Five Lessons for Leaders from Montessori

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Employee engagement in the US has just hit a new all-time low.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 30% of workers are “engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.”  The other 70% have checked out or are actively disengaged.  The cost of this loss of potential is estimated at $550 billion annually.  What can you do about it?  Here are five lessons for leaders, borrowed from Montessori, a revolutionary method of education which achieves notably higher levels of engagement amongst students.

  1. Make work harder.  The massive underpinning of Montessori is intrinsic motivation.  People are wired to want to solve problems and tackle challenges.  Everyone loses interest if work is too easy.  Are your employees spending a majority of time doing repetitive tasks that could be automated or eliminated altogether?  Challenge your team to find ways to stop the madness and use their time to take on bigger problems.
  2. Ask questions rather than providing answers.  Rich Sheridan, co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, tells a great story about the time his eight-year-old daughter came to work for the day. Her observation?  You tell people what to do all day.  Rich’s revelation was that he was a bottleneck.  Rich changed his approach, and you can too.  Get out of the way.  Challenge your team by asking questions and offering resources rather than giving the answers.
  3. Create an environment where people want to be.  As part of a client engagement to improve workplace culture, I toured a pharmaceutical plant where workers toiled in dingy grey cubes and tiny offices without windows.  Meanwhile, the cafeteria had big glass windows overlooking the scenic surrounding hillsides.  Employees spent seven hours in the dingy part, and one hour in the nice part.  I suggested relocating everyone to the cafeteria.  What shifts could you make to make your space make inviting?
  4. Take time to see.  Montessori teachers are keen observers.  Most of their time in the classroom is spent listening, not talking.  Teachers intervene when necessary, offer new opportunities when appropriate, and remark on progress made.  Are you truly aware of what’s going on with your team?  Do you know who needs a new challenge?  Do you comment on the good things you see?
  5. Be an advocate for resources.  Montessori schools lack textbooks, offering instead a wide range of materials and real-world resources in the community as the tools of learning and growth.  Does your team have what it needs to succeed?  Ask.  Find out what it would take for your team to unleash its potential, and then figure out a way to provide it.

Pam Daniels is an innovator, designer, and writer based in Chicago.  She has held leadership positions at Leo Burnett, Starcom MediaVest Group, and IDEO.  Her upcoming book, Designed to Thrive: How Montessori methods are transforming the workplace tells the story of innovative organizations who are leading the way.

It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

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I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked-about book, Lean In.  When I was part of a collective of leaders at IDEO grappling with issues related to people & culture, one particular struggle was coming up with an alternate metaphor to replace the notion of a career ladder.   We never quite figured it out, but I’m delighted to report that someone has.  Sheryl credits Pattie Sellers, a senior editor at Fortune, with having conceived of the notion of careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder.  Sounds about right to me.  A few quotes I love discussing this concept:

“Ladders are limiting– people can move up or down, on or off.  Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.  There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.”

“Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.  On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”

Which better describes your work life? Has your career been a vertical ladder (perhaps with a great rear view), or more like a playful and challenging jungle gym?

Einstein & Eva

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     “I never teach my pupils.  I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  – Albert Einstein

Eva Niewiadomski, founder of Catalyst Ranch in Chicago, has created a successful business based on the insight that our role as leaders is to create appropriate conditions.  Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Eva for my upcoming book, Designed to Thrive.  Catalyst Ranch is a 15,000 square foot meeting space designed to stimulate and invigorate creativity.  It is furnished with funky retro chairs and tables, brightly colored walls, and plenty of toys.  Food and treats are always on hand too.  With a vibe that has been dubbed “playful on purpose,” Catalyst Ranch provides the conditions which enable effective dialogue and innovation.  The site is an outgrowth of the innovation spaces Eva originally created while working as New Products Marketing Manager at The Quaker Oats Company.  Here are three themes that emerged from our conversation:

Artifacts as connectors.  Cool stuff is everywhere at Catalyst Ranch.  A quick sweep of the room revealed a pink feather boa, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, a woolen weaving, and a vintage box camera.  The camera prompted me to comment on it and share with Eva a story about my first significant purchase—a Nikon EM that I bought with babysitting money when I was thirteen years old.  She said these kinds of object-inspired conversations happen all the time.  People are attracted to something in the environment and it prompts them to tell a story.  The story creates a human connection.  The connection makes so much more possible.  As Eva said, “There’s nothing harder than being asked to collaborate with someone you really don’t know.  I don’t think you can really be productive that way.  That’s hard.”

Permission to be more fully you. “When you come through the door at work, there’s a certain change that takes place in your mental state.  There are certain parts of yourself– depending on the environment that you work in– that a lot of people shut off and don’t bring to work.  That’s learned behavior.”  So much capacity is lost.  Shifting the environment has the power to change that.  “I want them to feel that when they come here to Catalyst Ranch, they see these parts of themselves acknowledged.  I think it’s to the company’s benefit to access more of that individual.  Most companies don’t know how to do that in their day to day workings and the way people get rewarded for behavior.” Eva believes it’s possible for everyone to innovate and create—that it’s not the remit of a select few.  And she provides the space where it happens every day.

Accessing your inner child.  The Catalyst Ranch furnishings are anything but corporate.  There is color everywhere.  There are vintage Formica tables with chrome legs.  There are armchairs that remind people of their grandparents.  And of course, toys abound.  According to Eva, all of it is designed to invoke nostalgia.  “It starts reminding you what it was like when you were a kid.  When you were a child you had no limits on your creativity and your imagination.  There’s not a child out there at a really young age who says I’m not creative. There’s nothing that they can’t imagine.”

How conducive is your workplace to creativity and innovation?