People-driven leaders work hard to prioritize the human beings who are central to their organization’s success. In doing so, they pave the way for higher employee engagement that helps drive better business results and a way of thinking called People Success.

In an earlier post, we shared eight insights from four people-driven leaders. Here we present the wisdom of three more leaders as they share stories and advice gleaned throughout their career journeys.

1. People-driven leaders understand their charter

While the charter and goals of people-driven leaders might seem obvious, important nuances help shape and guide them. Each leader often draws inspiration from various sources along their journey.

For Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, the lightning bolt came at two different times. In the mid-1990s, he came across this quote while reading works of the Dalai Lama: “The purpose in life is to make people happy. If you can’t make them happy, at least don’t hurt them.” This prompted Garry to reflect on the fact that he felt business leaders weren’t doing a good job not hurting people. In 1997, he became CEO of WD-40 and was taken by a quote of Aristotle’s from 384 B.C.: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” This time Garry was triggered to consider why businesses weren’t putting pleasure into the job.

Combined, these two moments of significant reflection led Garry to understand his role as a people-driven leader. “Our job is to create an environment where tribe members feel safe at work and return home at the end of the day fulfilled by the work they do, feeling they’ve learned something new and contributed to something bigger than themselves,” he says.

So how exactly does a people-driven leader create such an environment? According to Sean Woodroffe, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for TIAA, the answer is simple: “I believe in treating every employee with respect and dignity. It starts by being an empathetic, engaged listener.”

2. People-driven leaders believe in servant leadership

People-driven leaders embrace a wide range of philosophies. But regardless of how they word it, many believe in the concept of servant leadership, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. Greenleaf wrote: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” 

Sean helps connect the dots between the belief and putting it into action. “Servant leadership is the notion that the best leaders recognize their roles are to serve and inspire—and the HR function plays a role in bringing that to life.” To that end, Sean and his team created a set of servant leadership principles for guiding employees and developed a 360-degree tool to measure each leader in the organization against these tenets. “We saw a direct correlation between our leaders’ activities and employee engagement,” he points out.

Garry first encountered the servant leadership philosophy when he returned to school for a master’s degree in leadership. “That inspired me to create the business model that has been in place in our company for many years,” he says. “Most companies were only thinking about strategy and execution instead of the people, the purpose, and the values. I added a culture of learning.”

3. People-driven leaders take risks

Some think of those in HR as people who play it safe, ones who establish and enforce guidelines, and don’t deviate from expectations. Yet that’s a narrow—and inaccurate—view of the leaders who continually encourage others to step outside of their comfort zones and stretch to reach their full potential.  

We see this openness to taking chances in one of the early career experiences shared by Tamara Bray, Group Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for DCP Midstream. “I joined a company in bankruptcy and thought, ‘What a tremendous opportunity to be a part of a turnaround. It’s going to be a great experience. I’m going to learn a lot, and if something goes bad, I will find another job. I have great skills,’ ” she recalls.

Similarly, Sean took a leap of faith early in his career when he was asked to lead HR for a division of Merrill Lynch based in Tokyo. Though he had never worked abroad, he accepted the position without hesitation. It was his first head of HR experience and the platform for the HR leadership roles he has subsequently held.

4. People-driven leaders value their organization’s culture

It might seem a given that people-driven leaders are committed to cultivating a culture that promotes high employee engagement. Yet culture is just one of many aspects contributing to the effectiveness of an organization, and it can be one of the toughest to tackle. That said, it’s undoubtedly one of the most important elements contributing to ultimate success. As Sean underscores, “When a company’s culture is autocratic, it tends not to value people.”

To help create an effective culture in line with his commitment to being a people-driven leader, Garry emphasizes learning. “One of the greatest joys people get out of life is learning things and putting them into practice,” he says. A learning environment cultivates and creates safety because it removes fear. Instead of saying we make mistakes, we say we have learning moments. In the absence of fear, you get joy and happiness.”

Tamara is addressing her organization’s culture needs head on. “Culture needs to be for the people, by the people, with the people,” she says. “With culture, you have to attend to the spaces, the places, and the ways that people work. It starts by understanding the needs and wants of the people.”

Doing so is a matter of defining the habits associated with the organization’s core cultural beliefs. As Tamara explains, “We’re getting to the behaviors of the organization and setting standards. Most companies get this wrong because they don’t attend to the culture at the same time. As a result, their transformational efforts aren’t as successful.”

Through these efforts, Tamara expects her organization to become an employer of choice. “We are going to turn that ship in a direction, so people say, ‘I know your reputation. I’d love to come work with you,’ “ she says.

5. People-driven leaders understand HR’s role

The role of HR is sometimes simplified to managing the employee lifecycle and administering employee benefits. But that’s a far cry from the influence and impact of HR organizations led by people-driven leaders. It’s also essential that HR be supported at the highest levels by those who understand the true potential of the organization.

As Garry sees it, HR’s job is to help leaders act and behave in line with the servant leadership philosophy of the company that builds a great culture. “I see HR not as the enforcers, but as the enablers of leadership,” he says. Hand in hand with this, Garry understands his overall accountability in making that happen by demonstrating, preserving, and improving the company’s positive culture based on its values, principles, and servant leadership philosophy.

Sean distills the essence of HR leadership in this way: “When you think about human resources as a practice, our role principally is to ensure that we are delivering and facilitating opportunities for employees to be highly engaged, and to be and achieve their best.”

Tamara concurs: “The very nature of our role in HR requires us to be focused on helping others to be the very best they can be. HR can have a profound impact on the business if we can become an employer of choice, and be where people love working and love the ways that we work and we deliver great results.”

In fact, Tamara has been essential in helping her company devise and execute a strategic plan for success. “Few people had heard of this small company when I joined, but now it’s influencing the industry,” she says. “The start of it was a coffee conversation where I sat down with the CEO and said, ‘Where are we going? We need to figure this out, and let’s come up with a five-year plan and how we work toward that.’ HR has been there every step of that journey.”

6. People-driven leaders emphasize the good for all

The most effective leaders prioritize their people over themselves. That emphasis lays the foundation for success that lifts up individuals and the overall organization.

As Garry puts it, “Great leadership is not about you. I used to think, ‘It’s about me, I don’t care about you.’ Now I care about others and learn from them. As a leader, don’t let your ego eat your empathy; have your empathy eat your ego.”

To that end, Garry says one of WD-40’s values is succeeding as a tribe while excelling as individuals. “In most organizations, it probably reads as we value excelling as individuals; screw the tribe. In our organization, the tribe comes first, but we want each person to excel within that environment.”

Sean continues in this vein: “I see success is a team effort. The best leaders don’t focus on themselves but on the success of others, inspiring team members to be their best.”

Interestingly, Tamara’s company has captured the essence of what makes this possible in a few words: trust, connect, inspire, solve, and achieve. “Our two bookends are trust and achieve,” she points out. “Everything in the middle is how you get there.”

7. People-driven leaders guide and empower employees to be their best

Tamara Bray starts with a basic assumption. “I presume every person we hire is smart, and wants to do more and has capability to do more, and it’s up to us to create that environment where we can make that happen for them,” she says. “We work hard to try to bring meaning to peoples’ experiences.” 

In that vein, Garry believes in creating an atmosphere and providing the resources for people to do their best, and for them to feel good about it.

For Sean, it starts with the here and now. “Many employees are focused on being promoted,” he says. “I tell each person to focus on being the best they can be in their job. Don’t worry about promotions. Focus on being the best you can be and delivering excellence, and the next job will come.”

Tamara believes strongly in this concept, having experienced the impact of it firsthand:  “My supervisor in my first assignment at Ford Motor Company said, ‘Focus on being the very best you can be in the job that you’re in today and the rest will sort itself out.’  It’s one of the best pieces of advice anybody ever gave me.”

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