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Great Leaders Never Miss A Teachable Moment. They're Too Precious.  

Janet, a company middle manager was involved in discussion with a co-worker when a blundering error made by the co-worker came to the surface in the conversation — at which point Janet lost her composure and ripped into the co-worker with gross indignation and disrespect.

The whole escapade was witnessed by Janet’s supervisor, Phil, a senior executive, who instantly saw her behavior as well outside the boundaries of ethical treatment and fair play by a manager.

I heard this story about a year ago when Phil was telling it during a strategic planning retreat I was leading, with his entire leadership team present. 

His point centered around how difficult it was to “manage” Janet, who often went off on these tirades.

Sensing that no corrective discussion happened after the incident, I paused momentarily and then asked Phil the same question I always ask when I hear a story like that… 

“And exactly what did YOU do, Phil, when Janet did THAT?”

Phil’s response shook my bones to the core.  “Well, nothing.  Her performance review isn’t for another 6 months yet.”

Aaarrrrggghhh!  My stomach got tied in knots. 

I asked him: “So what are you doing… keeping a list of all her violations… and then you plan to drop them all on her at once like an atom bomb, at her annual review?  Is that it?”

With no modest amount of pride, he said yes. 

And judging by the approving looks on everyone else’s face at the table, it was clear they all thought he was dead-on correct in his handling of the matter. 

It explained to me, in part at least, why they were having a company-wide morale problem. 

And specifically, why everyone in the company dreaded his annual performance review. 

Nobody ever left one happy…  because every employee got skewered and crucified with a list of grievances that went back to the last review 12 months earlier, each time wondering “Why didn’t you tell me that the day I did it?”

This particular senior executive… and perhaps everyone on that leadership team… was missing a critical element of his leadership role…

The value of the teachable moment. 

Lessons & Actions For You:

Actually, it’s more than a critical element.  It’s a required obligation.

The best leaders are teachers.  Through and through. 

Never forget that each day is a non-stop series of teachable moments. 

But each one may be disguised as something else… like a problem, a catastrophe, an opportunity, or merely an everyday event.  Yet they are teachable moments nonetheless.

To be specific, let’s dissect the story I just told. 

How could that have gone differently and better?

The three things Phil did — say nothing now, write it down, save it to bring up at the next performance review — were horribly incorrect. 

What he could have done is this…

Within minutes of the actual incident, invite Janet into a private discussion.  And with no anger or arrogance in his voice… recant the episode to her… tell her that he had witnessed it first-hand… that it was unacceptable leadership behavior… and help her with suggestions for improvement the next time.

His words could have gone something like this…

“Janet, I saw your discussion with Larry a few minutes ago, and I must tell you, your behavior was unprofessional and frankly, inappropriate.  You got very upset at Larry for his blunder on the MacKenzie project.  I want you to know I admire your pursuit of excellence and your unwillingness to settle for less… for that I applaud you… and I want to be clear that THAT is not what I am talking about as inappropriate.  Please, always keep that passion for excellence.  The unacceptable part was how you delivered the message.  So let’s discuss 3 specific things:  first, what you said that was inappropriate… second, better ways you could have handled it… and third, how you can go square it with Larry today … “  Etc. Etc.

Do that, and you will have turned a mishandled incident into a teachable moment.

But wait, there’s more.  Let me share eight basic ideas that may be helpful when these moments occur.

1.  Do it swiftly.  As close to the actual occurrence as possible.  Immediately is best.  Within an hour or two if you need time to collect your thoughts.  And no later than the next day, if absolutely necessary.  Too long a time lag between incident and conversation diminishes the impact.

2.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Most people don’t know how they sound or appear to others.  Janet may be surprised at your reaction, thinking she was acting in a calm and acceptable manner.  She’s not necessarily lying… she just can’t see herself.  She’ll appreciate that you haven’t jumped to the conclusion that she’s a bad person or lousy manager, but may just have had a lapse in judgment. 

3.  Keep your composure.  No matter how angry you are, take pause to settle yourself so you can deliver this calmly and professionally.  If she gets defensive and loud, you get more composed and lower your tone even more.  Do the opposite to put the fire out.   Never get in a shouting match. 

4.  Tell it in a way she can hear it.  Words are power.  Insults, anger, humiliation and name-calling create a defensive posture on her part, and she’ll be too engrossed in figuring out what she’ll say to defend herself, and will miss your important message.  And worse, you’ll be replicating the very behavior you’re calling unacceptable.

5.  Let her know you still have confidence in her.  Like… “I was surprised to see it happen because you’re better than that.  I’m not upset because I trust that this was an isolated incident, not an ongoing behavior pattern.  But I need to know you understand it was wrong, and it won’t happen again.  Do you?  Will it?”

6.  Don’t save up for the next review.  You do not help her, or the organization, or yourself, by stifling your discontent and ganging up on her at the next review.  Bad way to handle this.  Have the guts to deal with it now.  You earn the stripes on your sleeve with courage.  Don’t run from this.

7.  Offer future counsel.  Try saying this, “Janet, if you have any thorny issues with direct reports or co-workers again, and you’re not quite sure how to handle it or what to say, please come talk to me.  I promise to help without judging you.  It’s how we all learn.”

8.  No matter what, DO have the conversation.  In my view, it’s actually a violation of your leadership responsibilities to ignore this and let it go.  It’s not a choice, it’s a mandate.  When you accepted the obligations of leadership, you accepted this one too.  Do it.

The bottom line to all this is…

Never miss a teachable moment. 

It is wrong to assume your direct reports have all the people skills and job know-how they need.  It’s even more wrong for a leader to know they don’t have it… and to be unwilling to help them get it… or scared to deal with it.

Be a teacher.  That’s what a leader is.  One of your most important leader obligations is to groom the leaders, managers and supervisors under you.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what I did in that strategic planning session when Phil told the story about Janet … well, I practiced what I’m preaching and turned it into a teachable moment. 

I stopped the meeting and we had a short discussion of everyone’s role as teacher, mentor, trainer.  And we role-played how Phil could have handled it better when it happened.  Took 10 minutes and it was worth gold if it only got a couple of them to alter their leader behavior.

We also discussed how they needed to see every day as one filled with multiple teaching moments.  And how each “lesson” can and should be discussed painlessly and with dignity.

A friend and colleague of mine, the late Maurice Mascarenhas said…

“If you don’t give corrective feedback, you rob the individual of a chance to improve.”   In so doing, you’ve only compounded an already-bad situation.

Oh, and remember, teachable moments don’t just happen when something goes wrong and behavior needs to be fixed.  They also occur during good times, victories and wins.  Because you want THAT behavior repeated.   

Never squander a teachable moment.  Grab every one and act.     


By Rick Houcek, President
Soar With Eagles, Inc.

ATTENTION ENTREPRENEURS AND CEOs: Rick Houcek facilitates off-site strategic planning retreats, helping CEOs and Leadership Teams create high-impact plans that overcome the crippling effects of lousy execution (the single biggest cause of plan failure) - and get successfully implemented!  His dynamic Power PlanningTM strategic process drives action through his Escape-Proof AccountabilityTM system.  It’s ideal for small and mid-size businesses.  To bring this potent weapon to your team, contact Rick by phone, email or fax.  Visit his web site at   And ask about his 100% No-Risk Guarantee.

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