Leadership Involves Ice Cream Parties And Dollar Store Prizes

Here’s a leadership post by one of my favorite people on the planet. My former personal assistant Marybeth Fortner. Marybeth specializes in making people amazing! As a leaders, there is a lot we can learn from leading youth. You can guest post as well! Read how to here.

Over the years, I have made many changes to my piano studio and to how I teach. Some of those adjustments have come about because of lessons learned from EntreLeadership.

For example, I have started offering incentives. I have a chart for each of my piano students. On each chart are eight categories, ranging from tempo and fingering to practicing the required amount.

Each week, students can earn a sticker for each category that they have done well in or made noticeable improvement from the prior lesson. After 36 stickers, my younger students earn a prize from the dollar store. My older students with longer lessons have a different challenge. They have to earn 120 stickers. They then get to invite a friend to their next piano lesson, where they enjoy ice cream sundaes and give a mini recital.

So, besides giving me the reputation as the cool piano teacher, what does this chart actually DO?

It shows the student what he/she is good or bad at.

I have one particular piano student who plays everything at one volume. Week after week, her chart reflects it. Her fingering, notes and tempo are often perfect. Over several weeks, she can see a pattern emerge of exactly what she does well, poorly or inconsistently.

It shows correlation between effort and improvement.

Students soon learn if the “practiced required amount” box is empty, usually many of the other boxes will be empty, too. When they don’t practice, they don’t improve. When they don’t improve, they don’t get a sticker.

It gives the student a goal.

At first, my students just accepted the stickers as part of the “end of lesson” routine. But soon, most of them started asking, “How many do I have altogether?” or “How many more do I need before I get my prize?” We started a running tally on the side. What I found interesting is that the closer the student was to reaching their goal, the harder they worked for it.

It shows the student that every week is a new week. 

You did great this week? Awesome! But that won’t earn stickers for next week. You did poorly this week? Too bad. But next week is a fresh start.

It shows the student that no matter how badly a particular week went, there is still something that was done well.

No one has EVER left without a sticker. I had a 6-year-old who was so incredibly disappointed that she only earned three stickers. She normally earns seven or eight. But, she’s 6. I was able to say, “Look, you did some things well, right?” So, all is not lost. She  worked SO much harder the next week.

It allows me to know if the student really gets it.

I will often ask the student “Do you deserve a sticker for …?” Some students are too hard on themselves. If they aren’t perfect, they believe they are undeserving – even if they made immense progress. I try to guide these students to look at the chart in terms of progress, not perfection. Other students believe that they did everything to perfection. That tells me that I need to work with the student on actually listening to what they are playing as they play.

Whether a 6-year-old, an older student or even an adult, I’ve learned that everyone needs recognition. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to do it. By simply letting them know that they are doing a good job or giving them a goal to work towards, the sky’s the limit. You’ll be amazed at their progress and how much more you’ll love your job.

Question: How can you take this type of recognition and use it with your team? 



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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

73 thoughts on “Leadership Involves Ice Cream Parties And Dollar Store Prizes”

  1. Awesome post Marybeth! My first thought as I read was, how refreshing to see someone teaching kids that accountability and results ARE important. It gets so frustrating seeing the entitlement and everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude!
    Next, I think accountability and regular performance reviews are beneficial in any setting. It seems like people are afraid this will come off as overbearing, but as your example has shown, if done with love and a focus on improvement, almost everyone will appreciate the experience.
    Thanks for your insight!

    1.  @Skropp It’s funny, because this was initially set up to be for the younger kids.  However, one day, one of my 9 year old boys looked at me and asked “can I get a report card?”  Let me tell you – I was like “what?!? I’ve never known a kid to want a report card!”  But what he was asking was “How am I doing? Am I meeting expectations? Am I doing okay?”  It wasn’t clear to him.  So I showed him the sticker chart for the younger kids and he TOTALLY wanted to be a part of it.  Now he knows where he stands on a week to week basis. 
      And the truth is, even as an adult, I want that in some fashion.  If Chris had never communicated to me expectations and/ or I had no way to measure success, I would have been so frustrated! 

      1. @MaryBeth It’s like that song from the great theatrical masterpiece “10 Things I Hate About You”…”I want you to want me, I need you to need me, I’d love you to love me”
        We all crave that kind of affirmation, and we will give anything for and be loyal to those that do.
        (wow, I can’t believe I referenced a 90’s chick flick…haha)

        1.  @Skropp  Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone… But WOW – I LOVED that movie back in the day! 

        2.  @ChrisLoCurto  @Skropp No, I didn’t.  But I would have.  I TOTALLY should have known you owned it.  That and Anne of Green Gables.  You’re such a girl!

        3. @MaryBeth I’ll admit, it was pretty good. But I always had to make sure a girl was present when I watched it…you know, plausible deniability and all….

    1.  @JoelFortner Ah – YOU don’t need a sticker chart!  You’re awesome  without one!!   But, now that you mention it… *insert evil laugh here*  I love it.  You WILL have one by day’s end, my friend!  AND the pup too!!!  (Of course – she’s the one who REALLY needs it.

        1.  @JoelFortner Dang it!  Manipulated again!  *sigh*  Too late – it’s already made.  And since it refers to me as beautiful, wonderful, and lovely, it’s not like I’m going to delete it.  It’s a masterpiece. 

        2. @ChrisLoCurto @JoelFortner …and our fearless leader makes a comment. I was just thinking that you were conspicuously missing from the convo today…

  2. I was thinking as I read this how amazingly thought out this entire process is with all the side benefits that result.  However, the last sentence was a great twist, “You’ll be amazed at ….. how much more you’ll love your job”.  This is key to all the leaders who are frustrated with their team.  Leaders who guide individuals or teams to win benefit as well, whether its being the “cool piano teacher” or the coach doused with Gatorade.  Sounds like you are building character in these students as well.  Great Job.

    1.  @TroyD Thanks, Troy!  Building character in them is definitely an important goal to me.  A few of them may make a career out of music, but I hope all of them will learn life lessons that will change them for the better.

  3. Great post. I like the idea of defining success with the eight categories on the sticker chart, as it gives the student clear direction to achieve something. The “usual” way of teaching is a burden by comparison, in that it simply tells the student to “do good.” I’m trying to think how my childhood would have been ruined if my parents told me as a preschooler that their one expectation for me was to graduate college and get a job, rather than simply getting me excited for Kindergarten. 
    Dan Heath (the other — possibly taller depending on the hair — side of the Inc. event yesterday) spoke on this idea in regards to leading change. He presented the idea that if you had a list with two items, buy batteries and file taxes, that you would likely buy the batteries because its easy and put off taxes because it seems insurmountable. If you broke the file taxes side down into simpler directions (get a number to call, call the number) that the process would be easier. Same thing with learning.
    As leaders or teachers, it would seem that you can take people farther by giving them simple, attainable directions, and getting them excited about things they can achieve. 

    1.  @Jonathan Henry I like that: “teachers and leaders need to give people simple, attainable directions, and get them excited about things they can achieve.”  This is good stuff. 

    2.  @Jonathan Henry I LOVE this – particularly the part about the insurmountable tasks.  Even those eight categories can seem a bit vague and overwhelming to a kid sometimes.  So I help guide them set mini goals that they can do that week.  Example:  I have a student who has started “Fur Elise” (dreadful song!).  But it’s a BIG project for her.  So each week she sets 2 – 3 small goals to accomplish in it. Last week she had two lines of the song that she was really struggling with.  She decided that she’d perfect one line.  And she did it.
      I think it’s the same for businesses.  As leaders, we guide the vision and the big picture.  But the team members (or students in my case) can say “This is how I can contribute and make a difference.  This is what I can work on.”  They can break things down into smaller – and attainable – goals that fit into the vision.

      1. @MaryBeth @Jonathan Henry Great points Marybeth! I like how you don’t just set goals for your students, rather you identify key areas of competence and then allow them to set their own goals (with your counsel, I’m sure) for the week.
        Allowing individuals to set their own goals will lead to greater buy in and increased enthusiasm for completing task

    3. @Jonathan Henry You know, that is so true. A great example recently in my life has been the Total Money Makeover. I just picked it up a couple weeks ago. I’ve known I needed to get rid of all my debt since I first got it, and I’ve tried. But it was such a huge task that every time I tried I’d quickly give up. Because Dave has broken down the process into smaller, maneageable steps not only do we see a way to success, we’re excited to do it!
      The same method could probably be found in all great teachers…

    4.  @Jonathan Henry  Breaking down massive processes into attainable tasks is definitely key.  And I agree about getting people excited about what they can achieve.  Good stuff!!  And thanks for being a great representative of The Blog at the event yesterday!

  4. MariannaGibson

    I love how “piano,” “students,” and “stickers” are linked to Wikipedia.
    I want to take piano lessons from MB just for the stickers + ice cream! Oh my goodness, that is how her child will be bribed it’s whole life!

  5. MariannaGibson

    I love how “piano,” “students,” and “stickers” are linked to Wikipedia.
    I want to take piano lessons from MB just for the stickers + ice cream! Oh my goodness, that is how her child will be bribed it’s whole life!

    1. @MariannaGibson See! It works. You just read about her system and you wanna learn!!
      I know my wife bribes me with food all the time! Haha

    2.  @MariannaGibson Girl, you come visit me and I’ll just give you ice cream for the fun of it.  The stickers you’ll have to work for though.

  6. Wow! This is so cool! You’re totally right Marybeth – people of all ages need and require recognition. You’ve got me thinking now of how I’m going to implement this. With my team, I’m not too sure yet. But with the Business people who take English courses with us, I totally see applications. Being able to provide intervals where students get ‘power up’ feelings and experiences as they study is key for ongoing engagement and motivation. Tests and getting good grades is simply not enough. 
    Thanks for jumpstarting my thinking on this today! 

    1. @Aaron Nelson You know Aaron, when I read the post I could totally see the application for your business and knew you’d be implementing some version of it! This blog is like the sharing time we had in preschool or kindergarten…

      1.  @Skropp  @Aaron LOL You got that right man! I wonder, do you think that a colorful e-mail that celebrates a student success would do the trick? (I don’t think I could bring a sticker chart into a corp. training room.) Thoughts?

        1.  @Aaron Nelson  @Skropp  @Aaron You can create a “digital sticker chart” that looks more sophisticated to the corporate students.  Show their progress in conversation skills, writing, comprehension and so on… You can highlight individual accomplishments and group achievements too.  In my Toastmasters club they give out “Best Table Topics” awards to someone who did well on an impromptu speech at each meeting.  It’s just a ribbon, but you can pin it on your cube to show off the accomplishment.  Grown-ups like “stickers” too!   If they did REALLY well,  do a drawing for a “Fivebucks” gift card. They’ll like that too!

        2.  @Aaron Nelson  @Skropp  @Aaron Ha… my adult students say they don’t want a sticker chart.  Personally, I think that they secretly do and are just embarrassed to admit it.  LOL

        3. @Aaron Nelson @Aaron You know, as an on going thing, you probably can’t. But when you introduced the program to track the progress, I think I WOULD bring in a sticker chart. I think it’d be a great visual for them to remember. And just say you’re doing the same thing as teachers in a classroom do, for the same reasons: to track progress, identify areas to focus on, and realize that we ARE improving and we ARE getting closer to accomplishing our goals.

        4. Embarassed about stickers but boast about ousting someone as “mayor” on Foursquare of your local Starbucks.  Yes, that’s sooooo much more sophisticated!!!  (insert sarcasm.)

        5.  @JoelFortner Right on. “Achievements” and “Trophies” basically saved, and now define console video gaming (for kids AND adults). Two systems that have it (Xbox, Playstation) have longstanding success, while the one that doesn’t (Wii) is floundering for the first time in decades. 

  7. Great post.  Really gets my wheels turning on how these principles might be implemented in my world. I know I’d have to start with a more manly selection of stickers 🙂
    We are often afraid that posting measurable things might be a discouragement when in fact I think you are proving the opposite.  Most of us love to win, even if its at filling up a piece of paper with stickers.  Thanks for the post.

    1. @Domerskee You’re exactly right! The principles are the same. Accountability helps us see areas in need of improvement, recognition and incentive keep us going so we don’t give up!

    2.  @Domerskee Fear of measurement is so common.  It takes a level of maturity and confidence to measure pretty much anything meaningful, especially personal performance.  The thing is measuring tends to cause people to improve and grow and build confidence.  People just need to get over the fear hurdle.

      1.  @JoelFortner  @Domerskee FEAR OF MEASUREMENT!  Wow – that is why my team has HATED the scorecard we implemented where the files they turn in are actually “scored” – it is the fear of measurement…..

  8. Love this post! It’s so close to my heart as a teacher, a mom and a leader.  I do the sticker chart with my four-year-old daughter to help her sleep in her own bed (as opposed to mom and dad’s bed).  She gets a prize from the dollar store after five stickers and she gets to control when she wants them.  She even says, “I don’t want a sticker tonight, I just want to sleep with you.”  She chooses comfort over the prize and that’s OK with us too.   She is learning to weigh the consequences of her choices.
    When I worked as a teacher, I tried to use the incentive system too, helping my students visualize their goals and their progress.  It really helped to focus on strengths and not weaknesses.  Usually, when they improved in one area, they improved on the others too.
    Just yesterday we were at a team meeting at work and it was mentioned that we will be focusing more on performance-driven evaluations in the near future.  One team member said “But we give 110% to our work now! Isn’t that enough?”   Then I joked and said what I read in a cartoon in John Maxwell’s Five Levels of Leadership “We give 40%  on Monday, 30% on Tuesday, 20% on Wednesday, 15% on Thursday and 5% on Friday.”   People may feel they work really hard, but if the goals and key result areas are not “visible” on the chart, they don’t know how many stickers their work is worth every week.

    1.  @lilykreitinger OHHHHH  that’s well put Lily! Hauling out my stapler (Err…what was that forehead friendly sticker thing you told me about yesterday?) Hehehe.  But I’m saving this for later!!! Great insight! 
      And kids and their beds: have you ever watched Nanny 911? They’ve saved us many times! 

    2. @lilykreitinger Lily, THANK YOU for the example of your daughter. Our daughter is 3 1/2 and think she needs to be in our bed every night too. I’m totally sharing your system with my wife!!

    3.  @lilykreitinger “She is learning to weigh the consequences of her choices.”  LOVE that. 
      I have a student who has not practiced consistently since she started.  And her sticker chart shows it.  A few weeks ago, she started getting so frustrated that “the ice cream party is sooooo far away”.  She blamed her parents for not making her practice.  (HA – as if THAT would fly with me.  LOL)  So we talked about it.   I can’t go home with her and make her practice, and clearly, she thinks her parents are not going to help her.  So what are HER choices?  Is she going to practice?  Is she going to work on learning her notes better?  Is she going to….? 
      The last two lessons, while not completely different have shown a bit more improvement.  I showered her with praise for making great choices and then sent her home to make even more good choices. I love that she’s learning that how she does in piano is based on HER choices.

      1.  @MaryBeth  @lilykreitinger
         LOVE “She is learning to weigh the consequences of her choices” too! Some parents don’t see the learning opportunities they could have for their children.
        Lily, I love that you’re letting her learn “consequences” to her own choices at four, before the potentially life-altering choices kick in down the road.

  9. MaryBeth – I am very interested to compare notes with you regarding your music instruction business.  I own a music school and we have just begun implementing EntreLeadership principles over the past year.  My goal for the beginning of this coming school season (August) is to take my instructor team’s organization and goal setting to the next level.  I particularly want to implement systems where, regardless of the varying resources and teaching methods used, each instructor helps students set and track goals and follow up with rewards.  Your system is inspiring!
    One big question – how do you apply these principles to older students?  We have quite a few teenage and adult students.  They need all of these same things to reinforce their learning, but stickers and sundaes may not be as motivating.
    Are you the sole instructor in your studio?  What resources do you use?

    1.  @efosterw First, thanks!  I’m glad that this has been helpful!!
      Second, it sounds like you have a team of instructors.  I would get together with them sooner rather than later and get their input on what they have done recently or in the past and see how it’s worked.  Ask them for their ideas on what they would like to try.  Their buy in (which you may already have) will be so important for this to be successful.  A brainstorming meeting may come up with a TON of ideas.
      Third, thanks to this really awesome marketing coach I happen to be married to, @JoelFortner , I have narrowed down my target audience to beginners.  I do really enjoy my adult beginners, but I love, love, love my elementary age beginners.  So I honestly don’t have a lot of insight about teens. 
      Fourth, with my adult students, I let them choose the music they want to learn.  I have only had students come to me who want to learn for personal enjoyment.  My philosophy?  They aren’t trying to make a career out of this.  They want to play some songs for themselves or family.  So why, why, why do piano teachers force them to use some curriculum with horrid and boring songs in it???  A good teacher should be able to notes, rhythm, articulation, etc from other songs. As long as the songs are EASY enough, let the students pick what they want to play.  I’ve found that has been motivating enough.  (Again – as long as it’s easy enough.  If it takes weeks and weeks to learn a song, they lose interest.)
      I have a lot of blogs that I follow that you may find useful/ inspiring.  Feel free to email me at MaryBethsPianoStudio@gmail.com and I’ll send you more info. 

      1.  @MaryBeth Thanks so much for your thorough reply!  I’ll email you do continue the discussion 🙂

  10. Shoot, I’d be motivated to do better at my job if ice cream was a prize! 😉 (just kidding!)
    How many students do you have? I would think it’d be difficult to remember which ones improved compared to the previous week….

    1.  @Laura Johnson  I have 16 students.  They each have an assignment book.  Each week, we write down what the specific goals for that week are. That way I don’t have to worry about remembering every single thing from every single lesson. 

  11. This has just been something that has always concerned me. Personally, however, i love shopping at the Dollar store, i can purchase a bunch of small necessities for my home there but this question is always on the back of my mind.

  12. I was thinking as I read this how insanely thought out this entire process is with all the side benefits that result.  However, the last sentence was a very awesome twist, “You’ll be amazed at ….. how much more you’ll love your job”.  This is key to all the role models who are frustrated with their team.

  13. I think the way you are measuring their progress – their efforts – their achievements – is really brilliant!  It is a scorecard for the activity.  I think the “no practice, no improvement” could be the grade given to business sales professionals!  When people do not “practice” their craft – there is no improvement!  Great post – thanks for sharing!

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