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5 Habits of People-Centric Leaders

Leaders: people-centric leadership

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to leaders about how they run their teams and businesses.

I’ve noticed something interesting in these discussions: Even though there’s universal agreement that business success is centered around finding the right people, many leaders take a data-centric approach to running their team.

Over the course of two-plus decades as CEO, I myself have evolved toward a more human-centered style of leading that values good data but doesn’t prioritize it over people. With my background in engineering, I once assumed that most business problems could be solved with enough available data and some logical thinking. But I’ve learned that a Spock-like, numbers-driven approach doesn’t work, at least now that we’re out of the manufacturing era. Today, success in leadership and management starts with people-focus.

And in the age of COVID-19, with distributed teams, high stress levels, and an uncertain future, the mandate to put people before data is more vital than ever.

Here are five habits of leaders who value people over data (nothing against data, of course). These habits have gone a long way toward helping me build great teams and operate several successful businesses.

1. People-centric leaders communicate the vision and the story first. 

The data-centric leader has trouble prioritizing what his team should focus on. If he can measure something, he’s going to not only measure it but measure it constantly. The result is an ocean of reports and metrics—and a lack of clarity around what it all means, a lack of a unifying purpose. Meanwhile, humans are treated like proverbial cogs in the machine. But who cares, as long as we’re tracking the numbers?

The people-centric leader takes a very different approach. She starts with a clearly articulated vision and story about what the team is trying to achieve. Only then does she carefully select a few key metrics for the team to focus on and track. She understands that without that context, raw data means much less, and can even be misleading.

We humans are drawn to stories. We want to know what the team is trying to do on a big-picture level. We want to know why it matters—how it intersects with the narratives of our own lives and the lives of others. And we want to know who all is involved.

The people-centric leader communicates this information clearly, placing humans at the center of the narrative.

And don’t think that your team has to be preserving the rainforest or saving whales for you to have a great vision and story. Simply showing employees how their work connects with the company’s broader purpose, and how their work makes a difference to internal or external customers, is plenty to give them a sense of purpose.

Leading a team well always involves tracking a few well-chosen metrics and data points. But it does not start with metrics and data. It starts with vision and story.

2. People-centric leaders don’t just look at data—they ask the right questions. 

Data-centric leaders tend to seek answers in spreadsheets and reports. Whether they realize it or not, they think that as the leader, it’s up to them to use their brilliance to discover the insights inside all the data they track.

But they forget the richest source of insight any leader has: actually talking to employees.

The people-centric approach involves talking with people, in casual and formal situations, and especially asking them for their unique insights and perspectives. What can employees tell you about the future? What issues do they see from their vantage point? What do they think the team can do to keep things on track? The questions that unlock human insight—often the kind of information that has material relevance to future business performance—are endless.

Weekly 1-on-1s are a good time to ask these questions. Find a whole range of questions to ask in MGR360’s 1-on-1 Meeting Cards.

3. People-centric leaders make hiring their responsibility. 

No leader will tell you that hiring the right people isn’t important. Nevertheless, data-centric leaders often act that way. They hire reactively, seeking to fill empty positions rather than find talented humans who will drive results. They scan resumés seeking to check all the right boxes (the right alma mater, the right number of years of experience, the exact right titles).

Contrast that with the people-centric leader, who’s always on the lookout for individuals who can bring significant value to the organization—regardless of whether there’s a position open or whether the candidate has precisely the “right” credentials.

She acknowledges that hiring is a strategic priority, not an admin function. And she sees her team as a dynamic collection of individuals with its own culture and collective strengths. She realizes that it’s her responsibility to keep this team full of the best and the brightest people out there.

4. People-centric leaders know who their key employees are. 

All leaders would like every single person on their team to be an A-player. But the reality is that you’ll have A’s, B’s, and unfortunately the occasional C on your team. Especially when you lead multiple teams or a whole department, understanding exactly who your key top performers are is imperative. Those are the people who you need to work hardest on retaining. Those are the people who should be on your mind when you make a decision that affects the team.

The people-centric leader can name the very best employees on his team or teams, even when those teams are large. And these aren’t guesses: the leader has done the work of fairly and consistently examining the performance of his employees. He knows each employee’s responsibilities, record of performance, career aspirations and motivators, and contribution to the cultural dynamic.

This knowledge cannot be encapsulated in a set of numbers—though the data-centric leader certainly tries. He’ll often use overcomplicated forced-ranking systems or 30-point evaluations to try to identify top performers. Unfortunately, the employees who are best at manipulating these systems are usually not the actual top performers.

5. People-centric leaders understand the importance of good management. 

Finally, people-centric leaders know that good management is a rare and under-appreciated art. For years, I’ve been dismayed at the common practice of glorifying “leadership” at the expense of “management,” as encapsulated in the mantras that call us to “stop managing and start leading!”

By contrast, the smart leader knows that leadership and management are equally important, and equally about people. While leadership is about influencing people to willingly follow your direction, management is about making decisions about things you control based on your position—and all of those decisions are deeply people-focused:

• Who you hire

• What they do

• What their goals are

• How much they make

• Where they sit

• What team meetings and processes look like

People-focused leaders take great care with these management decisions, understanding how they affect people on a human level. Leadership—the vision-setting, the example-setting, the influencing and inspiration—is an invaluable tool, but it’s not inherently more valuable than the tool of good people management.

This year and beyond, leaders who focus on people first are the ones who will outpace their competitors. Mastering these five habits is a great place to start.

Picture of Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel has learned the value of great managers over a quarter century serving as CEO of both public and private companies. As CEO and cofounder of NetQoS, a network management software firm, he delivered 31 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth and a $200 million valuation. In 2010, Joel cofounded Cache IQ, a storage software company that NetApp acquired two years later. He is the author of two books, The CEO Tightrope and The Manager’s Tightrope—a complete guide to the manager’s role. He currently serves as CEO of Khorus, a company he founded to provide a business management system for chief executives.

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