Last month I turned off my phone and stepped away from my email for a week to attend a Harvard Business School Executive Education program coordinated by the Young Presidents’ Organization. I joined hundreds of other CEOs, presidents, and business leaders from around the globe to learn from some of the most dynamic business professors in academia. While I am an active participant in academia (I earned my MBA from The Wharton School almost 20 years ago, and I currently teach at New York University Stern School of Business), this event proved to be different. It became clear that something really special happens when you combine such a group in this way.
For the majority of my recent years, I’ve occupied a leader’s seat: I’m an adjunct professor at New York University, and I’ve been a leader at numerous companies, including my current role as Founder and CEO of New York-based CultureIQ. However, in this context, I had the unique opportunity to shift seats for a week. I went from leading, to learning, to leading again. In this process, I was reminded of the importance of continuous education, one of the most important lessons to keep in mind as an entrepreneur and a teacher.
This ongoing learning happened in a variety of ways: the classes and focus groups centered around case studies, the diverse perspective provided by fellow participants, and the very experience of being a student again for a week.
In an effort to perpetuate the theme of learning in order to lead better, I’ll share a few takeaways from my week as a student:
1. Culture transformations are possible, but they require creativity and a true understanding of your employees.
The case studies provided inspiring examples of company culture transformations. As CEO of a culture-management software company, this topic was especially interesting to me. A common theme among these culture transformations was that they came from opening an ear to employee ideas and sentiment, and being open to making seemingly radical changes.
2. Culture isn’t about money. It’s about traditions and commitment.
Another case told the story of a large company that experienced a complete culture transformation with zero capital. In my experience creating and serving on culture committees, I’ve often been asked to budget money towards expensive culture programs, like team trips and office perks. While it’s important that culture receives this attention, this case illustrated that culture isn’t about expensive happy hours or elaborate holiday parties. Culture can be rich without money, because at its core, culture is about celebrating together, volunteering together, and committing together.
3. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to shine the spotlight where and when it is needed.
One of the cases introduced me to the concept of “shining the spotlight.” In a senior role, you can’t execute everything yourself, but what you can do is shine the spotlight on initiatives that you feel warrant extra attention. As a leader, your spotlight carries a lot of weight, meaning that operational attention will follow your lead. Therefore, you have to be careful and thoughtful where you shine the spotlight, but also be careful to shine the spotlight.
4. To be an effective teacher and leader, you need to engage your audience.
The enthusiasm of the professors had a powerful effect. They were incredibly interactive with the class and removed some of the barriers of a traditional classroom environment, which is a technique I am excited to apply to my teaching, my speaking, and my leading. Be passionate, be engaging, and your audience or employees will feel the same.
5. Celebrate with your team.
Stepping away from the office for a week was not easy, but it offered invaluable perspective. Spending time surrounded by inspiring leaders and stories reminded me of how important it is to celebrate with my team. In a fast-paced company, it is easy to get caught up in what still needs to be done and forget to celebrate what has been done and what we have to look forward to together.
I try to always apply learning and leading in life, but being snowed in at Harvard for a week reminded me of how important it is. Even for business leaders who are decades into their careers, there is always an opportunity to learn. My goal as an entrepreneur is to regularly put myself in a learner’s seat so that I can continue to grow as a leader.