audience and follow-up evaluation. The second piece of advice is to get respected leaders actively involved early.

King said those early successes at Allstate have led to high demand from attendees and a steady supply of executives willing to participate.

“If people are having that kind of experience with somebody that is really credible it grows from there,” King said.

Mike Prokopeak is the vice president and editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at