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Posted on: 1 July 2013 at 11:00 SAST

± minute read


Management lessons learnt in the classroom

Signing up to be a manager, along with the title, offers many more challenges that can be stressful and daunting. While managing the business is essentially the core component of the job, it cannot be separated from the people you manage. Management is about managing the workforce. An effective workforce is the lifeblood of business. There are thousands of valuable resources available that cover essential aspects of management. In reality the implementation of all of these aspects can be difficult. While essential skills can be obtained from reading and training, learning most often comes from experiencing or observing, first hand, a master. For me it all started with Miss Adam, my Grade 12 mathematics teacher. Miss Adam, was a brilliant teacher. She honed her skills of teaching and children management to a fine art. She consistently had the highest student pass rates in mathematics at the school. What I took away from Miss Adam’s class was much more than just mathematics. Her style of managing a bunch of brats, who all passed with great results, suggested that there was something that she did that differentiated her from others in the same position. As learners we had loads of fun and would be compelled to watch, listen, learn and perform with utmost enthusiasm and motivation to do our best. But, we also knew that we needed to work hard or face the consequences! When I became a manager I finally grasped what I really had learnt in my mathematics class:

LESSON 1: Have a sense of humour

Have fun while working. A fun classroom with lots of input from all ensured that learning took place. Every lesson, while serious in content, was a fun experience. The workplace needs fun to thrive and to keep employees motivated and engaged. Creativity and innovation originate in ‘upbeat’ thinking. Work hard, but play hard too. In their book The Levity Effect, Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher, highlight the positive effects of creating a fun workplace. They provide evidence that entertaining workplaces breed employee loyalty, engagement and productivity and ultimately happier customers.

LESSON 2: Honesty is the key to breeding trust

Miss Adams didn’t tolerate dishonesty. If you provided an honest explanation (with valid grounds) for not completing your homework she would accept it. If you lied, you were out of the classroom; a particularly humiliating experience. If you were honest, she trusted you. The result of this was that the learners in her class were self-motivated to do whatever it took to achieve good results. Insist on honesty in your teams and create an environment that leads to trust and accountability. Listen when an employee is honest enough to own up to mistakes. React with a problem solving, coaching approach as to how to effectively to deal with the issue at hand. I find it best described by Henry Browning, a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, who says “Accountability comes from the presence of trust and the absence of fear.”

LESSON 3: Respect and Accountability are crucial

Miss Adams commanded respect, not by demanding it but by being authentic. She was approachable, open to questions and never embarrassed a student who struggled. She always maintained that if a student didn’t pass, she was responsible for not teaching them properly. She had a keen sense of who was struggling and needed more attention. She faithfully worked longer hours if need be and inspired her learners to put in the extra hours by modelling the behaviour. Employee’s model their superior’s behaviour (whether positive or negative). They also respect authentic leaders. How many leaders take personal responsibility for not having sufficiently provided guidance when their employees fail to perform optimally? Jim Collins, author of Good-to-Great, speaks about a ‘Level 5’ leader as one who channels their own ego and needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. This is the leader that displays humility and will. The Level 5 leader “looks into the mirror” and apportions responsibility to him/her for poor results. He/she also “looks out the window” to apportion credit to others for successes.

LESSON 4: There must be consequences to actions

Miss Adams reacted to non-performance, poor quality of work or bad behaviour immediately. She was direct in her feedback and offered a warning on the consequences if the negative behaviour continued. The fear of embarrassment was enough for most to heed the warning. Those who didn’t, faced the music! Stop bad behaviour in its tracks. Often a clear warning that there will be consequences to actions is all that may be needed. If all else fails and the behaviours persist, you have to follow through on the threats. Judicious use of discipline is essential. Jim Collins, describes good-to-great companies as those that have leaders who build an enduring culture of discipline. Those that used sheer personal force to discipline the organisation saw some great results initially, but the discipline was not sustainable.

LESSON 5: Reward good performance

The reward for good pass mark wasn’t only based on passing on your exam; it was the pride you saw in her eyes. She rewarded good behaviour and performance by acknowledging even small milestones achieved especially by those who struggled with mathematics. But she did expect the best performance from all. Letting your employees know you are proud of them, acknowledging a job well done and showing trust in their abilities by allowing them to take on more challenging tasks can be a greater motivator than financial rewards alone. However, rewarding the right behaviour is essential.

Lessons Learnt

While these lessons may not be new, the secret to Miss Adam’s success stemmed from her ability to understand the needs of her learners and adapt her approach depending on what was required for the situation. Research suggests that successful leaders flex their styles to meet the needs of their people. The Situational Leadership (Hersey and Blanchard) theory states that successful leaders are able to change their leadership style based on the maturity of each individual or group they lead and the tasks that are required to accomplish goals. More or less emphasis can be placed on either the task or the relationships, depending on what is needed to get the job done successfully at a certain time. Learning can be gained from multiple sources, applied and integrated to other seemingly unrelated areas; methods, styles and techniques used to manage learners have been surprisingly useful to me over the years, in my role as a manager.

Fatima Bhabha is the manager of the Psychometric Advisory Services at JvR Psychometrics


1. Browning, R. (2012). 6 Keys to Becoming a Trusted Leader. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccl/2012/03/27/6-keys-to-becoming-a-trusted-leader/, 6 Keys to Becoming a Trusted Leader. 2. Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. London, UK: Random House 3. Gostick, A. & Christopher, S. (2008). The Levity Effect. Why it Pays to Lighten Up. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 4. Patterson, K. at el. (2008). Influencer. The Power to Change Anything. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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