How are Great Teachers Like Great Startup CEO's?

As a former teacher who now works in silicon valley, I've made some observations on parallels between the two professions. The more I thought about it, the more uncanny the resemblances became. Here are a few of the more striking parallels I came up with.

Great Startup CEO's Are Able to Manage Teams

As a teacher I would receive over 100 students every year, mind you I didn't have the luxury of a human resources, or an interview process. They came to me because they had to get a few years of science under their belt. A skill which invokes the infamous, "when am I going to need this?" mindset. 

I would then need to take each of my 4-5 classes of 25-30 students and guide their reasoning and create an environment where they will thrive intellectually. This management would continue every day, until they had become "proficient" (according to state and federal standards). And closing the deal on testwork is just the beginning for a great teacher, the real challenge comes when you start to show students how to work together to achieve the same success as a group. The greatest startup CEO's, like teachers are able to achieve greatness when they put their team members (or students) where they're thrive. Positions that play to their strengths. 

Great Startup CEO's Need a Wealth of Content Knowledge as Well as General Knowledge 

All teachers (including myself) are subject to strict state exams in order to get their license as well as training in diversity, crisis management, compliance with state and federal laws, and several years worth of education on many subjects most of which are outside their university content knowledge. Teachers are the ultimate life long learner. Teachers are aware of most challenges before they arise, and have a wealth of training and intuition on how to cope when they're thrown the occasional curve ball. (by occasional, I mean every day). Like startup CEO's, teachers need to be intellectually agile while being experts on their content. 

Great Startup CEO's Need to Know how to Negotiate

Part of what makes Startup CEO's different from the CEO's of large companies or organizations is that they have to build the company brand/reputation as they go. I'm not saying the CEO of Apple doesn't need to negotiate, but it's different when no one knows who you are. Teachers deal with this every single year. Although I must say that after teaching for a few years I developed a reputation as the science teacher who "lights stuff on fire."

Teachers need to be able to negotiate with their students, because inevitably an effective teacher doesn't tell a student what they should know. An effective teacher compels the student to take learning into their own hands. They market their lessons like a clever PR/Marketing/Communications team would a new product. You just HAVE to check this out! And the difference is that a teacher is a "Marcomms" team of one. (Sometimes with in class support, SOMETIMES...)

Great Startup CEO's Need to be Bold

Startups are a risky business, it's no secret that most of them fail. Whether a new venture succeeds or fails, they need a bold CEO at the helm to make difficult decisions and a clear vision. Teachers can't step into a classroom until an administrator has assessed what teachers call their, "Philosophy of teaching". And the best teachers mean what they say and say what they mean... even when it's hard. All great teachers inspire honesty, integrity, and tact in their students. These are necessary assets for any leader whether they be in a board room or in a classroom. 

Great Startup CEO's Need to be Innovative

This is where I would actually say teachers have the edge on startup CEO's, innovation. Teachers are subject to changing laws, lessons, curriculums, students, classrooms, books, and core standards (just to name a few). So great teachers need to be innovative in order to be successful. Lesson planning is more similar to a laboratory than an assembly line. Every student has needs, and great teachers differentiate their lessons to meet those needs in measurable, actionable, innovative ways. And they do it 100 or more times a day, everyday. 

Great Startup CEO's Need to be Passionate


This is another area where I feel teachers lead, on passion. Startup CEO's get started with dreams of changing an industry, a market, or even the world. And there are many benefits if the startup CEO achieves any of those things. This is partly what drives the leaders of startup companies, along with the realization of a dream that they probably had themselves (or as a team). Teachers on the other hand, not only get into their profession for the same reasons, to watch their students change industries, markets, or even the world. And they do it most of the time without even being thanked or recognized even once in their career. 

Great Startup CEO's See Failures as Opportunities

"Under promise and over deliver" is often uttered as the mantra of a successful business executive. Although, like any human endeavor, they don't always get it right. I wish I could say that as a teacher I always got it right, but that would mean that I was violating my own classroom social contract. I need to be honest, being wrong is hard, but being wrong about a students needs is worse. Sometimes you don't find out until you get next weeks quizzes back, but innovation has it's cost. Like great startup CEO's, teachers need to be able to take one on the chin, get back on the horse, and use failure as an opportunity to improve your practice.