Who was your most effective teacher? You probably had a favorite teacher back in school but that doesn’t mean he or she was very effective. In a work environment, the best teachers are those who have the ability to raise the skills of everyone else.

At the beginning of my corporate career, I was fortunate enough to work with a manager who knew this. Her technical skill is highly praised but she also knew how to help others grow. How did I realize this?

In our interactions, she would never let me get away without a clear understanding of how something worked, no matter how complex it was. There would be many awkward silences (on my part) as the gears in my brain tried to work out the project at hand. This wasn’t micromanagement; she knew where my understanding fell short. This was how she made sure I wasn’t left spinning my wheels for hours and hours.

Aside from her desire to see me grow, I was very grateful for her leadership style. As a manager, she exemplifies a highly coveted communications skill: the ability to explain effectively.


Why don’t more people have this skill? There are two types emotional intelligence that apply here: self awareness and empathy. These are crucial for creating the perspective needed to mentor others. If someone who isn’t conscious of those is put in a managerial position, he or she will be vulnerable to creating misunderstandings.

Why? Because of the curse of knowledge.

If something seems obvious to you but the one you’re teaching doesn’t get it, it’s because your experience and knowledge gives you the perspective of an expert, not necessarily a leader’s. Your mentee doesn’t have that, so they can’t see what you see. This isn’t a matter of how competent you or your staff are. This is a matter of perspective.

So how can you get out of your own head and be an effective mentor?

Essentials Only

As the one with more experience, it’s your job to break down what you’re trying to teach into simple chunks. There are various ways of doing so.

One way is to really step out of the project and look at it from a big picture. In essence, what are you trying to have your colleague accomplish here? Do they get that? Have they done something similar in the past that they could use to relate to? Forming these kind of connections can be crucial to creating breakthroughs in their understanding.

Another way is to have them focus on just a few steps. Even the biggest projects can be broken down into basic actions for your colleague to take. If you accidentally put too much on someone else’s plate, this will be very effective. In time, you can also teach how you are breaking down these tasks so they can do that themselves.

Another skill you can teach is the ability to ask the right questions. Even beyond the obvious benefits of asking the right questions, having your staff think about the right question is a great learning exercise on its own.

I cannot tell you the number of times I was about to give up and ask for help before I realized I didn’t know how to explain my conundrum. By sitting down and creating the right question that highlighted my challenges, I was able to come up with answers, or at least new directions to head towards, on my own.

Why was this effective? Because I was breaking down the challenge to its most fundamental parts. Once the one you’re managing gets there, he or she will have a much easier time figuring out the next step.

Multiple Angles

Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to look at it differently. This can be quite difficult, since many people are too into their own heads. In a technical setting, people are especially susceptible to this. Here are some tips to suggest to someone when they are having trouble with a project you gave them.

To “look” at a problem differently, ask questions like the following:

  • What would this look like if you approached it from the back/reverse/other side?
  • What value does this part have?
  • What would a child think if they saw this?
  • If you were to ignore something you know to be true, what do you see?

You can also move around a problem to see what you can change:

  • What other moving parts can you bring in to change this?
  • If you were to rearrange your workflow, what would happen?
  • What could you replace in your workflow?
  • What if you change the speed or frequency of a moving part?

You can also try to innovate your way out of a problem:

  • What could you combine together to create something different?
  • What could make this easier to use, sell or buy?
  • What would be a sci-fi solution to this?

The more angles you can approach this from, the better. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a break. Getting away from a problem refreshes the mind and allows for breakthroughs.

Multiple Times

A common theme from the best TED speakers in the world is that they tell you what their message will be, then they tell you their message and at the end, they tell you what they told you.

The power of repetition has been severely underestimated in today’s world. Whereas today’s education model focuses on stuffing knowledge into students, the human brain doesn’t remember what it crams in the long term. This is why you probably don’t remember calculus (unless you work in a field that uses that).

So on a similar note, you shouldn’t expect your staff to instantly pick up new concepts being introduced to them. You understand them because you spent time constantly working with these concepts. Your repetition was achieved over multiple projects where you had to use the same several principles again and again.

Knowing this, you shouldn’t feel like it’s a waste of time to repeat yourself. The ones you teach will be grateful that you do, since this reinforces their earlier understanding, confirms what they may not have been sure about and gives them an opportunity to raise questions they didn’t get to ask before.

And So…

With perspective comes patience. This is the first lesson people learn when they get promoted. Sometimes they learn this the hard way when their boss tells them they’re not managing others well. If this is you, then you can try the strategies above the next time you are giving work to someone.

If you’re interested in the mechanics of why these strategies work, please subscribe to this blog! The field of emotional intelligence has increasing impact on many business trends and you can’t afford to not stay on top of these trends. Also, I have a free quiz to see what kind of emotional intelligences you have. Click here to take it!