The Importance–And Challenge–of People First

By Stephen T. Messenger

22 June 2021

Know your people, see your people, love your people, and hold them accountable.

If you’ve been around the United States Army recently, you’ve heard Chief of Staff General James McConville say, “People First, Winning Matters.” I’m not sure there’s a more profound and relevant statement out there for leaders. However, it’s easy to say and hard to do.

My current job is production-based, where each employee needs to meet a challenging, yet attainable quota every year—winning matters. They work independently, often with a supervisor located in a different building, miles and often counties away. It’s interesting how some employees knock out their requirement in the first nine months while others struggle right up until the last day to meet the minimum goal, if at all. Strange, because I know each one has the potential to achieve their maximum standard and more.

I wanted to know why, so I spent the year visiting each employee at their own desk. After an investigation spanning four states and over 16,000 driving miles, I put together two theories:

1. Employees Are Consummate Professionals. The first thing I noticed was that, with a few exceptions, employees exude professionalism. The good majority are out there working hard, and they show up each day wanting to do a good job. They know what’s expected of them and are committed to the success of themselves and their team. By all indicators, everyone wants to and should be crushing their jobs.

2. We All Got Problems. As I truly got to know each one, it was clear that everyone was going through stuff. Life happens. Between medical, financial, family, work, or emotional issues, everyone, including myself, has problems. For many workers, it’s easy to let the stress of life seep into their jobs and affect work. It’s even easier to take the focus off what you get paid to do when there’s no constant supervision… and occasionally when there is.

The Chief of Staff calls us to place people first, and I wholeheartedly agree. I did this by physically travelling to each employee to try to really get to know them—not in a “Hey Bob, how was your weekend?” way. Instead, I spent an hour to know their history, families, hobbies, and career aspirations. This is just as important as knowing their issues at work. Yes, there’s a job to do, but followers must know that they are more than a number to their supervisors.

The Army calls seeing your team face-to-face “battlefield circulation.” You have to walk the foxholes the soldiers are sitting in if you want to know the pulse of the unit. When that’s not possible, phone calls are necessary to connect with your followers and provide a human touch.

Every conversation from a boss should end with, “What can I do for you?” I’ve found that if you end with this and, if able, solve whatever their response is, eventually you’ve solved all the problems you can control. If you really listen and work on their issues, their work problems start to go away. And your team sees you’re putting them first.

The challenge is supporting the needs of the workforce while maintaining a “winning matters” attitude. If you gave time off for people to solve all their problems, no one would ever be at work. The star employees can manage their personal issues and excel at their job simultaneously. However, the majority struggle to maintain this balance, and rightly so, with some of the problems they face.

However, the organization exists for a reason. Production goals must be met, and the company must deliver on their bottom-line objectives. First-line supervisors must counsel in writing those unable to meet goals and then allow every opportunity for them to be successful. This includes providing Training, Resources, Attitude, and Personal circumstance (TRAP) support when and where it is needed. Those that either cannot or choose not to meet goals will be performance-managed, barring exceptional circumstances.

I’ll admit, I’ve gotten this balancing act wrong on a number of occasions. Sometimes I wrongly ignored significant personal problems and asked for more effort. Other times I allowed people to take advantage of my sympathy. But over time, I’ve mostly learned to see when people need help and when people need accountability.

This is hard. Leaders like people. One of the great joys of leadership is to know your followers and enjoy being their leader. But one seldom talked about aspect of “People First” has a component of holding employees responsible for completing their daily tasks. After all, if the company cannot meet its objectives, everyone is going to be out of a job someday.

We’ve all got problems. The leadership challenge is to balance the issues your workforce has with the unrelenting organizational requirement to meet the bottom line. I’ve found this is an achievable goal. Know your people, see your people, love your people, and hold them accountable. If you can do this, you’ll meet assigned goals while you’re placing the human aspect at the front of your vision—and they will notice.

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