Ron Clark is known as "America's Educator," but his formula for motivating students applies beyond the classroom
One of the most inspiring leaders I've met in the last several years does not run a Fortune 500 company, did not launch a startup in his garage, and has not led an army. He's a schoolteacher. But his persuasion skills are so effective they should be adopted by anyone who manages anyone.
Ron Clark taught elementary school in North Carolina. After watching a program about a New York City school that had a hard time attracting qualified teachers, he decided to head to New York with the goal of teaching in one of its toughest schools. Clark eventually landed a job doing just that—in Harlem. He asked if he could teach a class of fifth-graders who had been performing at a second-grade level. The school's administrators wanted to give him the gifted class, but Clark insisted on the underperforming students. In one school year, Clark's fifth-grade class outperformed the gifted class. Clark became Disney's teacher of the year, a best-selling author, an Oprah guest, and the subject of a made-for-TV movie, The Ron Clark Story, starring Matthew Perry. When I was writing my last book, Fire Them Up! I caught up with Clark to discuss how managers can use his techniques to motivate their teams. Here are some of the things he said:
Raise expectations. Students and employees will improve their game in response to a challenge. When Clark walked in to his Harlem class, he announced what seemed to be an absurd goal: The class would test at grade level by the end of the school year. Once the students learned Clark was serious, they responded and began to act like the successful students he had known they could be. One month later, after Clark had seen the results, he began to express a vision nobody had dared to dream—they would outperform the gifted class by the end of the year. As a leader, your job is to think one step ahead of the rest of your team and then equip it with the tools and confidence to get there.
Explain why before how. "It's not enough to set a goal," Clark told me. "You need to tell your students why it's important to reach that goal. For my students, it meant a better future. I told them why they needed to know a certain subject, how it would be an advantage to them in their lives."
When it comes to inspiring your employees, the "why" is also often more important than the "how." Why should they exceed quarterly sales goals? Why should they improve customer service scores? Show your team how accomplishing these goals will improve their lives as well as the lives of those around them.
Encourage celebration and praise. In Clark's book, The Essential 55—his rules for success in the classroom—rule No. 3 is applicable in almost any business setting: If someone in the class wins a game or does something well, we will congratulate that person. Clark believes that anyone—student or employee—will do a better job when he receives praise. But he went one step further in his class. He encouraged the students to celebrate each other's achievements as if they were a supportive family.
He writes: "If you want a team to be successful, you have to create […] an atmosphere where everyone on the team is proud of each other. If you set a goal and everyone is working toward that goal as an individual and not as a team, it can be intimidating. But if you feel like you have the support of an entire team […] then you can set the goal as high as you want because there is no fear associated with it. Every person on that team will want to contribute to achieving that goal because they are doing it together."
Show genuine interest beyond business. Clark cultivated a sense of curiosity and respect in his Harlem classroom, requiring students to respond to a question with a question (his rule No. 6). "You are far more likable and respectful when you are asking about the thoughts and opinions of others," Clark writes.
Showing a genuine interest is a consistent theme among inspiring communicators. Motivating is about bringing out the best in people, but people will not listen to your message until they know you care. Show you care about them personally and you will bring out their best professionally.
Be positive and enjoy life. Clark's can-do spirit is infectious. His words reflect his optimism, and he refuses to let any of his students speak the language of defeat. Rule No. 50 is simply: Be positive and enjoy life. Clark told me a leader must set the tone, especially with the words he chooses to use. It is up to the leader to set high expectations, to praise people, to believe in them, and to do whatever it takes to help people meet their goals and have fun in the process. Despite the challenges Clark faced as a teacher, he remained optimistic and steadfast in his belief that his rules would unlock the students' potential. His passion and positive energy allowed him to see opportunity where everyone else saw obstacles.
Clark's rules are intended to draw out the best in students. They can also help bring out the best in any team. And by inspiring your colleagues and employees in the workplace, you become the kind of person people want to be around.