Erika James | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Erika James

Background:  

Erika James became the dean of Goizueta Business School in 2014. Before that, she served as the senior associate dean for executive education at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, where she began the Women’s Leadership program. She also served as an assistant professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, and a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. Shortly after becoming dean at Goizueta, James was named to Ebony magazine’s Power 100 list.

The Mistake:

In 2001, I started teaching a leadership class to graduate business students at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, which has some of the country’s top-ranked faculty. It was a pretty intimidating university.

It was still a time when there were many more men faculty than women, so I didn’t have many role models. That means that the role models who were winning all the teaching awards and named the best professors were all men. And I thought that the way to become an award-winning teacher was to do what all these award-winning teachers did, so I started to model that behavior.

The problem is that behavior didn’t fit with my personality. These professors were men who were challenging in the classroom. They had an aggressive stance with their students. They were theatrical in their presentations. They spoke loudly and had a commanding presence.

Nothing physically about my stature is consistent with the role models that I had aspired to be. So I went into the classroom, and I started being aggressive and yelling because that’s the only way to get my voice to be loud. I was theatrical like my colleagues.

It was not only exhausting, but it was a failure.

The student feedback at the end of the semester was harsh, to say the least. I couldn’t understand it because I was doing the same thing I thought my colleagues were doing, and they were getting accolades for it while I was getting criticized.

I ultimately realized that I was pretending to be someone else and play-acting what I thought a professor was. The students saw through that, and that lack of authenticity didn’t allow me to connect with the students in any meaningful way. I lost credibility, so the students weren’t really learning from me.

That was a pretty painful lesson, and it was a long one. It took an entire semester before I got the feedback that my classroom behavior wasn’t working.

I had to do some soul-searching and realize that I needed to play to my strengths in order to be effective in the classroom. My strengths are an ability to connect, listen and ask really good questions. Once I started doing those things, it completely transformed the relationship I had with students in the classroom. That’s when I saw real learning take place.

Really effective leaders are the ones who make it about the people they’re leading.

The Lesson:

I needed to have the gumption to talk to my faculty colleagues about their interpretation of my teaching style.

During that first semester at the University of Virginia, I remember one of my male colleagues said, “You’re one of the only examples of a feminine teacher that our MBA students have seen. There are a few other women, but most of them have projected a more masculine style. That’s not your style, and that’s OK. It’s just as credible as any other style.” More people, including students, also eventually started saying that.

I also learned about how to lead. Whether you’re teaching students or leading an organization, it’s easy to get caught up in your own drama, but the really effective leaders are the ones who make it about the people they’re leading.

Once I stopped focusing on how others perceived me, I started focusing on the students’ needs. After I made that shift, you could tell that the students were more receptive toward me because I was putting the focus on them and how I could help them as a professor to be successful.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Meltz

Follow Goizueta Business School on Twitter at @EmoryGoizueta

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