Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to executive leaders about how they run their businesses.
I’ve noticed something interesting in these discussions: Even though there’s universal agreement that business success is centered around finding the right employees, many leaders use a data-centric approach–rather than a people-centric approach–to operating their companies.
Over the course of two-plus decades as CEO, I myself have evolved toward a more human-centered style of leading. With a 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.
Here are six habits of leaders who value people over data (nothing against data, of course). These habits have gone a long way toward helping me build and operate several successful businesses.
- People-centric leaders set a few clear priorities and share them with the team. The data-centric leader has trouble prioritizing: If he can measure something in the business, he’s going to try and manage it. The result is an ocean of reports and metrics, with humans treated like proverbial cogs in the machine, or left out of the equation altogether. The people-centric leader, on the other hand, starts with a clearly articulated vision, then selects a few key priorities and metrics for the organization to focus on. She’s able to tell a story about what the company is trying to do–one that resonates with employees across the team.
- People-centric leaders make sure everyone knows the “why” behind their work. As Daniel Pink has argued, a sense of purpose is one of the keys to motivating employees. Unfortunately, data-centric leaders often fail to give this to their people. People-centric leaders, however, give employees greater purpose at work by tying individual work to the broader priorities of the company. Your company doesn’t have to be preserving the rainforest or saving whales; simply cascading company priorities down into goals for teams and individuals helps employees see the context and purpose of their daily work.
- People-centric leaders don’t just look at data–they ask the right questions. Data-centric leaders tend to separate the numbers from the people doing the work. They’re more likely to pore over spreadsheets than actually talk to employees. The people-centric approach, on the other hand, involves asking individuals 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 we can do to keep things on track?
- 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. Their companies hire mainly to fill empty positions, and HR handles the process more or less on its own. Contrast that with the people-centric leader, who’s always on the lookout for individuals who can bring significant value to the organization, and actively participates in interviews for nearly every hire. She won’t turn down a game-changing hire just because there’s not an empty box on the org chart–and she acknowledges that hiring is a strategic priority, not an admin function.
- People-centric leaders know who their key employees are. Can you name the top ten performers in your organization? A people-centric leader always can. He understands that he must stay abreast of the employees who create the most value for the company. He continually invests in their development and works to align their interests with the organization’s.
- People-centric leaders understand the importance of good managers. Finally, people-centric leaders know that good management is a rare and under appreciated art. They also know the widespread disengagement one bad manager can cause. Instead of promoting people to management willy-nilly based on how good they were in a contributor role (and therefore suffering from the Peter Principle), people-centric leaders seek out managers who will actually be good at managing, and invest in management training.
In the twenty-first century, leaders who can influence, motivate, and bring people together are the ones who will outpace their competitors. Mastering these habits is a great place to start.