Leaders Who Can’t Teach Can’t Change


Hire for fit, train for skill. Whether you replace the word “fit” with “attitude” or “culture” or “personality,” the point of this popular maxim remains the same. If you want a high performing team, hire people with the right mindset and teach them the skills they need to perform their job.

This worked for me. When I assembled my first content marketing team as the CMO of a software company almost 20 years ago, I applied this philosophy to build a media-first organization within my marketing department. I hired the best design-oriented writers, communicators, and strategists I could find. My theory was that I could teach them how to think about marketing and the world of enterprise software. That approach turned out well.

But while “fit” and “skill” get all the attention, the actual “training” is often left out. It’s reminds me of the famous scene from the TV show Seinfeld where Jerry and Elaine are trying to pick up a rental car Jerry reserved, but the company doesn’t have a car for them. As Jerry tells the rental agent: “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

In the business world, many companies know how to hire for fit, they just don’t know how to train for skill.

And that’s really the most important part of hiring – the training. Anybody can hire for fit.

I see this as a factor in failed content marketing strategies. Companies hire talented journalists, writers, creative designers, and other media professionals. The theory is the company will teach them how to navigate a corporate environment, or to be industry subject matter experts, or to understand the four P’s of basic marketing. But too often, the teaching doesn’t happen. By the time the team is assembled, results are already late. So “teaching” has to wait.

When an extraordinarily talented writer/editor who led a publication at one of the biggest brands in the world failed to achieve a renewed budget for her magazine, and she and her team were let go. She told me how frustrated she was: “We were never taught – neither on the results the marketing team needed nor on how to socialize and navigate the byzantine budget process. We were just told to build a great magazine – and that’s what we did. And then we failed.”

A famous line from George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman – “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches”– is often used to denigrate teachers. Used in this way, the quote implies it’s easier to get a job teaching something than to get a job actually doing it.

The statement couldn’t be more wrong. Some of the world’s most accomplished people were teachers. Galileo. Alexander Graham Bell. Marie Curie. Stephen Hawking. Toni Morrison. Steve Wozniak. Oprah Winfrey. In fact, there is an entire method of teaching that has students learning material by preparing lessons and teaching it to other students.

Great leaders and successful businesses make teaching a way of changing.

We can get too comfortable in the way we do things. We hire for fit rather than skills, because we believe that it’s better to teach new habits than to try to break old ones.

But if we don’t train our hires, we’re destined to never evolve at all. Those who can’t teach, can’t change.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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