CEOs as Teachers

The CEO of a company is a leader, decision-maker, manager, and guide. In addition to supporting the vision and growth of a company, leaders must complete projects and tasks with the appropriate staff. With all these demands, company leadership may feel unable to balance the economic and business needs with staff requirements and cannot find time to engage with employees. By using a project based learning method, CEOs take on an important role as coaches and mentors, working toward similar goals, increasing engagement, and inspiring employees to achieve and grow.

The common image of a Chief Executive Officer is a hard-working, experienced individual whose time is dominated by meetings, conference calls, and decision-making. These demands result in divided attention, overwork, financial stress and constant change. It is common belief that the highest-ranking individuals in an organization are the busiest—and the least approachable. But a survey of 256 CEOs found 6.55 hours of a 10-hour workday are spent alone working on tasks to grow the company.1

In addition to keeping a company financially viable and achieving the vision set out by the board, stakeholders, and other community partners, leaders at the top levels must manage employees. Industries with high turnover, such as technology, hospitality, healthcare, and finance and insurance, have less opportunity to retain talent and create mentorships. In more competitive fields, or those where retention is difficult, burnout, long hours, and lack of advancement or benefits are some reasons employees look elsewhere.

New employees have the highest expectations and excitement in their positions, which declines with longer tenure. In the first year of employment, engagement drops from 79% to 69%. Trust in senior leadership takes a bigger tumble, declining from 84% in the first ninety days to 68% at the one-year mark. Engagement and job satisfaction also decline over time. In fact, only 40% of long-term employees (over ten years) believe they can get ahead.2

In addition to these challenges, the obstacles preventing collaboration and growth may come from the top office itself. More traditional CEOs may not view themselves as teachers, expecting change from a top-down, rather than bottom-up approach. Issues are sometimes addressed by handing employees a manual or document instead of correcting through example and teaching.

Earlier, we imagined the CEO. Now, let’s consider the qualities one tends to imagine in a teacher. Teachers inspire, guide, and prepare students by fostering skills and establishing clear goals. To improve engagement while achieving your company’s vision, frame interactions, projects, and tasks as a teacher would for a student using a project based learning method. The project based learning method was adapted from Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss. The method outlines seven parts to introducing, researching, evaluating, and producing an outcome to solve a problem, improve a process, or complete a task.3

Project Based Learning – Part 1

The first part of project based learning involves introducing a challenging problem or open-ended driving question. Encourage your employees to think beyond the obvious, applying those big ideas to growth, community involvement, and meaningful working relationships. By narrowing the focus and ensuring everyone is in the correct role for their skillset, engagement increases.

Project Based Learning – Part 2

The second part in the process is sustained inquiry. This is a discovery phase where employees will seek different sources or information, research and investigate, and ask deep questions. Unlock the unique potential of every employee under your direction. Assemble working groups with complementary knowledge bases and personalities, as well as seasoned employees with newly hired employees. If you are launching a product or service, seeking to expand into a new market, or growing your client or customer base, encourage your employees to leave their desks and their building and speak with people one-on-one.

Provide employees with detailed information of your preferences, such as when you are available to meet, what contact method to use, and how quickly you are able to approve stages of development of the project. A study found 61% of CEO communication is done face-to-face, so being present with your employees can have a significant impact on performance and organizational culture.4

Project Based Learning – Part 3

The third part of project based learning is authenticity. Learning does not have to occur in the traditional classroom framework but can happen at any time during brief interactions or teachable moments in a time of need. Conduct walk-throughs and small group meetings to check in with your employees’ progress, addressing immediate concerns. Outline profound goals and visions with the support needed for employees to meet those expectations.

Project Based Learning – Part 4

Part four of project based learning is voice and choice. Provide employees with ownership over the project, activity, or process. Empower employees by having them create their own goals and specific dates of completion. 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week.5

Project Based Learning – Part 5

Reflection is the fifth part, an important piece often overlooked. Throughout the stages of the project, capture lessons learned and sustain or improve processes. Conduct discussions at milestones and provide a formal assessment using quantitative performance measurements. Conduct meetings for employees to present their findings and share discoveries with their peers.

Project Based Learning – Part 6

Part six is critique and revision, taking those lessons and applying them. To gain insight, conduct focus groups to survey and discuss the results. Determine a protocol and rubric for employees to give and receive constructive feedback to one another within their working groups or throughout the organization.

Project Based Learning – Part 7

Finally, part seven is a public product. This does not necessarily need to be a completed project or physical object, but an improvement plan, a solution to the driving question, or a trial of a new process or service. Sharing these outcomes in a social setting reinforces the community aspect of your organization.

The Marco Program offers an opportunity to engage with your employees through a one-hour discussion focused on your goals. The outcomes are analyzed by our subject matter experts and compiled into a Teach Life a Lesson summary reviewing your strengths, vulnerabilities, and recommendations. Three activities are suggested to complement the discoveries made throughout the session.

In all the busyness of running an organization of any size, it is critical to take the time to engage directly with employees using a project based learning approach. An inspired, passionate, and self-reliant workforce can net large returns and strive to achieve your vision. Engaged employees are more motivated, less likely to leave your organization, and bring innovation to your company. As a teacher and mentor, you set the example and outline a path to success.


  1. Pullen, J.P. (2015). This is the secret way CEOs stay ultra-productive. Time Magazine. Retrieved from
  2. Abrahams, R. & Stoll, J. (2018, May 30). How to create a positive culture for employees across tenure [Webinar]. In Company Culture Resources. Retrieved from
  3. Larmer, J. & Mergendoller, J. (2015). Gold standard PBL: Essential project design elements. Retrieved from
  4. Weber, B. (2018). For the first time ever, a study finds out what CEOs actually do. Retrieved from
  5. Baker, L. (2018). 10 mind-blowing statistics on performance reviews and employee engagement. Retrieved from

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