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Leadership Lesson 19 – Your People Are the Priority

By: Curt Stowers

With the pace of business these days, it's easy to get caught up in pursuing the next project, the next objective, the next dollar. It's also extremely dangerous to fall into this trap and lose sight of what is really important . . .

Success as a leader requires that you balance the interaction between your co-workers, your customers, and your pocketbook. And, while we live in an "and" world, the reality is on occasion you will need to make tradeoffs. When this time comes, the sequence MUST be people first, customers second, and financial results third. No doubt, some who read this will disagree. The customer-centric will argue that without the customer we would not be here. That customer is king and must be protected at all cost. The profit-centric will argue that we're not a charity; the bottom line must always rule supreme; and that If we don't follow this path, our days as a business are numbered. They are both wrong.

What is a business without the people? Sure, you've got all the processes and procedures that define how the business works; however, what if you get to the point where these processes and procedures can be picked up and moved to a new company? What if you get to the point where things are so commoditized that the people doing the processes do not matter? The efficiency experts see this as the Holy Grail of business. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we get to the point where the people do not matter, it means that our business has become a commodity. It means that others will emulate. It means that the end is near.

Seth Godin writes of this often in his works which I'd encourage everyone to read -- start with Purple Cow, Tribes, and Lynchpin. The only sustainable path for a business is to ensure that it constantly attracts and retains the top-performing employees. Any other path will fail as, over time, the absence of the human element will result in a myopic entity that will be tripped up by a nimbler competitor.

The implication of the above is that your people are your most valuable asset. Which leads us to rule #19:


Rule #19 - You must continually recognize and reward your team.


From the time we're born, we look for approval from those around us. As small children, we seek our parents’ reassurance; as we grow, we look for the approval of our friends; and, as we transition in to the workplace, we seek positive feedback from those around us— specially from our leaders. We are wired to look for the positive feedback. And, as a leader, you need to make sure you are wired to provide that positive feedback appropriately. You need to understand how to provide both recognition and rewards.

This is where things become a bit tricky. While all are wired to look for positive feedback, the manner in which each person likes to receive the feedback is unique. While there's no absolute, there are two basics rules that I apply:

  • Recognition must be handled carefully. Some individuals thrive on receiving it publicly. Others shudder at the thought of being publicly recognized. In general, the "concentric circle" approach works well. Start with one-on-one recognition. Move to recognizing the individual in the presence of their close peers. With each successive recognition, continue to expand the circle until it becomes clear that the individual being recognized is uncomfortable. In this manner you'll be able to gauge how and where to recognize each individual.
  • Rewards are almost always best handled in private. Rarely is it the case that an individual wants his/her co-workers to be aware of their financial situation. Find a private time when the reward may be presented and do so quietly.

While these two rules are good guideposts, they are by no means absolute. Exceptional or extraordinary situations will often dictate that you do exactly the opposite of the above rules! That leads to the following:

  • The more exceptional the accomplishment, the more the need to have the reward or recognition be beyond what the individual would normally be comfortable with.

When you think about this, it makes perfect sense. When you have an individual that is a consistent, solid performer that you want to recognize or reward, you should do so in the manner that is "customary." Hence the first two rules. However, as the situation becomes more and more exceptional, you need to make the manner of the reward or recognition more exceptional. Hence, the need to do something totally out of the ordinary. If you just follow the "ordinary" path, you aren't demonstrating the exceptional nature of the accomplishment.

Providing rewards or recognition is one of the easiest ways to drive employee engagement. It's also one of the most overlooked and least used. That's a real shame as it deprives two parties. First, it deprives the party deserving of the reward or recognition. However, equally importantly, it derives the leader of the opportunity to provide the positive reinforcement. And regardless of age, size, ethnicity, or gender, the universal truth exists that it's better to give than to receive. You're really missing out if you fail to provide rewards and recognition freely.


ACTION ITEM 19: Create a spreadsheet listing each of your team members. Record each time you provide them with either a reward or recognition, record the nature of the reward or recognition, and record their response. At the end of the month review the spreadsheet for lessons learned.


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