It was the late 80s. Cell phones—the 4-pound, brick-sized ones—were hitting the market. I worked as a trainer at McCaw Cellular (later Cellular One), teaching the customer service staff to use a new billing system. (Fun fact: the only time the NEXT Computer designed by Steve Jobs when he was temporarily away from Apple was rolled out inside a company!)
I loved that job.
I loved learning the cutting-edge technologies.
But what I loved most was teaching people.
Soon, though, I was ready to start a family.
I remember the day I returned to work after parental leave. Boy was I in a squeeze.
Drop the baby at daycare at 7:00, get to work by 8:00, pick up the baby by 6:00 or pay a penalty, careen home by 7:00 for a few minutes of family connection.
It wasn’t long before I told my boss I needed something to give (“part-time, flex-time, anything but this”). He declined, saying he found it inconceivable that I could be a mother and a valuable team member.
So I quit.
It was hard to leave, but the right call. My next job helped me also have the life I wanted. Over the years, I set out on my own to forge new ways for leaders to show up and create cultures that are good for people.
I made a lot of mistakes at first. But over time, I’ve learned what worked and what didn’t for organizations in every sector. I learned how to understand how systems break apart and how leaders can begin to piece them back together.
I’ve also learned just how hard leadership is. There’s a lot of stress—budgets, deadlines, investors–not to mention making a living yourself.
And on top of the job of running the ship, you also deal with the people.
Hiring, firing, and everything between.
It may seem obvious, but people are not machines. We are much more interesting, but also more complex and messy. We each have our own needs, wants, and past wounds. And we bring it all to work with us.
This is true in every organization and every team.
What can you do to unlock your people’s potential?
We need to look back on the history of work to understand why we need leadership and teams.
You see, it wasn’t long ago that “work” didn’t exist. Humans lived. We found food, built our shelters, and spent time together.
But we started organizing ourselves into complicated groups and dividing up the jobs.
Farmers farmed. Basketmakers made baskets.
With specialization came the need to organize the specialists.
The farmers all farmed the farmland. The basket makers made baskets at the basket factory.
With the industrial revolution and increasing urbanization, the need to organize ourselves increased.
Conversations around labor and worker rights had to grow more nuanced.
People began to study how people organized themselves in working environments.
One of the biggest problems was figuring out what elements of an organization influence it the most.
The academic and practical field of Organizational Development began.
I earned a master’s degree in Organizational Development. Its principles formed the basis of my career.
OD involves looking at the entire system to consider the practices, systems, and techniques that affect results. Then, using the findings to tweak the organization to better meet its needs.
The research conducted in OD is marvelous. It draws on many disciplines, from psychology to sociology to education.
Hiring an OD consultant can be very effective, but can also be both expensive and slow.
What if you, as a leader, could impact your system with the lens of an experienced OD practitioner?
As a leader, you’re busy. Your plate is full. It’s impossible for you also to become an academic in a complicated field.
So you hire an HR expert. After all, they can help you manage your Human Resources, right?
In theory, HR managers and experts should be able to maximize your existing human resources. In practice, though, HR falls short of its potential.
HR has become about largely compliance and administration.
While these matter, proper people-centered impacts don’t happen when they are relegated to the function HR.
Real solutions for real human beings.
While it can feel so difficult at the moment, leadership isn’t rocket science. There are a few simple things that good leaders understand.
Having watched good leaders become excellent ones, I’ve seen what they do differently.
I’ve taken their wisdom into my approach and distilled it down into a few principles:
People are not machines.
During the industrial revolution, managers saw their workforce as an equation. Put in raw goods, get out products.
Their people were seen as robots, performing receptive manufacturing tasks.
This made sense at the time, but in the 21st century, we have actual robots.
The best leaders shift their thinking to focus on what job duties are unique to people. Then they treat their people with compassion: fair pay, fair conditions, all that goodness.
Business is a force for good.
Yes, in a capitalist society, we do need to make money.
But when profit is the only measure of business success, bad things happen. We erode, corrode, and destroy our resources—environmental and human.
Excellent leaders seek to discover what good their organizations can do. Then they do it. Then they make doing it part of why their business exists in the first place.
Learning occurs through real, lived experience.
Humans start learning from their first breath. Within years of life, most humans have learned to walk and talk. We learn best when our minds, bodies, and emotions all engage in our learning.
Excellent leaders understand that training and teaching people means more than repeating a mandate. Your people need to feel the importance of what you’re teaching them.
Courage drives all partnerships.
Courage is about taking our fears and discomforts with us in our work. We don’t ignore them. Instead, our most tender areas drive our most profound and most robust connections.
While it might be true that “he travels fastest who travels alone,” fast isn’t always the goal. And if you want to go as a team, it’s best to slow down and speak the truth.
It’s the 21st century. Humans are humans. The best leaders recognize the ways we’ve valued some humans more than others. They take direct action to contradict this outdated way. And their teams are more potent because of it.
How I work now and how you can get started
I work with a handful of select clients each year.
You can find out more about my 1:1 or 1:many work here.
I also run a cohort-based leadership program and business school called The Leading People Program™.
My mission is to make workplaces fit for human life.
Most of us work at small to medium organizations. So I spent a great deal of my time offering free support via my newsletter. You can join it here.