The Value of Teaching

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, January/February 2005
Not many in leadership roles are looking to add extra responsibilities. It’s a challenge just to keep up. Nevertheless, it is vital to find a way to actively and regularly teach classes for staff.
Teaching classes within (and outside of) our organization is one of the most valuable uses of my time. In fact, we’ve formalized our commitment to teaching as one of the measures of being a successful manager at Zingerman’s.
The core concept is what we refer to as “Servant Leadership. It’s an idea we learned from reading the work of Robert Greenleaf ( The basic concept is that leaders are here, first and foremost, to serve the organization, not the other way around. One of the most important ways to serve is by teaching. Specifically, we ask every partner and manager to teach at least one hour per month. Some months they may do more, others less, but we’re all actively, formally putting ourselves in a classroom setting, sharing what we’ve learned with others. This teaching isn’t extra work to us—it is THE work.

How Teaching Helps

Here are just some of the reasons why teaching is beneficial:
1. Keeping leaders connected with our core concepts.
It’s easy to forget your organization’s mission, values or vision when they’re just pieces of paper in electronic files stored somewhere deep in your hard drive. By contrast, actively teaching them every few weeks keeps the core concepts top-of-mind. Teaching gets me back to the important concepts—living our mission, modeling our guiding principles, delivering amazing service, or serving fantastically flavorful food.
2. Sharing information.
Teaching forces me to get information out of my head and into a format that others can understand. Often, I have a jumble of expectations and frustrations floating around in my head. Teaching helps me get organized; I stop focusing on frustrations and do a better job of identifying what I want.

3. Creating a learning environment.

When leaders actively make time to teach, it demonstrates commitment to the growth and success of the people in the organization. We send the message that learning matters and that we will give of ourselves to make that happen.

4. Building energy.
A well-taught class will increase energy levels for all involved. Attendees leave more motivated; they understand better what we’re asking them to do and have a much better sense of how to do it. And, of equal import, teaching gives me new energy. I’m totally pumped up by the creativity, insight and intelligence of the people I work with. Everyone wins.

Teaching Builds Better Leaders
Teaching helps me become a more effective leader, which benefits the entire organization. Regular teaching helps me to:

• Get comfortable with communication.
I’m an introvert and very shy. (Most people don’t believe that because they see me presenting in front of large groups with a high degree of comfort.) But it’s all learned behavior. Ultimately, effective communication starts with the folks who run the place. Agreeing to teach, and then learning how to do it, has helped me communicate more effectively in everything.

• Maintain connection with staff.

Much communication with the 400 or so front-line people happens through the managing partners of our eight businesses and the managers in those businesses. But it’s essential to maintain the direct links as well. Teaching classes helps me build a connection to front-line staff without undercutting their relationship with a manager or supervisor. Even if you work side by side with front-line staff, you’ll relate in a different and meaningful way within a teaching setting.

• Constantly push for improvement.
Every time I teach, I leave with three or four things we need to do better. This is even more true because of the outside training seminars through ZingTrain (our training and consulting business). Attendees come from top-notch organizations all over the U.S. and they pay big bucks to hear what we have to say. What we tell them must be clear, coherent and effectively delivered. And because our own people attend the seminars, what we’re teaching must be close to what we’re doing.

• Walk my talk more effectively.
Teaching regularly helps me to walk the talk; it’s impossible to teach staff about “Three Steps to Great Service and then not go out and do a decent job of practicing them. Grace Singleton, managing partner at Zingerman’s Deli, remarks, “There are few people who can teach a subject but not actively live what they teach. Most people are not hypocrites; they will live by what they teach daily, reinforcing it with the staff they interact with. And the better we as leaders—and teachers—walk our talk, the more effectively the organization will operate.

• Stay motivated.

Teaching a class reenergizes you. Alex Young, managing partner at the Road-house, says, “Every time I teach the orientation class, I’m invigorated and inspired. Not from what I’ve said, but from what I see and learn from the attendees.
• Keep learning as a leader.
Kati Lauffer, a chef at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, remarks, “The thing that I enjoy the most is the learning I receive from participants. Students have different experiences they can offer you, plus they look at things through different lenses. Every class is different, each student is different, and I am always asked a question to which I do not have the answer. And that leads her to go out and learn more. “It’s a rewardingly vicious cycle, she explains. “By teaching regularly, I’m being challenged—and therefore forced—to continue learning so that I can continue teaching.

Taking Time to Teach
When you believe in the concept of teaching, you must figure out how to make it happen. Basically, I just do it. You decide you will teach something, set the date to teach the class and then get ready to go. It happens; then you improve for the next time and are en route to teaching on a regular basis. You become an expert and teaching develops into one of the most important parts of your training program.
The time I spend teaching is an investment in the people I work with. If a single staff member or customer asked a question, I’d make time to answer it; it could easily take 15 minutes. If four people attend a one-hour class, it’s as if each asked me one interesting question and I’ve broken even on my time. Ultimately, it’s like working out. If you just do it, you’ll feel better and in this case, the organization will be better when you’re done.

How to Start
Teaching one class is a positive step forward.

If I had to pick only one class to teach, it would be the new staff orientation. It’s imperative that they hear about our organization from a partner, that we speak from the heart about our vision and values.

To add a second one to the list, I’d adhere to the training principles I’ve learned from Maggie Bayless, managing partner at ZingTrain. I would identify a problem subject or an area in which you want to make a meaningful improvement. Take your pick—food, service, finance, scheduling—wherever you need to take a significant step forward, teaching can lead the way.

Fun, Flavor, Finance and the Future
The value of teaching became clearer than ever to me when we decided to improve our organizational understanding and delivery of great finance. We committed to reviewing and revising all of the classes we teach on finance and also added a new ZingTrain seminar (that we called “Fun, Flavorful, Finance“) to explain our approach to Open Book Finance. We show people how sharing financial information with everyone in the organization has helped improve bottom line results to run the businesses more effectively. Three years ago, we decided that the only way we could get great at using these systems and understanding how they work was to commit to teaching our approach inside and outside the organization.

We threw our organizational “hat over the fence and announced that a year down the road we would teach the first edition of “Fun, Flavorful, Finance.” Now, we are teaching more finance classes and it has grown to be one of our most popular.

This significantly increased the corporate focus on finance training and has forced us to:

a) get clear on what we expect from ourselves and our crew, and
b) do a better job of living it.

It has helped us include our staff in running the business. They understand finance better and are enjoying their work more. As a result, we’ve seen positive financial results. The business is doing better and staff are getting bonuses. The teaching work is paying meaningful dividends at most every level.