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Who’s teaching our kids and minding the store?


I’m not a helicopter parent hovering over my 13-year-old son to make sure he does everything the “right” way. But I know that John’s a good kid. He communicates in more than grunts, doesn’t lie and gets good grades. He’s accountable for what he does, and I trust him. I’d like to share two stories that make me question the adults he’s entrusted to—and wonder how many similarly dysfunctional adults we are trusting to manage our employees. Like me, you may want to be certain that your trust is placed in the right people, at home and at work.

The teacher

Just before the holidays, one of John’s teachers claimed that he did not hand in a particular homework assignment. When John replied that he had, actually, handed it in to her, the teacher accused him of lying. Upset, my son explained his dilemma to me, and I wrote a polite note to the teacher wondering whether, perhaps, the homework could have been misplaced, noting that John has a strong history of finishing and turning in his homework on time.

I was shocked by the teacher’s insensitive reply that she has been a teacher for 40 years and never loses homework, so couldn’t have lost John’s. She insisted that he redo the report. The following day, the teacher reprimanded John for telling his parents about the homework issue—in front of the other students!

Of course, I couldn’t let that go and made a trip to the school to talk personally with the teacher, who said John had overreacted. After instructing her never to yell at my son again, I went to the school administrators, who did absolutely nothing.

The day John returned to school after the holidays, the teacher returned the original report to him—apparently lost and then found. Never a word of explanation or an apology to me or to John, who had already completed the rewrite. A much bigger person than his teacher, John asked me to let it go and not say anything more to the teacher.

The hockey coach

Last season, a new coach with a winning track record took over John’s hockey team. Although, at this level of hockey, there are typically three or four coaches to a team, this particular coach brought just his adult son as his single assistant. In the first few weeks, the two coaches didn’t seem to be teaching the boys any new skills, or actively coaching during the games. As a result, the team had some losses but, more importantly, did not develop as a team.

Near the end of the season, this “winning” coach quit. He explained to these young boys in foul, four-letter-word language that he was leaving because the team didn’t have the will to win. Though informed about the foul language, leaders of the hockey association defended the coach and used the same excuse I had heard from school leaders, that the boys had “overreacted” to the coach’s language and action—and they allowed him back to finish the season.

With several games left, association leaders were willing to overlook the coach’s continued use of foul language with both the team and the referees, including a two-game suspension for verbal abuse of the officials.

The end of innocence

I’d like to believe that these were two rare, isolated incidents, but I know better. People like the teacher and the coach are found everywhere, lowering our standards to mediocrity, at best. Probably what alarmed me most in these experiences was that nothing was done when I escalated the situations to leadership.

Sometimes, as with my son, we don’t have power to hold people accountable for bad behaviors or attitudes. But as managers and business owners, we do have that power, and too often don’t exercise it. Are you letting things fly in your organization that you know should not? Don’t turn a blind eye to insensitive leaders. From any perspective, it’s unacceptable.

People I trusted to teach positive lessons to my son have instead caused the end of his innocence—and I suppose an end to mine as well. Is abusive language ever really appropriate in any situation? I can’t think of one. Are people acting from their core values and principles when they demean or blame others? I don’t think so. We are all human beings who perform best when we’re treated with respect and kindness, whether at school, in sports or in business. As business leaders, every one of us should make sure that everyone in leadership roles is taking good care of our people, and that all language and behaviors reflect our values.

Teachers, coaches and managers everywhere are entrusted with power over others and are setting the standards for our future leaders. What lessons are they teaching them? And are you brave enough to hold them accountable?

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is CEO of TalenTrust. Her first book, Solve the People Puzzle; How High-Growth Companies Attract and Retain Top Talent, debuted in February 2016. Her firm has achieved several awards, including recognition from Inc.5000 in 2015 and 2016. She speaks frequently and advises CEOs on trends in talent and how to be strategic in developing a people strategy. Kathleen has served on several nonprofit boards including Colorado Companies to Watch and ACG-Denver. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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