A Better Boss: Management and Leadership for ESL Business Students

A Better Boss
Management and Leadership for ESL Business Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,300 views |

After teaching ESL for twelve years, I felt like a new challenge.

My school was struggling to hire ESL Business teachers, so I volunteered. I’m not trained in business or economics, but I found that a few hours’ research equipped me sufficiently to guide ESL students through the most important topics. Ultimately, it’s just another subject area, like the weather, or sports, or family life, and if you’re looking for a fresh challenge, I encourage you to give it a try.


Many of us dream of being promoted to a higher position one day, and given the additional perks, responsibilities (and, yes, salary) that we deserve. Our students are no different, and especially for those who are headed to an MBA course, a familiarity with some of the basic principles of management will stand them in good stead. This is also a good opportunity to bring out some personal experiences, practice some very useful vocabulary, and discuss our different notions of what makes a good manager.

4 Ideas for Teaching ESL Business Students about Management and Leadership

  1. 1

    Personal Experiences

    This is always a good place to start. Elicit your students’ past experiences with management, be they good, bad, or indifferent. I often find that my students open up well in this exercise, as there’s no need to name names and they feel they’re speaking among friends. Admittedly, many of the comments are complaints about poor management, so you may need to steer the discussion back toward good examples of executive behavior and style.

    Some interesting cultural aspects might emerge, too. Try to elicit whether your students’ companies or departments employ a hierarchical system, or a flatter, more ‘democratic’ approach, and see if this ties in with expectations based on where your students are from, and their belief systems. For example, the Japanese and Chinese models are sometimes seen as heavily top-down in nature, relying on a level of conformity and unquestioning obedience which would be considered unusual in the west; try to find out if this is really the case.

  2. 2

    Definitions and Diagrams

    The initial discussion will have thrown up some useful vocabulary; add to this now by eliciting some of the different styles of manager:

    Vocab: Motivator, mediator, leader, problem-solver, monitor, decision-maker, friend, organize, role model, chief, demagogue, autocrat, tyrant, benefactor, sponsor, mentor

    Go on to discuss the different corporate structures found around the world:

    Hierarchy / Chain of Command: The classic top-down model with a small, well-remunerated leadership and a large body of ‘workers’, perhaps in different departments, each with their own leader.

    Functional Structure: Organized purely by the role of each department; lacks a strong, single authority figure, but might have a number of senior department heads running each element.

    Flat Structure: Co-operative and forward thinking, this structure emphasizes equality and encourages everyone to contribute on an equal footing. Ideas can come from anywhere (not just from the top) and meetings are run more democratically, with time for everyone to express an opinion.

    Matrix Structure: A more complex organizational model, where employees report to multiple middle-managers.

    Diagrams of these structures will really help. To check understanding, draw a rough diagram of the structure on the board – one which is quite different from your initial example, but still follows the same principle – and ask your students to identify which structure it represents. I also like to include a listening element here, describing the structure of a company and eliciting the label. Conversely, provide a description of the structure and ask your students to create a corresponding diagram. Elicit the names of departments – R&D, Quality Control, Media, Personnel / HR, etc.

  3. 3

    Management Tactics

    If you’re working with more advanced trainees, you might bring in the ideas of Maslow (with his famous ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’) and how those ideas were developed by McGregor into his popular ‘Theory X’ and ‘Theory Y’. Admittedly, this approach is showing its age, but a lot of management textbooks still include it.

    Briefly, it claims that workers are either inherently lazy and require strong supervision (Theory X) or they are self-starting, creative people who will achieve much if offered the right incentives (Theory Y). Happily, McGregor concedes that there is a spectrum of behavior between these two extremes, and encourages managers to understand their workers in order to place them correctly on this spectrum. This, in turn, allows the creation of policies which get the best from the manager’s staff.

    You could also take a look at Google’s ‘blue sky’ 20% policy (abandoned in 2013, but since emulated by Apple, among others), which encourage employees to spend a percentage of their time on projects which don’t relate to their core function. This has resulted in ceaseless innovation, and is a model apt for emulation in other fields.

  4. 4

    Practicing Management Methods

    ESL Business textbooks often offer realistic scenarios for practicing their main concepts, and I like to build on this material by creating some of my own. For the management module of my course, I bring in some decision-making tasks which revolve around choosing a management style and approach in a given situation. Here are some contexts which have worked well:

    • The New Hire. Senior management discuss the selection of a new middle-manager to head a department; they choose form four seemingly equally qualified candidates based on how the new hire might fit into the existing corporate philosophy.
    • The Scandal. Management decides how the company might best recover from a scandal. How can they shore up morale while ensuring the crisis doesn’t happen again?
    • The Demoralized Staff. The company’s workers are depressed by some bad news, or perhaps by the looming threat of job losses in a tight economy. How can management soften this blow and begin to build up the workers’ spirit once more?
    • The New Competitor. An upstart is threatening the company’s market share. How can management encourage innovation and productivity from the workforce, to meet this new threat?
    • The Big Launch. A new product is almost ready to launch. How can management get the best from its workers during this critical time, and ensure that the launch is punctual, successful and within budget?

Posing realistic challenges like these can help to consolidate the vocabulary and concepts which are necessary for a good grounding in management theory and practice.

As in many business-related topics, this material can feel rather dry and academic, and I find that after quickly presenting and practicing the vocabulary, jumping straight into some realistic scenarios adds some spice and relevance to the practice.

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