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Are Your Leaders Good at Leading People?

People Leaders

This is a bit of a preposterous opener. Your instinctive response might be, “Of course our leaders are good at leading people Colin! We’re confident our leaders who are entrusted with the careers and well-being of a team are willing and conscious people leaders. That’s why we chose them.”  

But are they? Really? 

Reluctant Leaders  

In almost every organization, there are smart and highly capable individuals who are ineffective and unwilling people leaders. Their path to this critical role was likely through a series of moderately conscious decisions or assumptions without a plan, training, or even a substantive conversation about what being a people leader involves. They were never set up to succeed because the organization assumed their functional expertise would seamlessly translate into people leadership expertise. In effect, they were sent to the metaphorical construction job site without the right tools, or sometimes even an expressed desire to swing a hammer! 

The Stakes are High  

While it sounds cliché, a great team culture is built upon the core people management and development fundamentals that exist within an organization. In today’s distributed workplace, there’s a clear imperative for employee engagement and retention and building a great employer brand. The core people practices for leaders (and the consistent application of those practices) are a big deal. And the lowest performance by any people leader will have a deflating effect on the entire organization, sucking the air out of the team and transforming itself into toxic stories, distracting narratives, and employee wariness that impact productivity and team health. 

Well-intended organizations often have a strong commitment to promote team members into people leader roles, ensuring team sizes and the ratio between direct reports and managers are balanced and sustainable. We love that! But it also requires people leaders to be grounded in the core skills and mindset of being a people leader. This is especially true for technical experts who may not have the relational and human-centric attributes or learning required to be a successful people leader.  

What compounds the problem is the dysfunctional belief that the only way to progress in a career path is to be a people leader. This is limiting for those who would make an active and conscious choice to be a valuable individual contributor instead of leading people. At Electronic Arts, where I spent the biggest tranche of my career, there were defined and rewarding career paths for both. Those next-level individual contributors and craft leaders are vital to the team for a multitude of reasons. What a shame if these real-life unicorns, who make an active and informed choice not to be people leaders, feel like they can’t be game-changers and reap the praise and rewards they deserve.  

Embracing the Tectonic Mindset Shift 

A recent coaching conversation with a new people leader underscored the shift required to step into leadership. The client shared statements like, “I don’t feel like I get any work done anymore.” As we explored, it was evident this person was spending more and more time supporting their team, clearing blockers and barriers, reviewing plans, providing feedback, and building alignment with other leaders across the business. For this person, this work felt as fulfilling as a dry rice cracker for dinner. 

The tectonic mindset shift required to be a people leader is from the individual contributor mindset to the leader mindset. Unlocking capability of others and creating value through the entire team’s performance impact becomes the prize. And if that’s not a valued prize for the individual, they’ll never get the good feels and brain endorphins from seeing their team achieve more and more. 

Four Essential Indicators of Effective People Leaders  

So, what do we look for in a people leader? How would we know they have the desire and capability to take on the responsibility of leading others?  

We offer four essentials that are part of the Leadership DNA and indicators of capable and committed people leaders: 

  1. Value the Relationship Over the Transaction 

Relationships are at the heart of leadership. They are the foundation upon which trust, communication, and collaboration are built.  A people leader must hold the mindset that relationships are how the work gets done, especially with the people they lead. They don’t get caught up in just being a through-point for transactions and to-do’s but see the need to invest in the relationship with their team to be the aquifer of team performance. They also know that being a people leader means being a good listener who is constantly working to improve this competency. 

  1. Purposeful 1:1s

The connective tissue of any manager/employee relationship is the 1:1 meeting. A consistent, forward-focused weekly connect where the employee does way more talking than the manager are green lights towards progress. These meetings are a dedicated container for coaching and feedback, and a space where expectations and What Good Looks Like can be established. Most important, a 1:1 is when as a leader you can really understand what’s going on with each team member through honest and vulnerable conversation. Smart organizations equip people leaders with a playbook on what great 1:1s looks like.   

  1. Care About the Careers of Others

The most important charge of a people leader is to unlock the potential of their people. That’s it. The heightened requirement for today’s workers to maximize their learning and personal development only amplifies this charge. A capable people leader is constantly investing in the growth and development of their people and carries this responsibility with pride. They want their team to know they are about their future, and they are a visible partner in helping them get towards great outcomes. 

  1. Have the Courageous Conversations

No free lunch here! People leaders need to have the backbone and confidence to have courageous conversations relative to performance, behaviours, and upholding standards and culture. If you’re not willing to go into the “greasy corners” and provide the feedback that’s needed, then you’ll never be fully expressed as a people leader. It also means having your team’s back and protecting them from personal attacks or other toxic behaviours within the organization. 

The gut check for an organization is to build conscious leaders by ensuring their people leaders are willing participants in this leadership journey and are equipped with the tools and support to succeed.  

Are your current leaders willing participants?  

Do your people leaders know What Good Leadership Looks Like in your organization? 

What tools and learning do you provide to ensure your people practices come to life? 


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