BoS Digest – to mediocrity and beyond! How to teach better management

I'm a mean presenter. Mean as in average, that is. Put me in front of a crowd and, if I prepare hard and practice much, I can turn in a middling performance.

Which I'm pleased about.

I used to be an appalling presenter. The first time I did a presentation was at a sponsor's slot at VS Live in 2001. Six people turned up in a hall built for 200. They sat in a pattern carefully calculated to maximise the minimum space between any two people. Three people left during my talk.

In the few years following that, I stayed abysmal. I went to a few presentation skills courses and seminars. I'd get better for a week or two afterwards, but would then slide back to terrible.

But then, a bit over a year ago, something happened. I realised that I wanted to become a better presenter. Whenever I heard a great speaker, I analysed what made them great. I noticed that great speakers are great for different reasons. They all have different styles, and structure their talks in different ways. Guy Kawasaki has perfect timing and can play the audience as well as any stand-up. Seth Godin fires out ideas, rat-a-tat-tat. John Kotter talks quietly, conversationally, and meanders around the stage. Jennifer Aaker strides into the audience, asking questions and demanding answers.

Whenever I heard a dull speaker, I analysed them too. Was the problem their content? Was the material dull, or flabby? Did they rush, or mumble? If they had good content, what was wrong with the presentation? What would Seth Godin have done with the same content? How would Joel Spolsky have put the same point across?

I kept my eye out for relevant articles, blog posts and books and read them critically, absorbing ideas that I agreed with, rejecting ones that I didn't, taking people's insights and making them my own.

I practiced – part of my role at Red Gate involves speaking fairly regularly – saw what worked, saw what didn't, and iterated.

In my journey up the slope from dire, to mediocre, to average, there is precisely one moment that is interesting. That's the moment when I began to want to improve.

I think this holds for most learning. It follows that it holds for teaching too. At Red Gate, we're currently working on improving the skills of our managers. Most companies follow a sheep-dipping approach – you're a bad manager, we dip you in Maslow, Herzberg and McGregor, and you emerge, coated, a good manager. But this can't work – different people learn in different ways, they come from different places and they have different destinations.

So we're taking a different approach. We think the most important part is planting the seed of wanting to become a better manager. We plant it in fertile ground, and make sunshine and water available, in the form of books, courses, lectures, mentoring, management clinics and – most importantly – practice. But it's up to you to grab the opportunities, to nurture the seed, to make it blossom and flourish.

How do you train your people? Post on this forum post.

A related problem is how to get the best out of your people. Do you bribe them, or beat them, or is there a better way? Hopefully you can guess what my opinion is. Over on the forums, Andrew Butel asks "Do you have an employee incentive scheme?".

Got a question you want answering? Post it on the forums.

Want to get this weekly update by e-mail? Interested in building profitable, sustainable and long-term software businesses? Join the Business of Software social network.