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People First, The Human Factor

It was a busy morning, with client deliverables, an internal presentation to create, and plenty of emails awaiting responses. As I settled into my desk preparing to dig into the long list of tasks, I was met by coworker after coworker who wanted to talk to me. One wanted to talk about a health concern, another about a client issue, another about an upcoming marriage. I listened, comforted, and problem solved with each one in turn and never got to any of my planned tasks that morning. Sometimes it’s a juggling act to balance everything, but putting the people first is a principle I’ve learned and embraced during the last 20 years as a manager.

When I first became a manager I was surprised by the advice I was given. I was told to care less about the people and focus more on the work, to not get too involved, and to keep a level of separation. I was told if I got too close to people, I wouldn’t be able to successfully manage the team. I still see and hear this occasionally in management training, but I don’t believe it.

I wanted to build a team of people who really cared about each other and enjoyed working together. This had its challenges and I learned a lot along the way.

One of our basic human needs (from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is to feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and for many people that need is met by being part of a supportive work group. Part of a manager’s job is to create a feeling of unity among the team. Unity helps team members feel valued and feel a sense of belonging. One of the most common pieces of feedback I hear in the consulting industry is that consultants don’t feel connected (to other employees, their manager, or the company in general). Good managers have the power to change that and can make a big difference in employees’ job satisfaction and longevity with the company.

Good management is about deep personal relationships. These can be hard to build and maintain when we are busy with clients and a company that’s experiencing rapid growth. It’s an investment in time that is critical to demonstrate we care. Some people think being caring and empathetic is a personality trait--but it can be learned. Generally, everyone has unrealized potential. Improvement is about understanding and capturing ideas and possibilities, reformulating and restructuring those ideas into a usable form, and then transforming them into actions and behaviors.

The simplest way to demonstrate caring as a manager is to have meaningful 1:1 and career conversations with your people. This isn’t about mapping out their path to promotion, it’s about really getting to know them as people.

Having conversations about what they have done in the past and what they want to do in the future is helpful to understanding each person’s core values, what motivates them, and what they really care about.

It is important for the conversation to be interactive. Pay attention to the way you pose questions to your employees and how you interject your thoughts throughout the discussion. You may never know these things about your people unless you ask. And if you ask, you can figure out how their goals and values can connect to the work you want them to do and will help set direction.

There is an increasing amount of evidence that supports successful organizations putting people first. Astute managers have come to learn that their organization's employees are its only true competitive advantage. Competitors can match most organizations' products, processes, locations, distribution channels, and so forth. What's far more difficult to emulate is a workforce made up of highly knowledgeable and motivated people. The characteristic that differentiates successful companies from their less successful counterparts in almost every industry is the quality of the people they're able to attract and retain.

Caiman is one of those organizations and I am proud to be a part of the leadership team.