The Montessori method and organisational leadership

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Taking the teaching method from the early-years classroom to the negotiating table

The best-selling book Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, from Google's former SVP of people operations Laszlo Bock, is a groundbreaking exploration of Google's work philosophy; one that serves as a practical guidance for managers on how to preserve the best talent in their organisations and gain competitive advantage.

For years now, Google's success story has been regarded as a phenomenal business legend. But, few are aware that much of the organisation's approach to management is based on the principles of the Montessori method, which founding partners Larry Page and Sergey Brin were educated in.

The method’s founder, physician and educator Maria Montessori, formulated her theory by observing children who played in a free environment, developing a method to enable children to learn and grow independently through practical learning and collaborative play. The basis of the method observes children and understands them as they are and not as adults expect them to be. This enables children to learn in the best and simplest way: by doing things themselves.

If Montessori were alive today, we would commemorate her 112th birthday next month. And yet, despite its age, it is amazing to discover that the five principles of the method she developed at the beginning of the last century broke the boundaries of education and touched the underbelly of concepts in organisational leadership that continue to be vital and relevant to the 21st century working environment.

So how can you implement the principles of Montessori leadership into your organisation today?

1. Respect - Respect is the cornerstone of the Montessori method. In order for employees to develop leadership skills, self-esteem, and the ability to succeed, they must experience respect and empowerment from their managers, mentors, and colleagues. Leaders who respect others receive mutual respect, which can be leveraged into an empowering and respectful organisational culture. Be sure to consult with your employees, respect their expertise and value to the organisation, discover how they want to be treated and what they consider to be respectful behaviour. Such behavior sends a powerful message, and the respect will be reciprocated twice over.

2. Absorbent mind - According to the Montessori method, the human brain acts like a sponge and we were all born to learn, both individually and collaboratively. In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes organisations as ‘places where people constantly expand their ability to create the results they desire, cultivate new and expanding patterns of thinking, seek collective results, and continuously master how to learn together’. Good organisational leaders will develop a mechanism of sponges: learning environments for continuous personal and professional development. These learning sponges produce spiral growth mechanisms that allow workers to successfully lead changes.

3. Sensitivity to timed learning - The Montessori method imposes on teachers an important responsibility: to be attentive to the individual needs of the students and to choose the right timing for new learning. In organisations, timing is also a key element in decision-making processes. Therefore, be attentive to the strengths and desires of your employees, and pay attention to external and internal signs that indicate whether and when they are ripe for the next professional step. Integrating technologies into the HR framework will help the organisation not only identify opportunities for professional development, but take advantage of the opportunities at the right time.

4. Availability of an experiential environment - In the Montessori classroom, materials and experiences are always available to children to develop curiosity and autonomous learning. In organisations, it is important to allow employees the freedom to experiment with materials, technologies and methodologies, and to allow them to make mistakes. The freedom of trial and error enables employees to work together, inspire one another and combine strengths to develop new products and services. If you encourage trial and error in your employees and make it commonplace, there is a good chance that a new generation of courageous leaders will emerge in the organisation, who will agree to leave their comfort zones and turn uncertainty into opportunities for learning and quantum leaps.

5. Self-learning methodologies - According to the Montessori method, children are self-taught. Their brain structure allows them to absorb impressions from their environment and learn them effortlessly and unconsciously in their own way. Managers in the 21st century should manage their talent in this manner. Remember that each of us learns differently, and whether we learn through reading, training or practical experience, we are still learning on our own. Give people the opportunity to develop in their own way, document learning successes, and leverage them into customised methodologies for different types of learners. In this context, follow the technological trends – it is only a matter of time before AI will be able to help build libraries of tailor-made learning for each employee.

Ravit Oren is an organisational leadership expert, an academic lecturer and researcher, a corporate HR executive, a public representative of the Israeli Labor Court and a board member in public and governmental companies

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