Two years after I’d apprenticed our son Matt in the art of cleaning windows and about the time he started waving nice stacks of checks in the face of his little brother, Michael, that little brother asked Matt if he could wash windows too.
Seeing a business opportunity – to move from labor to management – Matt heartily agreed to teach Michael the ropes. I stepped back and watched, skeptical about how this would turn out.
The Next Apprentice?
It began well enough. Matt did what I had done for him: he took Mic to the back porch, wet the window and demonstrated the simple stroke of pulling a squeegee across the face of the window, turning the other direction, then turning again, right down the bottom. “It’s simple,” Matt assured him.
“Hmm,” I muttered. “Danger ahead.”
Matt handed Michael the tool, then picked up his cell phone and dialed his friend Nick. Mic took his first swipe. Disaster. Matt looked up, “NO!” he barked, still holding his phone for Nick to hear. “Like this…” And Matt demonstrated again, handed the knife back to Michael and promptly walked away, saying simply, “Practice,” as he left.
Michael stood for a moment, took one more look at the window, tossed down the squeegee and walked away.” This is going to be interesting,” I thought.
Five minutes later Hell in a water bucket broke loose. Matt and Mic were toe to toe though not nose to nose – at the time Matt was a foot taller. “But I hate this,” Mic insisted. “You said you wanted to learn,” Matt fired back. “I don’t!” Michael answered.
Telling vs. Apprenticeship
“Okay, time for a time out, guys,” I said. And the both aimed their arguments at me, appealing to the judge to arbitrate.
“Hold it… He’s how I see it, because I did see it,” I said. “Matt, you didn’t teach Mic your skills…” “I did too” he countered. “No, you showed him, then in essence walked away. Now what do you recall about the way I taught you the same thing?” Matt shrugged. “I’ll remind you…” And I did.
I took them both through the steps of the Apprenticeship Square using my lessons to Matt as the example. “But Matt, what you did with Mic was not apprenticeship: You showed him and walked away. Showing is the easy part. The heavy lifting of leadership is always in the second and third sides of the square. If you want someone to work the way you do, you have to BE WITH them while they learn. It may feel like a waste of your time, but if you want competence in your workforce, there’s no shortcut to your attentive presence.” My actual speech probably wasn’t that complete, but that was the idea.
In My Leadership
I’ve made Matt’s mistake many, many times in my leadership life. I’ve inspired and demonstrated, then walked way to other more pressing matters, somehow convinced that I’d done my part to train. Wrong. The true art of apprenticeship is the LOVE that it takes to stand alongside those we’re leading as they slog through the inevitable frustrations of conscious incompetence.
The boys worked it through and this last summer Mic did work for Matt in his window business. This summer, Mic will be working his own customers… And perhaps looking for someone to help him.