Bridging Leadership Lessons from the Workplace and Those Experiences Shaping Today's Youth and Tomorrow's Leaders
I was first introduced to the people-soft vs people-easy concepts in my early days with Brewer Science as a new manager. The owner and founder, Terry Brewer, was unique in how he created a culture of trust, ownership, and service that stood out from the typical companies. It was more than just words as he built that type of environment in how he engaged the employees daily. He went so far as to provide training and discussion on the soft skills in a weekly leadership meeting that he himself led, where we reviewed leading management books such as the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Who Moved My Cheese, Deep Change, and The Fifth Discipline.
Terry focused on creating buy-in and establishing trust to influence the employees instead of using the authoritative position approach. Being a privately held company, he did not focus on bottom line profits but instead felt that if we did things right, and focused on being a Company of the People, By the Technology and For the Customer, the bottom line would take care of itself.
When I was a new employee, I struggled with the concept because I grew up in a family where my parents always had a business, and they were clearly in charge. While my siblings and I worked at the businesses at various times, there was no doubt who was in charge. Despite initially struggling to grasp Terry’s vision, it didn’t take long before I recognized the similarities in the entrepreneurial spirit and the sense of ownership that were shared by my parents. My Dad’s mantra was “if it is worth doing, it is worth doing right” and that is a saying I have used with all my own kids as well as fostering that same ownership at work.
Interestingly enough, there were quite a few people that struggled with the concept of being “People-Soft”. It wasn’t always the new employees that were either new to this culture or new to the workforce as those who had been at the company for some time, still struggled to come to grips with the role the culture played. Many people viewed that the approach taken to empower employees was actually a weakness that lacked accountability as they felt that they couldn’t make people do certain things. They would become defensive and say, “my hands are tied” or “I can’t make them do that” and would accept that things were not getting done on time.
When I was promoted to Director and started participating in these sessions led by Terry, well, that is when I fully understood what he was trying to establish in the future leaders. My buy-in was so dramatic that a more seasoned Director asked me one night over a beer why I had transformed and if I had really bought in or not. I looked at him both dumbfounded but also proud. Dumbfounded because what Terry taught resonated so clearly with me that I assumed everyone was on board and proud because he recognized that I was practicing and living what was being taught.
Terry and I would have long discussions on the various books and topics. When I broached the topic of a “subculture” that existed where people didn’t feel that they could hold people accountable, Terry became animated and said, “Tom, there is a difference between people-soft and people-easy.” He went on to say that people-soft is when we are practicing the soft skills to create an environment where people want to contribute and are free to find the best way to contribute to our company’s success. We want them to feel ownership and treat everyone with respect. We want to be flexible and aware that everyone has their own experience in life and have a life outside of work.
In contrast, we are not people-easy. We shouldn’t lower expectations or let people get away without doing what needs to be done. He told me that we have the obligation, as leaders, to provide guidance and expectations so they understand what needs to be done. If they are unable to do the work, then we are responsible for training and educating to make sure that they have the skills. It’s not that you can’t correct the behavior, but more about how you correct the behavior that matters. We won’t tolerate people taking advantage of our company. But we want people to enjoy the benefits of our company.
A great example of this was one of my early leaders. He was very hands-off and focused on where he expected the company to go and not so much on how we would get there. I describe his leadership style as someone who would let you walk right up to the edge of the cliff without saying a word. Depending upon how high the cliff, dictated his action. If it was only a small drop-off, he might let you fall knowing that there was low risk of injury and after dusting yourself off, well, you probably wouldn’t do that again. If it was a tall bluff, then he would give you a slight nudge to keep you from falling off, but not enough to change your direction. If you kept hovering along the edge, he would still, just casually give you a nudge until you finally found your path.
Early on, his approach was frustrating, and he seemed to be wasting my time. I even asked him, why don’t you just grab me by the shoulders and point me in the right direction. He responded, “but then you won’t learn and grow from finding it on your own.” That really hit home for me. He could have been people-easy and not expected anything from me and just put me in the middle of the plateau away from the edges, but then I would never have enjoyed the view of the edge, the exhilaration of surviving the edge or the life lesson of knowing that while there is always an edge, there may not always be a rail preventing you from falling over.
It is the people-soft approach that promotes ownership and learning, that provides a foundation for personal growth that can impact so many others. A people-easy environment is not one of excellence, whether it is from the perspective of the employees or from that of leadership. A people-easy approach whines about accountability while a people-soft environment promotes and encourages ownership. It is with that sense of ownership that a people-soft environment fosters and enables a culture to truly last Beyond Today.
Tom Brown - a husband and a father who is simply trying to make a difference. Using my experience as a Manufacturing Executive to connect leadership from the boardroom to the hardwood to help teams grow and develop to make a difference in the lives of others.