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Using Child Learning Principles to Boost Performance w/Ben Marcovitz

By Anthony Taylor - March 07, 2022

SME Strategy is a strategy consulting company that specializes in aligning teams around their vision, mission, values, goals and action plans. Learn more about how we can help align your team with our strategic planning and implementation services.

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Untitled design - 2021-12-27T131748.040  Anthony: Welcome, folks to today's episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor. Today I am joined by Ben Marcovitz, who is the founder and CEO of the Rise Institute, and the CEO of Collegiate Academies. Ben, how's it going today?

Untitled design - 2022-03-02T120140.974  Ben: I'm doing great. I'm sitting on a bathroom floor as we discussed, but you know, I couldn't feel better sitting on bathroom floor.

Anthony: We were talking about the confluence of people and talent in this age. What I don't think people fully grasp is the impact that COVID and work-from-home and all of that stuff, how it trickles down to impact talent, people, humanity and all of that. I think that leaders would be best served by really understanding all of those forces at play. But nobody cares what I think, what do you think about that? Tell our listeners about who you are, what you do and why it relates to everything we're talking about so far.

About Ben & his background

Ben: Thanks. Yeah. So my name is Ben Marcovitz. I started in public education, I was a founder of a small school district, I was a high school principal and trainer of principals, and got into coaching outside that field just through happenstance. We were running a bunch of schools that were good at growing kids who were very far behind, we expanded those schools, and sort of had to do the same thing with adults.

We were expanding so fast, we had to get very good at growing teachers who are very far behind. And we use some of the same techniques that we had discovered with our kids to help grow those adults. Then some folks wanted to know how to do that in other sectors, the way we were doing it ours. And I grew into a an executive coach and consultant on talent and HR.

Now I run this organization that's trying to help foster leadership and those who are hoping to achieve radical growth in their people, sometimes, just in their personal lives, but often in large companies and growing companies.

Anthony: Awesome. So we facilitate strategic planning sessions, and we really incorporate the human nature of it. So instead of just checking the box we try to teach. Bridging that line between pedagogy, and andragogy, which I'm pretty sure is the technical term. So as you look to elevate that talent, if it's not naturally there, what are one or two or three guiding principles that you've maybe borrowed from pedagogy to support layering concepts, increasing retention, and ultimately driving outcomes with your people?

Team development tips

Ben: It's my favorite question. Thank you. I think the most important thing that I have to offer folks who're really trying to develop their talent, comes from seeing pretty remarkable things happen in classrooms where nobody expected much to happen at all, unfortunately. And so having a lens as I did, across a number of urban schools, nationally, for the last 20 years or so. Seeing real standout teachers who, of course, don't have the option to terminate anybody in their classroom, don't have the ability to put people on performance improvement plans, just have to actually grow the people who are assigned to their room.

The people who actually succeed in doing that do a remarkable number of things the same. I think the biggest is that they set the expectations for success before they even grow the success. So we refer to this in our group as performance follows identity. This is just sort of a concept, again, coming from teaching that students who get Ds too often think they are D students. We usually respond to that by saying, here's what you need to do to get an A, and that sometimes works over a long period of time. But usually it puts the student in a vicious cycle, you know, the students saying to themselves, 'I get Ds, therefore, I'm a D student'. And what we ask folks to do, is to change the statement to 'I get Ds, but I'm an A student, that doesn't make any sense'. That creates more curiosity, motivation, confidence, and actually a great deal of really good strong clinical planning.

And so the the vicious cycle, so to speak, can become a virtuous one when leaders make that happen. So a teacher ought to say to that kid, 'you're an A student, we both know that'. So how can we start showing that and then lock into that identity, which helps people actually plan out their process for performance and improvement. This goes for anybody working with somebody on their team who's not experiencing success. Going up to somebody who is often late, but shows up on time one day saying 'Yes, I thought you're a very, very on time person, and I haven't seen that enough. Here you go'. Or 'you are somebody who frequently interrupts folks in meetings', noticing that person's got a real strength inside - their passion for speaking and so on. To say 'it's very clear to me that you're like a deeply passionate person. That's only causing one problem for you right now - that's interrupting people, and we need to fix that', right down to major performance improvements.

So if somebody is actually like really falling behind in their training, or in their learning, saying, 'that surprises me about you', rather than 'what's going on here?', that your expectation clarity is in the positive. Folks want to live up to that, rather than just feel like they've lost your approval forever, and can only go down.


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Anthony: I'm like, blown away by that. It's kind of simple, but obvious. It's actually not simple, actually, it's not simple. But it's one of those things that you're contextually setting for somebody, to reframe how they think about themselves. Tony Robbins talks a lot about that, reframing something where it is no longer acceptable. So you're actually creating a non acceptable environment for that person's future standard. I think it's just so cool. But, man, it's an art to do that. Because you have to show up to that conversation, not looking to rip somebody a new one, but really see them as the future self that they can be or that you want them to be. Even if they're not there now. I think you've got to be patient with that as well.

Ben: Well, I think that's right. I think the biggest struggle we see in folks who are trying to do this is honestly their own emotional blocks to doing it. This is a feeling that we all get. Especially when the person we're leading is an adult with more experience, one should just know better. And if they don't know better, we're sort of angry at them for that. I think probably the biggest obstacle I see for anybody I'm working with is that the minute somebody starts to need performance improvement, their first step is to just be disgusted with that person.

Once you're disgusted with that person, it's very hard to do exactly what they need, which is to make sure they know your approval is still accessible to them. Because the minute they think that it's not, they will go seek it elsewhere. This is how you start seeing a lot of eye rolls between peers across the meeting that you're running, folks trash talking you on the way to the parking lot. As a boss, this is where things really start to go downhill.

Because everybody, I really believe it, everybody would prefer to have your approval. But if they know they're not going to get it, they go seek it elsewhere, and usually against you. So actually, the best thing you can do to somebody in that situation is to let them know the one thing they did that was right today, that way you've completely abolished their ability to make a case for your non approval. They will start think, "Maybe it's still possible for me to get the approval by doing better at my daily, my actual job". So the thing that a great teacher would do in a classroom that's slipping is immediately note everything that's going right in the room. And each kid gets a little bit more curious about what else they can do that will get that kind of positive reinforcement.

We just have the luxury as adults not to do that with each other. And so we don't. But it would be immensely helpful if we did.

Anthony: That's awesome. I don't know how far we are into this episode, rewind and listen again. There's like so much gold there. And one of the things that we didn't mention is why you're sitting on the bathroom floor, because three kids are in your house, and it's a loud place to be.

I was watching tik tok, where I get most of my news, parenting tik tok or whatever. I learned that if a kid scores a goal playing soccer, don't celebrate the goal. Instead, ask them "Hey, what positive things lead to that outcome?" So you can actually formatively have them retrace the steps they took to the outcome. And it sounds like that's resonating with you as well. Thoughts on that?

Encouraging a growth mindset

Ben: Very much, very much. Yeah, none of this thinking is possible without that work. That's primarily well known through Carol Dweck at Stanford talking about fixed versus growth mindset. Which is to say, kids learn a lot more from knowing how their effort was involved than their ability. Whether or not kids grow more or do more because of their abilities or because their effort, we know that they do more, and they grow more because of their belief in their effort. Not their belief in their ability.

So every time you can notice what a kid did to be successful, then you're actually helping them out by making them more growth-y, so to speak. And I think that's of course true with adults also.

Anthony: Well, that's what I was wondering, what growth-y is in your LinkedIn. So everybody connect with Ben on LinkedIn. But well, as we were talking earlier, wouldn't life be easier if you were managing kids, because kids have a growth mindset?

Whereas I found adults have a fixed mindset and it's tough to get them to do something else differently. It's like, I don't know, say pulling teeth or whatever you want to call it. It's a lot harder because kids are willing to coach and listen versus "Hey, I am this way". And the only reason you got that way is basically how you became a kid, and you just cemented versus kids - who haven't had as much time to, I don't know, get screwed up?

Ben: Yeah, I think you've explained it. Well, I don't know of a single kid who walks into the world with a fixed mindset. You know, maybe they're out there, but I can't imagine it. And it is definitely something that the adult world drills into them. It's because adults don't really know a lot better, right?

Like, if you're a teacher who is struggling or a parent who is struggling, no matter how much you love that child in front of you, it helps you to deal with the deep dissonance you feel when you screw up, to know that some things your kid maybe just can't do. Or some things this group of kids in front of you maybe just can't do. It makes it a little easier for us to get up as teachers in the morning, the next morning, if we're not chastising ourselves 24 hours a day for how terribly we're doing. We're often doing terribly, let's be honest.

So it is very, very hard to keep your will, as somebody who spends a lot of time around kids without showing the kids what a fixed mindset looks like, and exposing them to it more and more. Now there are many folks who have luxuries not to do that, many folks who have built tons of skill, just a real steel mind not to do that. It's actually those people that I'm drawing some of these techniques from that we talked about. I do think it's really important to recognize though these are techniques you can put into your calendar, this is not something that requires you to do a ton of mental self discipline.

So if you are in fact, disgusted by everybody who's underperforming on your team, that's reasonable, it's okay. Sorry, you're not a bad person. That is a natural reaction to our own fear of failure. What I think is useful to do is to honestly set 20 minutes on your calendar every week. And just review the names of those people and ask yourself, is there anything they did this week that is worth recognizing? Just say I will not spend more than 45 seconds sending an email for every single time I say yes to that question. You'll be done in 12 to 15 minutes. The responses you will get back from those emails will evince life changing experiences these people had from reading your 45 second email.

You watch those people the next time you give them coaching or tough feedback, they will be far more responsive. And more importantly, they will probably try to anticipate your feedback, because now they know what it feels like to get approval from you. They will want more and more of it. This all sounds like a little bit like Machiavellian, I think I'm mostly just saying that because I think it comes instinctively to people who really understand growth. It comes out of a deep sense of care and empathy for people and how hard it is to grow. But for folks who do get easily sidetracked by very stressful jobs, it can help to make it into a discipline, because it's actually not that time consuming when you do.

Anthony: Yeah - there's so much stuff. So a couple of steps back, people people develop a fixed mindset or don't risk screwing up because they have that fear of looking bad. So that disappointment. But also, whereas kids don't worry about an audience or perception or fear of what other people think, the rolling back into feedback is critical. Because that's a communication structure, fostering values and behaviours, which is all the formative stuff, too.

Probably not our audience, but I'm sure everybody else will say "I already know that. So if you at any point are reacting to this thing, I already know that or I already do that". Consider that's your fixed mindset talking. There's actually probably something that you can learn from this to improve, and it'll take you 15 minutes, and the results will pay huge dividends.

Notice your own success

Ben: I think that's really powerful. I think the experience can be tracked back to ourselves and that's important too, to recognize that if you think about it, this is what motivates you. If you think back to any time you learn something for the first time, if you learned how to ride a bike.

You probably experienced a fair amount of struggle at the beginning riding a two wheeler for example. But you probably also experienced some limited success right? You would feel a moment where you were balanced, right before you fell off, or a moment where you picked up speed right before you slow down. Those little moments of success are crucial, because that's what made your brain understand, you can actually ride a bike. The minute you realize that you could be successful at it, you tried harder, and you did more, until you were eventually riding it, much more organically.

So noticing your own little moments of success allows you to build a belief in yourself, which then raises your motivation, which then typically creates more moments of success and the cycle repeats itself. We can remember those moments for ourselves as learners. What we can often forget is that we can create those moments for people who aren't having them as learners.

And so if you are watching somebody struggle, and they're about to really get exasperated, let's say they're working with a client, and that client has rejected every new pitch the company has thrown at them. And this person is trying and trying and trying, you might actually benefit from getting that person to kind of peek in on their Zoom or take a look at their meeting. Notice something they can do that they are in fact doing well, tell them that's going well, and then give them something new to do next time. That will cement - when I learned something, I did it well, and things went better. You will have started a whole new cycle for them. Whereas their cycle was veering out of control very quickly before, you have an opportunity to really reverse its track. If we take that responsibility, it's time out of our days, but just really not that much.

I urge everybody to remember the time out of your day it takes to replace somebody, or to put somebody on a performance improvement plan, or to honestly not do either of those things. Just banging your head against the wall every day wishing that this person wasn't causing you so much stress.

Anthony: Maybe that's why you're on the floor of the bathroom - probably harder to bang your head again. But I mean, as a leader, that is the stuff you're supposed to be doing. So when we look at time spent as a senior leader, what are the highest value activity and building your people up?

A couple thoughts I have on that - finding that positive, and then scaffolding on top of that. So actually being able to do that. When we do strategic planning, we start every strategic planning session with celebrate. Because otherwise, it's so easy to just go down. But if you say we're doing all of this stuff, great, let's build on that.

We were doing a session the other day and someone said "I am bad at setting KPIs". And I'm like, "Who told you that? No one ever told you that, you just told yourself that and you've wired that into your brain". And I do it to myself, when I was doing a construction project with my father in law. Like I am bad at this.. no, I'm not bad at it. I've never done it before. So why would I be expected to be good at it relative to somebody with 30 years experience? But that's the distorted lens that we look at, when we review people, behaviour, action, and we just send ourselves into a spiral.

Addressing weak spots on your team

Ben: That's absolutely right. I think that people often get stuck there recognizing we did some celebrating - shouldn't that give us momentum? But what you talked about that's really critical is identity. When somebody has an identity, that they're not good at something, it's actually quite important to go there first. If you know nothing about it, as a leader, you can ask them, but you can also look for demonstrations of it.

So if somebody is terrible at setting KPIs, or they believe they're terrible at setting KPIs, and you say, "Well, I'm not exactly sure what made you think that but we're gonna do some of that today - so let's take a look". Then the minute they do anything correct in that process, note "oh, that was great, thank you, nice job". You completely change their identity. So they can no longer say, that's not me. Now, there's still a ways to go. But recognize what a dramatic improvement it is to go from, I can't ride a bike to I can ride a bike, I just haven't learned yet. I think the reality is that we don't think we're capable of doing that for grownups.

Most of the time teachers think they're capable of doing it for kids, but we don't think we're capable of doing that for grownups, or we don't think it's our job, or it makes us uncomfortable, and so on. All, that's fine. But I think what is most important for people to understand is that if you're going to decide to try to do that, it does not take that much time. But it does take setting aside the time, and it does take knowing and admitting that you have to do it.

Anthony: Awesome. I couldn't have said it better myself, and that's why you're here. And that's what's great. So I really appreciate that. I think that for all of us listening for you, the listener, do it once. In fact, you might be saying, well, I can't do that. Have you tried doing that? Reverse ninja yourself in here and see how you can apply these tools incrementally. If you don't think you're good at giving feedback, well try doing feedback one time.

I just encourage you to take everything Ben has said because there's so much gold in here that will impact not only your work. This is why I'm so big about doing this podcast and inviting people like Ben on here, we're not here just for your work.

You're a human being, this is going to improve your relationships with your friends, with your spouse, with your kids, with your family, with your community. You are going to be a leader outside in the world, and you can change the context of everything around you when you bring a growth mindset to it. You can genuinely help people grow and elevate. I think that just again, so much good stuff in what you shared.

Example of empowering identity & performance

Ben: Thank you, I appreciate it. The piece around your life, particularly true with your own children. Like I said, mine are about to flood this space very soon. The major breakthrough so far - my three year old Max has had a lot of struggle with sharing. When he's around his friends, which has not been much in his life because he's been quarantined for most of his life, but when I know there's potential for little wars to break out over sharing things, I start telling his friends what a great sharer he is. And he is sort of admiring himself through my eyes when he does this. I have so far computed that he is about 80% more likely to share voluntarily when I have made this move. Now I don't have full data across every moment he's had an opportunity to share, but this seems to be working.

Anthony: It's coming full circle, right? Kids, adults and back to kids. Ben, where can people learn more about what you do? Where can they become more growth-y?

Ben: Yeah. So the Google works, just gotta spell my name right, which is Ben Marcovitz. And I have benmarcovitz.com. Probably the coolest place to start there is I have a little survey that helps you analyze whether you are a leader who is already got what it takes to do this growth work with your staff, or whether you're gonna have to learn a couple of very specific tricks to get moving. And of course, it will give you those tricks.

Anthony: Perfect. And folks, tricks aren't just for kids. So please, use those. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Ben: No, well done like it.

Anthony: Ben, thank you so much for sharing with us today. It's been a blast. I learned a lot and and I think our listeners did too. So I appreciate it a lot.

Ben: Thanks for the opportunity, Anthony.

Anthony: Folks, my guest today, Ben Marcovitz, who is the founder and CEO of the Rise Institute and Collegiate Academies. Again, the stuff that we talked about today can genuinely not even change your life, change the lives of people around you and how they see themselves. So my challenge to you is approach this information with that much power.

So please listen to the episode, share it with somebody you care about, share with your spouse, have a conversation, and just enjoy it. So thanks for listening. My name is Anthony Taylor, this has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. I appreciate you watching. I appreciate you listening.

I'll see you next time!


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