I didn’t know what an “air sandwich” was when I first heard the term. A new weight-loss plan? Or perhaps like an “air guitar,” except you pantomime eating lunch?
It’s actually what Nilofer Merchant—who coined the term in her book The New How—calls that disconnect between what management (at the top) thinks employees should be doing, and what employees (at the bottom) are actually doing. That’s where the air gets in. That’s where top executives find their corporate strategy—their best-laid organizational plans—just blowing in the wind.
Who is bold enough to parachute into the gap? A unique individual known as the leader-teacher.
Leaders have served as teachers, coaches, and mentors to the young since time immemorial. That’s what we need to be seeing now in the corporate environment. In fact, it’s the key to success in a VUCA world (VUCA being our constant companions Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.)
I recently came across some great examples of leaders as teachers, at major corporations including Merck, Boeing, BD, HP, and Banner Health. (You can read more about these in the Leaders as Teachers Action Guide, which came out earlier this year from ASTD Press.)
Merck: Merck blends external expertise—from academic faculty or other experts—with internal perspectives from Merck leaders sharing real-world experiences. Sharon Moshayof, former Talent Development Leader for Global Markets, commented, “One reinforces external best practice and models, and the other says, ‘And here’s how this plays out at Merck.’”
Leaders are also encouraged to use storytelling, to model what they’re teaching, and to share examples of learning from failure. “Humility shown by leaders was incredibly powerful,” says Moshayof. “We were able to send some really, really great messages.”
Boeing: Brian Parker, a senior member of the Leadership Development team, says that each of Boeing’s VPs teaches a minimum of two leadership classes a year—and some of them up to ten classes a year—as part of their annual performance assessment. Each VP picks the topic and time based on their interests and schedule.
John Messman, Boeing’s Director of Leadership Development, says that the company’s leaders “share their own compelling stories in a listen-and-learn interactive forum.” Participants are encouraged to question and challenge, which creates an open environment in which everyone becomes both learner and teacher.
BD (formerly Becton, Dickinson and Company): Deb Wijnberg, Worldwide Leadership Development and Learning Leader, says her team turned to technology and a blended approach that fit their budget.
BD mounts 90-minute leader-led webinars on topics identified by the company’s midcareer, high-potential talent from around the world. For example, the topic might be the impact of the Affordable Care Act on BD’s markets. Leader-teachers known as mentoring advisors support each session to situate the content in BD’s real-world goals.
HP: “One of our leadership competencies is ‘people developer,’” explains Mark Bocianski, Senior Vice President of Global Talent and Organization Development. “There is an expectation that you are going to develop your people.”
One current HP program targets a group of 25 high-potential women, each sponsored by a senior leader, with CEO Meg Whitman serving as Executive Sponsor. Over the 18-month relationship, sponsors become deeply familiar with their protégé’s capabilities and can meaningfully advocate for them to other senior leaders.
Banner Health: Banner Health noticed that new and mid-level leaders needed some help with their executive presence, communication skills, and ability to lead effective meetings. Jerry Lewis and Michael Abrams—Program Director and Senior Director of Talent Optimization respectively—developed a Leaders as Teachers Certification (LATC) process. Plus, an in-person Leadership Symposium was transitioned to a virtual format in order to enable access across the organization.
So, even though we’re not sitting around a fire learning survival skills from our elders any more, these companies are finding innovative ways to help their leaders impart essential learning down through the organization. They’re trying to close that windblown gap between the top of the organization and the bottom. Because a company can’t survive on air sandwiches.