Becoming a people-driven leader doesn’t happen overnight. Learning how to put human beings at the center of organizational strategy requires bold thinking, courage, and compassion. It’s also smart: people-centric leadership inspires employee engagement so that individuals can bring their best selves to work and do their best work. That high level of engagement, in turn, powers far better bottom-line business results.

So how do you become a champion for people at work? For this post, four real-life people-driven leaders provided commentary about the experiences that shaped their personal and career development. While they often took different paths to arrive where they are today, they share certain life learnings and ideas, including these eight insights:

1. People-driven leaders make meaningful career pivots

In any career, some of the biggest opportunities come at unexpected times. Sometimes it makes sense to stay put, and other times it pays to seek new horizons. What matters is how the decision aligns with your overall life goals.

Joan Burke, Chief People Officer of DocuSign, took the biggest risk of her life when she left a 20-year career at the Boston-based life insurance company John Hancock. She moved to San Francisco to build a new life with her partner (now wife) and found herself for the first time without community, nearby family, or employment. Trusting her personal vision, she withstood an unsettling six months without a job.

Throughout the process, Joan followed her own advice: “Find the place where you’re going to be able to grow and develop in a way that’s aligned with what you believe great HR is.” 

Sometimes the career fast track doesn’t make sense. Take the case of Jeremy Robinson, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness at AdventHealth. Halfway through his HR residency, Jeremy’s boss gave him the option to continue with the highly visible, upwardly mobile program and move to Texas. The other choice was taking on a newly created role at corporate headquarters.

Jeremy chose the stability of the corporate position because it would allow him to attend night school to finish his MBA. As Jeremy explains,”The decision to fly under the radar a bit longer and step back from the leadership track gave me a much stronger foundation for my life and for my career over time.”

2. People-driven leaders keep an open mind to find their niche

Regardless of our roles as employees, everyone tends to perform their best when they find their best fit. Sometimes that perfect fit is an unexpected one.

Susan J. Schmitt, Group Vice President of Human Resources for Applied Materials, was originally destined to practice veterinary medicine. But a college course in industrial organizational psychology inspired her to change course. Since earning her master’s degree in the subject, she has risen to be a people-driven HR leader in a global company with more than 22,000 employees.

For Terilyn Juarez Monroe, Chief People Officer and Senior Vice President People & Places at Varian, her career and life paths intersected in 2017 when she became Varian’s CPO. The 10,000-employee company with 70 global locations specializes in cancer treatment and technology. Terilyn’s own mother had passed away from cancer a few years prior. The company’s vision of a “world without fear of cancer” was the perfect fit and niche for her.

For Jeremy, a turning point came when he discovered employee engagement. “It just woke me up,” he says. “This was the niche that would allow me to connect people’s emotional relationship with their work to their performance, their individual talent, and their own sense of personal purpose in life. Employee engagement was like a light bulb turning on to say, ‘This is what I need to be doing and where I can add the most value to others in life and in work.’ ”

3. People-driven leaders learn from others

A leader’s mindset and a learning mindset go hand in hand. Only by continually evolving can leaders grow and sustain their leadership impact. Fortunately, everyone can learn lessons in every facet of their life, whether from a workplace mentor or a personal connection.

Early in Jeremy’s career, a mentor shared advice that was the catalyst for his current focus. The mentor said that while there are many areas to learn and grow in the HR profession, Jeremy should find the niche that he was passionate about because only then would he be able to thrive. That advice led Jeremy to find his niche with employee engagement. 

As a child, Susan learned a valuable lesson from her dad, who was a minister. She saw him connecting authentically with individuals in his congregation and moving an entire community toward a specific set of values, a specific mission, and a specific purpose. Watching him, she learned at an early age how to interact with a range of people united around a common goal.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of great external and internal people throughout my career,” she says. She created her “personal board of directors” made up of people she sought insight from and greatly respected. “I had the opportunity to be the recipient of expertise that would not have been extended otherwise.”

4. People-driven leaders move beyond limiting beliefs

Unfortunately, we are sometimes our own worst enemy when it comes to navigating the workplace and our careers.

For Susan, a limiting belief she took away from her childhood was that she wasn’t good enough. As a result and early in her career, she admits this translated to a desire to please others. Susan realized this belief was negatively affecting her at work and affecting her peace of mind, energy, and joy for life. So she embarked on a journey to reclaim her personal power that began early in her career. Now, Susan is dedicated to sharing what she learned with others.

“We’re all like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,” Susan says. “Dorothy had the courage, passion, [and] intelligence to get what she wanted all along. I had to discover that for myself too. Our careers provide great opportunities to remove limiting beliefs about ourselves and our worthiness to manifest our full potential. The gratifying work for me is to help teach others how to discover deeper levels of self-acceptance to create more joyful lives.” 

Terilyn, in contrast, knew that limiting beliefs sometimes come when we view other people in narrow stereotypes. This insight came from her own family history. Her father gave up his accounting career in Central America when he immigrated to seek more opportunity in the U.S., eventually becoming a senior manager at a recycling company. Her grandparents worked night shifts in facilities management in office buildings to help Terilyn and her sister realize their dreams. 

“Everyone is in the midst of their personal hero story—even if they’re not necessarily talking about it at work,” Terilyn says. “Were my hard-working parents and grandparents living their dream? It might be easy to assume that they weren’t. But their dream was the next generation—my sister and me. They were really selfless, pouring everything they had into making sure we would live the lives they dreamed of for us. That’s the same value I bring to work every day to my team.” 

5. People-driven leaders help others be their best

It’s a given that people-driven leaders want to help others be their best. But what does that look like in practice?

Joan’s point of view is that the best HR leaders build great people managers wherever they go. And Joan has done this at several prominent Bay Area companies, including DocuSign. In fact, when Joan joined DocuSign, one of the first things she did was build a talent-development team charged with creating a “Work of Your Life” program for managers. This program defines what the company expects of managers. It also sets an intention that every employee deserves a great manager and that every manager deserves the time and resources to become great.

“I have a deep-seated belief that people come to work every day wanting to do a great job,” Joan says. “Oftentimes in organizations, we have to help them do that by saying, ‘We want to help you do the work of your life.’ Then it’s up to the employee to define what the best of their life is; it’s a deeply personal thing.” 

Susan calls upon her sense of clarity both as an HR leader and as a human. “I acknowledge that every single person I’m coming in touch with is working through and managing their own personal life issues on their own journeys,” she says. “I also play a role in supporting others transform to be their best.”

6. People-driven leaders stand strong in their ideals

In a world where people increasingly appreciate authenticity, defining and speaking your truth go a long way.

As far as Joan is concerned, it’s about having a point of view that you believe in passionately, and articulating what you stand for and what you bring to the organization. “Each high-potential HR professional should have an organizing principle—a point of view that’s their true north toward which everything they do and stand for are pointed,” she says. “It becomes part of their brand as they mature and their careers develop. This is your most important differentiator. If the executive team doesn’t agree with you, that’s not the place for you.” 

7. People-driven leaders pursue work with purpose

We increasingly hear people express the desire to be fulfilled by their work. People-driven leaders are attuned to this driving force. It starts by finding their own purpose.

Susan’s life purpose is to “teach self-acceptance to create a more joyful world.” She uses this purpose in all that she does including to guide the way for others, partnering with leaders who are dealing with challenging and complex business issues. She also works with her team to design an intentional culture of inclusion, following a very non-traditional path, that reaches out and includes everyone so that they want and can do their best work. 

Jeremy finds purpose in creating a culture that supports the 65,000-plus people at his company. He asks himself and others, “How do I do my work in a way that’s unique to how I was created and how I was called to make a difference in the world?”

For Joan, it’s about creating an environment where employees can look back and reminisce about their careers, saying, “At DocuSign, I did the work of my life.”

Terilyn finds purpose in her favorite word—inspiration. “My job, my team’s job, every leader’s job is to inspire people,” she says. “Starting with emotional connections, an exciting vision, and a focus on creating the best possible experience for people is key.”

8. People-driven leaders leave a legacy

Who among us doesn’t want our decisions and actions to live on and positively affect others? Such a desire can serve as a guiding principle throughout a career.

As Jeremy recollects, “My search for a niche was more than just, ‘How can I make an impact today?’ It was more of, ‘How am I going to leave a legacy for the organization?’ In focusing on that question, I realized that others want to be able to invest their passion, energy, and desire to make a meaningful difference in their roles, just like I do.”

In a similar vein, Susan sees the role of an HR leader as creating a place where people can experience positive rewards of contribution, appreciation, belonging, value, and recognition.

Joan adds, “For me personally, it’s no longer about climbing the corporate ladder. It’s about helping other people do the work of their lives.” 

Terilyn enjoys melding her passion for inclusion with the knowledge that diverse perspectives can accelerate innovation and growth to aid Varian’s cancer-fighting vision. “At the end of the day, for me it’s about what we are doing for others and making the world around us a better place for those who will follow,” she says.

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