A long long time ago, in a world before I did customer support, I was a teacher. I spent 4 years teaching middle and high school students drama in Scotland, which definitely had its ups and downs. Most importantly, I learned a lot from managing groups of 20 students at a time! Here are five key strategies that I learned from my years of teaching, and how you can apply them to your own management style.

1. You Don’t Have To Know Everything

In my first year as a teacher, I was teaching a course I’d never taught before. I’d never even observed it being taught! I had read all the materials I could find about it, but was still pretty unsure of myself. So, on the first day of class I said to my students “You’ve never taken this course before, and I’ve never taught this course before. So, we’ll all be learning together!” Being open and honest with my students was actually the most powerful move I could make. It meant that I wasn’t responsible for knowing everything, and it created a sense of team – we were all in it together. 

When I stepped into this management role, I let each of my direct reports know that I am new to managing people in a professional context, and that I have a lot of learning to do. I ask them regularly for feedback, and I am quick to admit my mistakes. This has allowed me to make changes to my style quickly, and to feel free to get things wrong – after all, no one is expecting me to be perfect!

2. Work With Your Team

My lecturer at teacher’s college used to say that the key to being a good teacher was to make sure that everyone was moving together in the same direction – yourself included. If you can get everyone to the same spot, and pushing together in the same direction, then you’ve set yourself and your students up for success. 

I apply the same technique to running my team. As a manager, I’m not above them – we are all using our particular set of skills to provide high level support to our customers. Sometimes that means I’ll roll up my sleeves and directly support customers, other times it means I’ll spend the day putting processes in place to make things smoother on our end. I always make sure to reinforce the idea that we are all on the same team working towards the same goal.

3. Rewards and Recognition are Important

I taught middle and high school, but let me tell you – no one is too old for a star chart. I used this a lot as a teacher – giving stickers for completing work, or to whole classes for good behaviour. A certain number of stars meant a prize! 

As adults, we still want recognition for good work – it’s important to reinforce when people are doing the right thing! Although I’m not doing star charts anymore, I still make sure to publicly shoutout members of my team when they’re doing a good job, and take the time to thank them privately as well. That way, they know I can see the great work they’re doing, and the whole company can see the great work happening on the team.

4.Critical Feedback is Necessary

As a teacher, it was often my job to put a big red x on a student’s work or answer. As a naturally empathic person, I hated this at first – I was always trying to highlight what that student was doing well. I felt bad to make them think they had made mistakes. However, the result of focusing only on the positive was that students didn’t improve. 

So, I changed tack. I had just completed a run through of a short play that was to be the exam piece of one of my classes. It was terrible – they kept losing their lines, not remembering where to stand, and breaking character. Rather than trying to find something good to say, I just said “Well, that was awful. Like, really terrible. Do you know it was terrible? Or were you under the impression it was good? Because if you know it was terrible, we can work together to fix it. But if you thought this was good, we’re in trouble.”

You know what happened? They all agreed that it was terrible, and we started working on improving their work right away. They trusted me even more after this, because they knew I wouldn’t lie – if I said it was good, it really was, and I would do everything I could to keep them from looking bad.

I’ve started using this tactic in managing my team. I’m not as blunt these days as I was back then, but I am clear and direct if someone’s work is below par, and then I work with them to come up with ways to improve their performance. Everyone on my team knows exactly where they stand in terms of their performance, and there aren’t any surprises. 

5. Relationships are Everything

I always took time at the start of class to chat with my students about whatever was going on with them. Who was talking to who, which couple had broken up, the latest release from a favourite artist, how their math teacher had been unfair – whatever they wanted to chat about! I would also answer questions about myself (within reason) so they felt they got to know me – who my favourite singer is (Janet Jackson) what I like on my pizza (olives!) and what I did for fun (karaoke.) Taking the time to build these relationships paid off in the long term – it made it easier to give feedback, get them onside, and make them feel safe and comfortable in my classroom.

This tactic works just as well with grownups! In fact, it’s half of the recipe for success Kim Scott shares in Radical Candor. Care personally – that way, when you give difficult feedback, your team knows it’s coming from a good place. Taking the time to learn about what they do in their free time, what they got up to this weekend, how their new houseplant is doing – these are all small things that will pay big dividends later!

So, it turns out that managing a classroom full of teenagers and running a team aren’t all that different from one another. Kids and adults are all looking for the same thing – connection, recognition, and support. Connecting with your team members on a human level allows everyone to feel supported, and gives people the confidence to do their best work.

I’ll be giving a talk at Support Driven Leadership Summit in Boston in September:  Thrown In The Deep End: What I’ve Learned In My First Few Months As a Manager. I hope to see you there!


Andra Roston is the Customer Support Lead at Venngage. She’s based in Toronto, Canada. When not supporting customers, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, seeing drag shows, and reading epic fantasy novels.

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