by Joanne Lipman | 8:00 AM December 17, 2013
What does it take to achieve excellence? I’ve spent much of my career chronicling top executives as a business journalist. But I’ve spent much of the last year on a very different pursuit, coauthoring a book about education, focusing on a tough but ultimately revered public-school music teacher.
And here’s what I learned: When it comes to creating a culture of excellence, the CEO has an awful lot to learn from the schoolteacher.
The teacher at the heart of the book Strings Attached is on the face of it an unlikely corporate role model. My childhood music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky, who we called “Mr. K,” was strictly old school: A ferocious Ukrainian immigrant and World War II refugee, he was a tyrannical school orchestra conductor in suburban New Jersey. He would yell and stomp and scream when we screwed up, bellowing “Who eez DEAF in first violins?” His highest praise was “not bad.” He rehearsed us until our fingers were raw.
Yet ultimately he became beloved by students, many of whom went on to outsize professional success in fields from business to academics to law, and who decades later would gather to thank him.
My coauthor and I both expected pushback against Mr. K’s harsh methods, which we describe in unflinching detail. But instead, the overwhelming response from readers has been: “Amen! Bring on the tough love.” And nowhere has that response been stronger than in the business world, among corporate executives.
Indeed, Wall Street Journal readers responded in force to an essay I wrote about the book and Mr. K’s methods. “Time to move beyond the ‘self-esteem’ culture and get tough. The world is an increasingly competitive and dangerous place,” as one reader wrote, echoing many others. He added, “I have numerous advanced degrees, but the toughest and best education I ever had was from the Irish Christian brothers in high school. They did not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Clearly, Mr. K’s demanding methods have tapped into a sea change that we’re just starting to detect in the culture, away from coddling of kids and the “trophies for everyone” mentality that has dominated parenting and education. It’s a shift that is equally evident in the workplace. But trying to offer more honest feedback, and set higher standards, at work is tricky. It’s especially difficult in the case of newer hires, those recent young college grads who were raised on a steady diet of praise and trophies and who never learned to accept criticism.
So, how best to put those “tough love” principles into action when it comes to inspiring excellence in the workplace? Mr. K’s methods offer an intriguing roadmap:
1. Banish empty praise.
Mr. K never gave us false praise, and never even used words like “talent.” When he uttered a “not bad” – his highest compliment — we’d dance down the street and then run home and practice twice as long.
It turns out he was on to something. Harvard Business Review readers will recall the landmark 2007 article written by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, “The Making of an Expert.” That piece is most often cited for his pioneering work establishing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice.
But Ericsson also cited two other elements, both of which Mr. K seemed to know intuitively. One is “deliberate practice,” which requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, as opposed to going through the motions. The other, as Ericsson wrote, is this : True expertise “requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback.” And “real experts … deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who could challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”
2. Set expectations high.
There’s a tendency to step in when a less experienced colleague is having trouble. Sometimes it seems it’s just easier to do the work yourself. Or to settle for less.
Not in Mr. K’s world. His standards were uncompromising – and while at first we students found that intimidating, we ultimately understood it was a sign of his confidence in us. He never wavered in his faith in his students to achieve more and better. When he first began teaching me the viola, his most frequent admonition was “AGAIN!” most often marked in capital letters on my lesson assignments. But his students knew that he was hard on us not because we’d never learn, but because he was so absolutely certain that we would.
3. Articulate clear goals –and goal posts along the way.
Mr. K insisted that his students audition and perform constantly. He constantly kept us focused on the next challenge. How would we prepare, and what would we do to improve the next time? By articulating these intermediate goals, he encouraged us to continually stretch our abilities a bit further while reaching for objectives that were challenging, but ultimately achievable.
4. Failure isn’t defeat.
Mr. K never penalized us for failure. Sometimes we succeeded at auditions; sometimes we failed. But Mr. K made it clear that that failure was simply part of the process – not an end point, but simply an opportunity for us to learn how to improve the next time. And he transferred responsibility for figuring out the solution to the student. His favorite saying wasn’t “Listen to me!” It was, instead, “Discipline yourself!”
Years later, his former students – now doctors, lawyers and business executives – would credit that approach for instilling self-motivation. As one of his former students told me, “He taught us how to fail – and how to pick ourselves back up again.”
5. Say thank you.
This is the one we often forget. My old teacher had witnessed unspeakable horrors as a child growing up in Ukraine amid bloodshed and destruction during World War II. He didn’t reach the U.S. until after the war, as a 19-year-old who spoke no English and had never had the opportunity to learn to read music despite his passion for it. He never lost his sense of gratitude to this country for the opportunities he had, despite a catalog of horrors in his own life, including the disappearance of one of his beloved daughters. He passed that gratitude on to us, with a huge heart, empathy for the underdog, and a commitment to public service, taking us frequently to perform at hospitals and nursing homes and then insisting we stay to visit with the patients.
In the press of business, that sense of gratitude is often the first casualty. Recently I complimented a young journalist on a well-researched article, telling her, “You must have gotten great feedback.” She looked embarrassed, then confessed she had heard nothing from her boss. Her news organization, like so many others, has been financially hobbled, with a handful of reporters doing the work that was once shared by several dozen. Her supervisor is spread so thin that he is putting out proverbial fires all day. “He has the time to tell us what we did wrong,” she said. “He doesn’t have time to tell us when we do something well.”
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Tough love has fallen out of favor, and it can be a jolt especially for younger workers. But properly applied – with high expectations along with a sense of shared vision and gratitude for a job well done — it is the highest vote of confidence anyone can offer. Mr. K’s old students ultimately figured that out too: At his memorial concert, 40 years’ worth of them – myself included, toting my old viola – gathered in my hometown, old instruments in tow, creating a symphony orchestra more than 100 members strong.
I asked many of those students why they had returned. They listed the qualities he had taught them: Resilience. Perseverance. Self-confidence. He didn’t just teach us in the classroom; he inspired us to strive for excellence in our own lives when he was no longer in the room with us. And that’s the mark of a true mentor: a leader who creates a culture of excellence, and whose confidence in us makes us better than we ever dreamed we could be.