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Leading Your People—Some Thoughts

A group of business people standing in front of a whiteboard.

​Your company's mission gets accomplished with and through people. How you lead, manage, communicate, motivate and reward people will directly affect your and the organization's success. As a leader, it is your job to enable those who work for you to be successful. The following is a sampling of areas to consider in leading your people.

  1. Set the Bar High. Set high expectations for your people, even if they have concerns about their ability to perform. For example, I agreed to accept a GS-12 government employee (call her Linda) because her previous leader had her performing only GS-5 level work. I assigned her to one of my best people during her first three weeks on the job. Linda shadowed him to learn the organizational responsibilities, how work was performed, and by whom. Also, I tasked Linda to tell me what she thought was working well, what was not working well, and what processes or procedures didn't make sense. This approach worked well as Linda learned the organization, how work was performed, and got a feel for the culture. I then tasked Linda to lead an agency-wide formal mentorship program—a GS-13 level responsibility. Her first words were, "I've never done anything like that! I don't believe I am qualified or could do that job!" I responded, "You will not only do the job, but you will be very successful. I guarantee it! I will ensure you have the resources and training to succeed." A year later, Linda planned and orchestrated the formal mentorship program graduation ceremony.
  2. Remember the Middle 70 Percent. It is easy to want to work with the top 20 percent of your people. They're energetic, highly motivated and enjoyable to lead and work with. The bottom 10 percent can cause heartburn. As such, you may spend significant time dealing with them as well. However, the middle 70 percent will be the real key to your success over time. Your organization cannot perform its mission without their energy, abilities, and commitment. A significant challenge will be to keep these 70 percent motivated. They will need your attention, be recognized for their efforts, and provided training and development opportunities. Gallup research reports that before and after the pandemic, 70 percent of U.S. employees were not engaged at work. Of this 70 percent, 54 percent were physically engaged, but not emotionally engaged, and 16 percent showed up for work but were disinterested. I argue that this is a leadership issue and requires your attention to motivate, educate, coach, and support the middle 70 percent of your people. Engaging this middle 70 percent could lead to significant productivity and organizational effectiveness.
  3. Set High Standards for New Staff and Employees. You must meet with new employees as quickly as possible. They are excited about joining the organization and, at the same time, anxious because they are outside their comfort zone. Meeting with them helps to sustain their enthusiasm and diminish their anxiety. Make sure you have your best employees escort the new employee around. Some leaders pair newcomers with marginal employees because their top employees are too busy and can't be spared. This is a serious mistake. Marginal employees often bad-mouth those on the management team and point out negatives about the organization. If you assign top people, they will most likely speak favorably about the organization, the workload, and performance expectations. The person you appoint as escort will set the performance standards for that new employee. The new employee will likely hang around the assigned escort and seek their advice and counsel. Let that advisor set the standards you want for your organization.
  4. Rewarding Performance. It is vital to ascertain if the incentive/rewards system at your organization rewards desired behavior. A person who hits a home run should be rewarded when they cross home plate. It doesn't mean they can't be sent back to the minors if they do not continue to perform. Rewarding people, while they are still sweating from the effort, is essential. Such a rewarding effort helps build their confidence to keep going and get better. 
  5. Poor Performers. Every organization has some individuals who are not performing satisfactorily. There may be a myriad of reasons for the poor performance. Whatever the issue, you must be willing to set and uphold your standards. Evaluations and the organization's reward systems must reflect reality. Other organizational members will become disillusioned should you not hold poor performers accountable for their work and behavior. They will see that they are carrying the load for the non-performer and will grow to resent the situation.

How you lead and manage your people will directly determine your and your organization's success.
James Browning is the author of Embracing Senior Leadership: Three Critical Factors Needed To Reach The C-Suite and Thrive (Universal Publishers, 2022) He served as director of the Navy's worldwide leadership development programs, was founder and chief of the Library of Congress Corporate University, and was chairman of the Department of Strategic Leadership at the Eisenhower School in Washington, D.C. 


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