Four Reasons Why You Should Remember, “It’s the people, stupid.”
Bill is an engineer in a quickly growing firm. Fifteen years ago, he was one of the first hires — back when everyone knew each other well and work had a very informal, collegial feel. Others came to respect Bill for his skills and reliability. He’s personable and seems to keep an even keel when others get ruffled.
As the company grows, it reluctantly builds new layers of management. Bill is always asked to both help define and fill these new positions. He’s recently been named the CEO of the firm. He likes the challenge and is excited about the company’s potential — but he feels torn. Engineers are supposed to be putting in hours engineering.
Sometimes it seems like all of his CEO responsibilities are tied to people stuff. Dealing with turf battles, mediating disagreements, intervening in client issues. People are getting in the way of him being an engineer.
Rebekka was hired as the Chief Operations Officer in a mid-market company. She has a strong background in operations and administration. She’s very efficient, has been effective at increasing safety in the company, improving compliance, and streamlining policies.
Because of her hard work and efficiency, the company has grown its bottom line. A feat in a challenging economy. She has recently succeeded the outgoing CEO, who was very popular and a fatherly figure to many in the company.
She’s excited but realizes she’s moved from being a peer to being the leader of the leadership team. All of whom have been there longer than her. They say they support her, but it still feels awkward. As Rebekka starts to bring some of the same insightfulness, structure, and efficiency to her role as CEO — she notices that her former peers seem a little colder around her. Once she walked into a meeting and they all stopped talking as she entered the room.
She’s not sure why they did that, but now she’s worried that something changed. It’s clear that she isn’t “one of the team” anymore. Maybe they are talking about her behind her back. What do they expect? She hasn’t changed, why have they?
The Expectation and Reality
In high school, I worked in an after school kids programs. In college, I worked with kids in mental health programs. I lived with a young couple who had two of their children while I was with them. I taught high school. I started therapeutic preschools in Kosovo.
I thought I knew about kids. Then I became a parent.
I love being a dad. It’s one of my favorite things. But…I didn’t know what I didn’t know. No amount of exposure or training or observation changed that. If you are a parent — I don’t need to explain. If you aren’t, it won’t help to explain. It’s similar when you become the CEO.
It Changes with Executive Responsibility
As a leader’s responsibility grows, the need for technical skills usually becomes less relevant and the need for people skills increases. Then there is a pivot when you move from being one of a leadership team — to the leader.
The leader: Decision maker. Arbiter. Facilitator. Counselor. Visionary. Mentor…
It seems obvious. But many leaders tend to focus on being the deal makers, or strategy setters, or technical wizards. None of which is really leadership. Leadership, at the very core, is a specific type of relationship. It’s about how one person influences how others interact, organize, and contribute.
Many leaders are constantly surprised and, even frustrated, with how often they are asked to do the above — lead. Deal with people stuff.
Most leadership is about people stuff. Specifically, in these areas:
- Relationships: People want to like, trust, and respect those around them. They want to be liked, trusted, and respected. Sometimes that just happens. Lots of times it doesn’t. Either way, the relational buck has a way of stopping at the executive desk.
- Purpose: People want to feel valued. They want to feel like what they are doing has meaning and purpose. They want to feel like they are contributing. The executive leader has the greatest role and impact in creating a sense of value.
- Clarity: People need clarity. About direction, expectations, roles, responsibilities, deadlines, and more. No one can confuse things or bring about more clarity than the executive.
- Crux Decisions: Management decisions typically follow an equation along the lines of compliance with goals, policy, achieving efficiency, maintaining consistency, etc. Often, with enough consideration, the “right” management decision is fairly evident.
Leadership decisions are frequently “crux” decisions: No clear answer, but important consequences. Or sometimes the answers are clear — but none of them look good. The factor that most frequently makes a decision a “crux” decision — is how it will impact people.
Embrace the People Stuff
Very few trade schools or professional development programs teach about the people stuff. For that matter, very few MBA programs spend much time on it. Because of this, the people stuff of leadership, which (to make up a statistic) will make up 80% or more of your job, is usually an OJT experience. On-the-job training.
Embrace it. If you do, it’ll trigger some of the most profound growth in yourself. And it will allow you to build the kind of momentum with your team and organization that is hard to stop. At the core of each of these “people stuff” questions is a question to ask yourself:
- How can I grow at building relationships with others? Especially with people different than myself?
- What do I need to feel trusted and respected? What do others need?
- Is our work valuable? If so, how do I communicate and reinforce that? If not, what would make it valuable?
- Where does there seem to be confusion or ambiguity? What kind of clarification is needed?
- Have there been any avoided “crux decisions” that we need to tackle? How do we approach making decisions when there is no clear “right” answer? How do we prevent uncertainty from stopping action?
For most leaders, most of these questions are hard to answer. Focus on people stuff: The questions, opportunities, and challenges they present. The process of wrestling through these will help you grow as a leader. Your growth will translate into growth in your team and organization.
Take good care,