True Leadership Prioritizes People

5 minute read

As you might imagine is the case for an executive coaching practice, all our clients are incredibly busy. Ask anyone in corporate leadership to describe their working life, and that is invariably a word they use. However, in the course of discussing all the priorities, projects, tasks, and accounts our clients manage, they also bring up issues relating to the people they lead or hope to lead more often than not. When our conversations take this turn, I often ask, so where are your people on your to-do list?

This question almost always inspires a quizzical look, so I follow with this line of logic:

You have all these things to take care of, yet the vast majority of what managers accomplish is achieved through the work of other people, primarily that of their subordinates. The question I’m posing is, why aren’t these people and your relationships with them on your to-do list, e.g., tending to those relationships, caring about them, and getting to know them?

What we’ve come to see is, when someone gets promoted to management or a higher leadership role, their new responsibilities, tasks, key projects, and strategic initiatives are usually explicitly listed, but what doesn’t get enumerated (and therefore we’ve come to believe is just assumed that someone in a leadership role knows and understands) is, at the top of the list should be the names of each direct report.

In the role of leader, tending to relationships should take precedence over everything else, but the unfortunate reality in the business world is those relationships and the attention it takes to nurture them often get pushed off in favor of completing tasks. This reality is unfortunate because we’ve also seen that completely impersonal relationships at work do not create today’s successful teams or team members. We’re here to state for the record that nurturing relationships and caring for those we would lead are legitimate tasks, too, and they should be the top priority.

We sometimes see people who understand the concept of servant-leadership and also ‘get’ this at an intuitive level. They understand that taking care of those they would lead, whether it’s formally written down or not, is implicitly important. If you were to look at those leaders’ calendars, you’d see many one-on-one appointments with those they lead interspersed throughout. And yes, some of those meetings are tactically transactional, either as one-off items or part of strategies/projects. However, most of the meetings will also have a component that we could call checking in, in which the conversations revolve around how are you doing, how are you feeling, how are things going? The purpose of these discussions is to gauge the subordinate’s level of engagement and their sense of personal alignment with the organization’s direction.

If a subordinate has been around for a while, it may be tempting to believe that they’re ‘good to go’ and don’t need anything from their supervisor. We discourage that kind of thinking, because even the pros can use some guidance and direction every now and again, and even seasoned team members need to know that they are seen and appreciated to keep their engagement and motivation high.

And so we ask our readers today, who (not what) is at the top of your to-do list?

Further, if we went to your direct reports, and confidentially asked them how they felt about your commitment to them, how well you know where they want to go in their career, what your sense of the alignment between their goals and values and the organization’s is—what do you think they’d say?

If you’re nervous that they’d say they don’t think their boss has much of a sense of their career or direction, what impact might we guess that has on their organizational engagement? Their commitment to the organization? Their job satisfaction?

As we’ve noted in the past, having or not having a boss who genuinely cares about us as a person has a substantial impact on our quality of life. If you’ve ever been in a job where your perception was nobody in your organization or company knew much or seemed to care much about you, your goals, the direction of your career, or what really matters to you, then you know it’s a pretty miserable position to be in.

Sometimes, if we really, really like our job, that can be enough to sustain us even in a leadership vacuum. But if our job has gotten boring, or conversely the stress level is off the chart, and we have no perception of someone above us who understands what the quality of our work life is…our engagement is likely lacking and our tenure with the company is probably on a death watch. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you risk your team members being out there on their own, operating in a leadership vacuum?

For this week: What if, at the top of your to-do list, instead of key projects, strategies, transactions or other tasks, there was a list of all your direct reports and/or key relationships? How would that change the way you do your job? How would it change the way you lead?

Where are the people you care about—both professionally and personally—on your to-do list currently? What specifically are you going to be doing with them and for them? Or is that list just something that you carry around in your head? Because the truth is, mental lists are never as important as the one that lives in black and white on your desk.

If you find our articles to be helpful, imagine what one-on-one, individualized coaching could do! Haile Coaching & Leadership helps managers to grow into leaders, and leaders to ascend to the executive level. Whether for yourself or for a subordinate who has leadership potential, Dan’s coaching uses proven strategies to prepare professionals for 21st Century Leadership, because today demands a new kind of leader.