No Matter What Your Business Is, It’s a People Business

I have learned many things since I entered my first management position over two decades ago, but probably none of my “aha” moments were as important as the point at which I figured out that no matter what the “business” is (technology, education, telecommunications, etc.) it is really about people. Different organizations sell or provide different products and services but at the end of the day, those that understand that their success is ultimately about people, employees and customers, are the organizations that excel.

We can always improve a process or a tool or a technology. We can tweak automation and cost. But when all is said and done, people (human capital) make or break organizations. In fact, according to the Gallup organization, tangible assets have dropped in S&P market value from 68% in 1985 to an average of 13% today. Not only do people implement processes and technology, for example, but they control the outcome. They do it well or poorly, with high or low levels of motivation, with high or low commitment to quality, with or without a sense of accountability, and they can either improve or hurt the work of others. For better or worse, people are complicated.

People are influenced daily and hourly by emotion, health, experience, beliefs/culture, and a host of other factors. People embrace change or fear it or even sabotage it. People can work together or against each other. They can be trustworthy or dishonest. They can be egotistical or humble. And the same person can perform differently on different days.

So, what does this mean for us as leaders? First of all, it means that much of our success depends on meeting the needs of other people as much or more than managing process or finance or logistics. It is time consuming and complicated, but it is essential. Secondly, managers are people too and they are susceptible to all of the same challenges that any other employee faces. In this context, the most important skill for us is probably good self-awareness. If we don’t know what is motivating our own behavior or why we are feeling a certain way, we will struggle to manage ourselves, let alone our subordinates. We must understand ourselves well.

As it relates to our employees, one of the most important skills for us as managers is patience. This may sound almost impossibly simple, but it is critical. It is critical because most behavior is temporary, i.e., it will change before too long regardless of what we do or don’t do. Patience also tends to protect us from impulsive responses to the behavior of those around us and it will make us more effective when managing the people side of the business–we typically can’t short-cut people issues because they are, by definition, complicated.

A similar dynamic applies to customers–who are also people. Fancy technology or strategy will only bring benefit if they contribute to providing customers with value and the experience they want.

Clearly, we cannot afford, and should not have patience for, employees who are dishonest or incompetent or incorrigible in any way. Nor should we compromise integrity or sustainability in pursuit of individual customers. However, in any organization of any meaningful size, we will encounter silly or irrational or simply “bad” behavior now and then because that’s what people do. Adults can be every bit as irresponsible and immature as children. They just come in bigger packages and can do more damage. The key as managers and leaders is to know when to be “patient” and when to act.

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