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Follow the leader: Approaching leadership with compassion


Businesses and leaders have a responsibility to care for their employees. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Many businesses expect employees to enrich their business, but they don’t believe they owe enrichment to employees in return.

From a business perspective, this type of treatment is a one way ticket to abysmal retention rates. But from a human perspective, as a leader, you should want the best for your people. If you’re entrusted with a leadership role, you’re entrusted with people–the most valuable resource a business has. When I transitioned into leadership, I had to learn this lesson quickly and I’m lucky enough to be able to pass it on to you.

Leading with others in mind

When I first became a people manager, I assumed it was because I was a high performer and the company wanted more versions of me. My view of my new role was moulding my reports into mini Gerards, making sure they shared my values, ethos and work ethic.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The most important thing you can know as a leader is that it isn’t about you. You may have been the highest performing individual contributor the company had ever seen, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is giving your people the tools they need to be successful.

In order to do that, you have to check your ego at the door. When I became a manager, I had to look inward and figure out why I wanted to be one. And there is a right answer. If you want to move into leadership for the accolades, pay increase or title, your time is better spent becoming the best individual contributor you can be. There’s nothing wrong with that decision or those values, but they don’t lend themselves to effective leadership.

To be an effective leader, your main driver needs to be a desire to connect with your team. Once you put on your leadership cap, you’re no longer the main character. Each member of your team is the lead and you should be ready to take home the award for Best Supporting Manager.

Principles for leading with compassion

In my time as a people manager, I’ve picked up a few basic principles for people-first leadership.

Be aware

Businesses and economies go through cycles of ups and downs. Your people are no different. Some situations might be personal, like family emergencies. Others might affect your whole team, like depressing news cycles or economic events. Some situations are predictable, like the post-holiday slump. Whatever the reasoning behind the changes in morale or productivity, you have to be aware of them.

If you notice a team member is going through a rough time, schedule a 1:1 with them to see what’s going on. This isn’t the time to tell them to shape up, but rather an opportunity to get to know them better. Some employees might not be comfortable sharing, and that’s okay. But chances are, your team will appreciate your attentiveness and willingness to chat through it with them.

Create conditions for a positive culture

The worst thing you can do as a leader is try to force a culture. Nothing ruins staff morale more than mandatory bonding activities–especially if they’re still responsible for their regular output despite the interruption. Your job as a leader isn’t to create culture, it’s to steward it.

You want to get to a point of radical accountability, where everyone knows what they’re responsible for and strives to achieve it. If you micromanage your culture, you’ll never get there. Encourage your employees to find the joy of working and let them take it from there. They know what they need, and if you’ve established yourself as approachable, they’ll come to you when they need you.

Lead by example

New employees might have a hard time transitioning to a work environment that’s built on compassion. They may neglect the breaks they need to recharge and stay plugged in even when they do take one. If they’ve come from a workplace that gives lip service to caring for employees without any follow through, they may not trust that it’s actually okay to take a break or ask for help–even if you remind them.

This is when you have to lead by example. When I go on vacation, I keep WhatsApp available for emergencies, but that’s it. No emails, no calls, no Slack messages. I try not to message my employees after work hours. We’re a distributed team, and I only come into the office when I say I will. My actions let my team know that it’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to be flexible. If I take a fully unplugged vacation, my team members get the signal that they’re encouraged to as well.

All careers have their time

All careers have a beginning, middle and end. It’s important to remind yourself–and your team–that the end will come and you owe it to yourself to make sure you feel good about what you’ve accomplished at the end.

At the beginning of my career, meaningful meant accolades. But as I’ve grown as a professional, I’ve realised that what matters most to me is impacting the careers of others. One of my favourite things to do is look at the careers and accomplishments of people I worked with early in my career and know that I had a hand–even if it was a small one–in helping them get there. But you can’t have that satisfaction if you don‘t lead with compassion.

As a leader, my goal is to make an impact on as many careers as possible. I hope more leaders join me on this journey.

Looking for more ways to enrich your team? Check out this article on helping your team find the joy of work.

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