I came across a great article today from the Harvard Business Review. I had a good writing teacher a few years ago when I went back for a refresher class. We had a project that I just didn’t get, wasn’t inclined to get and felt would end in abject failure anyway. I was ready to quit the class, thinking I was in over my head, when the gruff woman teacher looked at me and said, “What, the first thing that’s hard for you, you quit?” I sheepishly went back to my labors and eventually passed the project and class having learned something new. Yes, our best teachers are tough and honest and they expect the best of us.
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.