People, Expense or Investment?

There are two distinct mindsets in business today with regards to the people who make up an organization. One mindset, the one I’ll call a managerial mindset says that people are an expense. The other mindset, the one I’ll call a leadership mindset says that people are an investment. 

The difference between those two mindsets is huge!

Let’s say you’re currently occupying a leadership position and you have a team member who isn’t quite getting the job done. If you think to yourself you’re going to have to “spend time on” that person to get them up to speed then you likely have a managerial mindset.

On the other hand let’s say you see that same person. If you think to yourself I’m going to “invest time with” that person to help get them achieve their potential then you have a leadership mindset. 

Your mindset will affect every single interaction you have with your people. 

That’s because we almost instinctively manage expenses. The thought “spend time on” indicates you see people as an expense. Even if only subconsciously. Your people will pick up on that mindset and respond accordingly. They will act as an expense, someone merely hired to be a cog in the wheel. They will resist being the asset that they could be, even if only subconsciously. 

If you see your people as an expense then you will try to manage them. That will cause YOU enormous issues. Do you understand what that means? It means if you have personnel issues then your mindset towards your people is likely the biggest cause.  

When you have a leadership mindset your thoughts regarding people tend to be much more on the “invest time with” side. You realize people can’t be managed, they must be led. That mindset helps you to care about your people. You realize that your success as a leader is completely dependent upon the success of your people. 

Your people will pick up on that mindset and respond accordingly. They will see themselves as someone who brings value to the organization. They will understand that what they do matters and they will commit to do it to the best of their ability. They will give a 100% effort because they know you are committed to them and they will respond with a commitment of their own. 

There are no documented instances of organizations that saw their people as an expense succeeding long term. There are however well documented instances of companies that were in business a long time “adapting” their thinking to one of “people are an expense.” Their demise soon followed. 

By the way, if you’re wondering why a company would suddenly change to a “people are an expense” philosophy I have a one word explanation for you. Consultant! Actually that’s not fair, most consultants are firmly on the “people are an investment” side. It’s the big consulting firms who promote the “people are an expense” concept. They encourage companies to save money by cutting people expenses. They also encourage you to pay them a substantial percentage of that “savings.” 

If you’re in a leadership position then you should know that your first investment must be in your people. New people, young people, experienced people are all worthy investments. Those investments provide a near guaranteed ROI for your organization. 

If your plan to make money includes cutting expenses by cutting people then you should know that’s very short term thinking. You should also know that short term thinking never leads to long term success.

When Leaders Don’t Listen

It’s great to work with a leader who knows a lot. It’s absolutely terrible to work for a leader who knows it all. 

I want you to pay particular to the wording of those two sentences. When a leader knows a lot they work WITH their people to create an environment of growth and success. When a leader knows it all they tend to be far more “boss” like than leader like. They don’t work with their people, they expect their people to work FOR them. 

Leaders who believe they already know it all don’t listen to their people. They don’t need to because the only reason anyone actually listens is to learn something. When you have nothing to learn you have no need to listen. 

It’s bad for anyone not to listen. The most successful people learn something new almost every single day. Much of what they learn they learn by listening. When people in leadership positions don’t listen the results can be disastrous. 

Leaders who don’t listen demoralize their people. Leaders who don’t listen have no way of knowing how to help their people stay motivated. Leaders who don’t listen have no way of showing their people that they care. Leaders who don’t listen will never earn the commitment of their people. 

Leaders who don’t listen have to rely on compliance instead of commitment. They will need to try and force productivity out of their people. They may eventually get some work out of them but the quality and quantity of that work will be less than idea.

Compliance will never take an organization and it’s people to the places where commitment can go. 

It is nearly impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator. But leaders who don’t listen think communication is only about talking. So they talk and talk and talk. They tell people what to think, they tell them how to think it, and they tell them when to think it. 

Communication is also about listening. In fact, communication is mostly about listening. 

Leaders who do listen give themselves a chance to learn. They give themselves the opportunity to receive information from multiple sources and break it down into actionable tasks. 

Leaders who practice the art of listening receive feedback on their own performance as well as unbiased input about the performance of all members of their team. It allows them to create a truly inclusive organization based on performance not favoritism. 

Leaders who are willing to listen learn exactly how to show their people that they care about them. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their people and they find positions for them where they can succeed. 

Hearing is a gift from God but listening is a choice. Authentic Leaders make the choice to listen to their people, to their customers, to anyone who might help them lead even a little better. 

Have you made the choice to listen? If not it’s a simple choice, just look in the mirror and tell the person looking back that they have a lot to learn. Then start talking less and listening more because when it comes to listening one thing is certain…. if you’re talking then you’re most certainly NOT listening. 

Frustrated Followers

I’ve been fortunate for the vast majority of my career to work for and with leaders who were Authentic Leaders. They cared for their people, they were smart and they knew what they were doing. 

Except maybe for one guy. He was my first boss out of college. He didn’t seem to have a very high EQ and his IQ was virtually nonexistent. (Or so it appeared to me) He was functionally illiterate, his communication skills were subpar to say the least. 

But he was my boss. My boss! I had a brand new Engineering Degree and had been anointed by non other than myself as one of the smartest people on the planet. It was an impossible situation…I was a genius and my boss was not. So I set about fixing that injustice.

I decided, at least subconsciously, to be a “difficult” employee. Difficult might be a bit of an understatement…I was determined to make his life a living hell. I mean how hard could it be for a genius such as myself to chase this knucklehead out of the company. My goal was to do whatever was necessary for this guy to no longer be my boss.

I’ll spare you the ugly details of what I determined “difficult” to be. But he and the company we worked for had incredible staying power. Despite my best efforts they kept trying to find a way for us to work together and it took me two long years to finally reach my goal. 

I quit!

Apparently his 20 plus years at a family run company meant something to the owners. They also valued the skills I bought with me. 

It would be several years after I quit before I’d realize what a terrible employee I was. It would be a few more years before I’d realize what a terrible person I was to that boss. 

I’d made the horrible mistake of not seeing the value in someone different than me. My failure to see the value in another human being caused ME great frustration. I took that out on both my boss and any coworkers who happened to agree with him. 

That the man had certain “gaps” was never in doubt. My mistake was in thinking it was my job to expose those gaps. In reality part of my job was actually to fill those gaps. 

He was not technically proficient, I was. It was my job to help him use his strengths by filling his technical gaps. I failed at that…miserably. 

When your leader isn’t all that you think they should be don’t allow yourself to be frustrated. Don’t focus on their weaknesses, focus on their strengths. I can guarantee you that somebody saw those strengths and that’s why they are in the position that are in. Help them use their strengths by filling whatever gaps you can. 

Whether it’s in your job description or not you should understand that one of your roles is to support the other people in your organization. Especially those above you on the organizational chart. The only exception to that “rule” is if that support would include doing something illegal or unethical.

When you’re feeling frustrated by someone above you in your organization, or even someone at your level, remember this truth: being frustrated prevents you from using YOUR strengths. Being frustrated hurts YOU more than anyone else. 

So don’t focus on the things that frustrate you, focus instead on the things you can control. One of those things is helping the people who frustrate you to not frustrate you. That’s a whole lot more productive than constantly complaining. 

Look and Listen

One of the primary responsibilities of leadership is to coach the people you lead. We coach to reinforce positive behavior, we coach to motivate, and sometimes we must coach for corrective action. 

Most often that coaching is in the form of talking. We advise, we suggest, and hopefully not very often, we tell. 

So here’s two pieces of advice for the next time you find yourself in a coaching situation. 

First listen to what you’re saying. I’m serious about that…really listen. In fact, record the conversation and when you play it back listen to what YOU said. Listen to the tone of your voice. Were you speaking in positives and possibilities or were you speaking in negatives and consequences? 

Were you specific in why you’re coaching or did you leave the person you were coaching wondering what the conversation was really about. If you were coaching for corrective action were you very very specific in what needs to change and when? Were you crystal clear in how that change would be measured? Did you leave doubt about your expectations? Any doubt leaves a gray area. Coaching for corrective action requires that you “paint” your expectations in black and white as much as possible.

It’s important to know that when you allow gray areas while coaching for corrective action you give people a place to hide from responsibility. Shades of gray make for a mighty comfortable place to hide from change as well. 

More important than listening to yourself is looking at yourself. As a leader your people will do what you DO far faster than they will do what you SAY. If you’re coaching them towards a better attitude and your attitude sucks then all the words in the world aren’t going to change their attitude. 

As their leader YOU are their model for successful behavior. Whether you realize it or not, YOU are leading by example. If your words do not match your actions then your people will have to make a choice.

Do they do what you say or do they do what you do? They may not believe what they hear but they almost always will believe what they see. 

They will do what you do!

If you’re going to help your people trust what you say then your actions MUST match your words. If you force them to make a choice between “say” or “do” they will choose do and your chances of truly leading them will go the way of the dodo bird.

In both cases, listening to yourself and looking at yourself, you need to be completely honest. Authentic Leaders do not lie to themselves. Do not cut yourself an ounce of slack, if you think your tone was too negative then fix it. If you find that your actions are not a mirror image of your words then change your actions or change your words. 

They MUST match. 

Remember, you may hold a leadership position but your journey to Authentic Leadership never stops. You can and should continue to learn and grow, exactly like the people you lead.

Privileged Leaders

There are all types of leaders in the world. Cleary, some are better than others. The worst however are what I would call Privileged Leaders. 

Authentic Servant Leaders see leading others to success as a privilege. Privileged Leaders believe holding a leadership position entitles them to “special” rules not available to those they think they’re leading. They live by the old saying “Rank has it’s privileges.” They make that old saying come to life by providing themselves with many privileges not available to the people they claim to be leading. 

Privileged Leaders will never have the commitment of the people they supposedly lead because they don’t think they need it. Without that commitment they simply cannot lead. 

Privileged Leaders are poor communicators because their different set of rules act as a wall between them and their people. They don’t understand the people they try to lead because they don’t care to understand the people they try to lead. 

They don’t value the people they are supposed to be leading because they see value only in themselves. They don’t listen to the people they hope are following them because…well because they don’t listen to anyone. 

Privileged Leaders believe that their title or position is what makes them special. They believe their income level makes them better human beings. 

Authentic Servant Leaders believe they aren’t special at all. They believe it’s the people they lead who are truly special. They value those people and seek out their advice. They listen, intently, to what they have to say. No amount of money, no title or position will ever make them think they are better than another human being. 

You’ll recognize a Privileged Leader the moment you see them. They will have placed themselves on a pedestal so high above the people they think they are leading that those people couldn’t follow if they wanted to. 

Authentic Servant Leaders make certain they stay close to their people. They lead from the front, they lead from the middle and sometimes they even lead from the rear. Whatever the case may be they lead from along side their people and never put themselves above them. 

Privileged Leaders have no way of learning how mistaken they are because they also believe they have nothing left to learn. They “know” every decision they make is the right decision simply because they made it. They don’t question themselves and woe to any person who dares to question their thinking. 

Authentic Servant Leaders know they will never know it all. They also know they don’t need to. They have a wealth of knowledge in the people who are committed to following them. They “tap into” that knowledge bank with great regularity for the benefit of their entire organization. They know that they could be wrong about virtually anything so they value having their decisions challenged. That challenge either confirms their thinking or causes them to change it, again to the benefit of the entire organization. 

If you’re working for a Privileged Leader then fasten your seat belt. It’s gonna be a rough ride. They won’t learn from their mistakes because they will never admit to them. They must either be forced out by an Authentic Servant Leader or the organization they are supposed to be leading will simply go the way of many failed organizations.

If you’re working with an Authentic Servant Leader then count your blessings, which will be many. Working for an Authentic Servant Leader gives you and your organization ample opportunities to grow. Make sure that you make the most of those opportunities.

So…You Say You Want to be a Leader

Odds are there are a significant number of people reading this who want to be a leader one day. They are waiting for a promotion to “leader” in their organization. Perhaps they are searching for a role with another organization that will “make” them a leader.

I’ve got some disappointing news for anyone who falls into those categories. No one can promote you to “leader.” No position or title in the world can make you a leader. Technically speaking, even you can’t make you a leader.

Only the people who follow you can make you a leader. You can call yourself a leader all day long but if no one is following you then you might be leading yourself (which is good) but you are not leading anyone else.

I don’t know any other way to say this except to say that waiting for a position or title to make you is leader is a mistake. It is a very common mistake so don’t beat yourself up over it too much.

People don’t follow positions or titles, they only follow other people. So instead of working for a position of leadership work to become the type of person other people will want to follow.

That type of person has a clear, realistic vision of their future. They can communicate that vision in a way that excites and inspires other people. They celebrate the success of other people as much as they celebrate their own success. They are outstanding listeners and they listen with the intent to understand rather than merely respond.

But more than anything else they genuinely care about people.

People follow people who care about them. One of the truest things I know about leadership is that you can care for people without leading them but you cannot lead someone without caring for them. Truly caring.

Caring about the person. Caring about their lives and caring about what’s important to them.

If you’re only caring about what they can do for you or your organization then you may be a boss but it’s unlikely that you’re seen as a leader.

If your goal is to be an Authentic Leader then you must put people first. If you want to grow your company then first you must grow your people. If you want your people to take care of your customers then you must first take care of your people.

If you’re in a leadership position and you think your people are nothing more than disposable assets then whatever success you may be experiencing today will not be sustainable.

Leadership is people centric. When you occupy a leadership position and you put “stuff” before your people then you forfeit the right to lead.

When you’re people believe you don’t care about them they won’t care much about actually following you. That is a mistake no organization can survive.

What History Teaches

Whenever I hear of someone heading off to college who is planning to major in History my thoughts always go to “oh boy, taking on a ton of student loan debt for a low paying teaching job.”

I mean, what else do you do with a History Degree.

But then I start to think more and I am so grateful for anyone willing to teach History. It is history that teaches us everything we need to know to be successful.

In High School my least favorite class was Military History. (I attended a Military High School) I had a hard time figuring out why we were studying old battle plans and tactics from lost battles. I eventually came to understand that if we were ever required to lead a group of brave service members into battle the job wasn’t just to win the war. It was to bring the people we were charged with leading home alive.

As General George Patton frequently said, “it’s not the job of the American Solider to die for their country; the job of the American Solider is to make the other SOB die for theirs.”

Small pieces of historical knowledge can make a huge difference. It can prevent history from repeating itself. If Adolf Hitler had studied Napoleon’s battle plans from years earlier he likely would have not opened up a second front in Russia. If he had waited only a handful of months to attack it is very possible the outcome of World War 2 could have been different.

Companies are like countries when it comes to history. Those that are unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Emphasis on the doomed.

History can teach us what to do as well as what not to do. The problem is, if we don’t learn from history we tend to take the same shortcuts. Use the same level of thinking, say the same things, and do the identical stuff as the people who failed before us.

It’s fine to study successful companies. Following the practices of those who have succeeded before you makes perfect sense. But I also like to learn from companies that were highly successful right up until the time they weren’t.

I want to know what changed. I want to know what it was that caused them to go from great to good to downright bad.

It most often has to do with people. Mostly the people who run the company. History teaches us that the most common mistake they make is assuming that their future is an automatic extension of their past. Those organizations believe that because they are currently successful they will always be successful. They begin to take their success for granted. They begin to believe that their success is solely due to their efforts. They forget about all the people who have helped them along the way.

Successful companies and organizations do not fail the people leading them. The people leading them fail their companies and organizations.

History is full of examples of how organizations create sustainable success. It is also full of examples of what organizations did to kill their success.

Successful people learn from their mistakes, the most successful people, and organizations, learn from the mistakes of others. Those “lessons” are found in history. Are you willing to learn?