Going into the 21st century, Peter Drucker wrote, “The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or nonbusiness, will be its knowledge, workers, and their productivity.”
Two decades into the century, Drucker’s words prove prophetic. The key to sustainable success in the 21st century is people, plain and simple.
Only, notice what Drucker said—it’s not just people; it is people and their productivity.
Conventional wisdom holds that you are either a compassionate people person or a task-driven maniac. The truth, though, is that to achieve long-term results, you cannot afford to neglect either side of the pendulum. I say break all the pendulums! You may be stronger in one, but you have to be proficient in both.
You have to be results-driven and people-focused.
In his book The World is Flat,Thomas Friedman wrote, “One thing that tells me a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past.”
Friedman wrote that fifteen years ago, but 2020 only proved this point. One of the things that 2020 taught us is that most businesses are not as immune to economic downturns as they thought. There is no inevitable “we will last forever.” Companies must produce results today.
Globalization, in particular, demands this reality. The cost of labor is the Achilles’ heel of American business. Long gone are the days when corporate payrolls had the luxury of fat workforces with departments that got anything they wanted. It is more expensive for someone in America to do something than it is for someone in India to do the same thing. That means you must deliver more value per hour if you want to keep making a living.
Put another way, results aren’t optional if you want next month’s paycheck. There is no insulation from the reality of the market or its rigorous, competitive demands. As Winston Churchill said, “No matter how beautiful the strategy, one should occasionally look at the results.”
And this falls on the manager. Every manager has to manage a team so that the team produces results—clear, quantifiable results.
Does the following describe you?
- Do you deliver and over-deliver on results when given a task?
- Can you say no to assignments or requests that are unreasonable, or you otherwise know you can’t accomplish?
- Do the people you lead have clear goals and performance metrics?
- Are your goals known by the team and not constantly moving?
- Do you hold underperformers accountable?
If this isn’t you, there are many tools to help grow productivity (and it helps to differentiate productivity from hours). The book Traction by Gino Wickmanoffers one helpful structure for clarity and results, but there are others as well. Get curious. Ask friends and peers for best practices on driving results.
But results are only one side of the coin.
You cannot get where you need to go without the help of other stakeholders. You need people—focused, energetic, and positive people—who are willing to create your organization’s next chapter alongside you.
You also can’t fake caring about people just to get results out of them. (And you shouldn’t want to.) You should genuinely focus on your people.
In this day and age, of course, focus on people is nonnegotiable. Millennial and Gen Z employees demand a work culture where relationships are developed and people are shown respect. With whom they work is as important to them as what they do. The same goes for customers and vendors. It is one huge, symbiotic web of relational links. With price squeezed to the max, decisions increasingly come down to relationships built on integrity and trust.
And it works. In 2015, Harvard Business Review found that a positive work culture retains employees, reduces health insurance bills, and eliminates employee disengagement costs. None of these findings were brand new information, but they offer data that shows what we often know anecdotally.
The shift by today’s workers (and consequently, your team) toward free agency brings with it a tremendous need for you as a leader to develop great people skills. Since they know that you can make no promises about their future, the way you treat them matters all the more. People who quit their job typically quit their leader long before they turn in their resignation.
As a result, the taskmaster is an endangered species—you must now lead with a velvet hammer. The hatchet man who delivers over everybody else’s dead body will come calling the second time only to find that no one returns his call.
What about you? What of the below is true for you?
- I listen. People feel heard and understood by me.
- The people I lead love the culture we have created.
- Ongoing conversations with people on my team energize me (and them).
- I have a good knowledge of the emotional and mental state of the people reporting to me.
- I am known for my energy and warmth toward people.
Genuinely caring for people doesn’t just happen; it is a developed skill. Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote, “People who add value to others do so intentionally. . . . To add value to others, leaders must give of themselves, and that rarely happens by accident.”
How can you practically begin to “give of yourself” to those around you?
As your responsibilities increase, so will your dependence on other people to get the results you want. Simultaneously, as you deliver meaningful results, team members are energized.
The double-edged truth is that both people and the bottom line matter. They are inextricably intertwined. Embrace it.