4 Steps to People-First Management

I thought that everyone liked recognition for a job well done. Apparently, they don’t and I found this out the hard way. I managed to upset a member of my team when I publicly recognised their great work. I thought I was doing the right thing but they let me know that they felt uncomfortable and a little annoyed with any kind of praise.

What they wanted was acknowledgement in a one-on-one catch-up. So I pulled back on the public recognition and focused more on personal acknowledgement. This led to where we could improve the process for an outcome that was speedier and more cost effective to the business — an unexpected benefit.

This conversation led me to re-think the whole reward and recognition bit for this particular team (I manage and lead three very different teams — a Technology team at SEEK ; a division 1 soccer team; and an Eagles Tribute band). Which then led to this question:

Are there common steps when managing distinctly different teams with completely different goals & outcomes?
These are the teams I manage

My teams

At SEEK my team is made up of developers and a technical writer — each one of us has different skills along with different levels of knowledge. We work with many other teams to deliver content for our website often with quick turn-around times. We measure success by how well we delivered on stakeholders’ expectations.

The soccer team is a group of 16 players. We prepare for success by training during the week, assessing the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, and looking at our players’ health and capabilities. I assign specific team and player tasks to minimise our deficiencies. We measure success by the games we win.

The band is an Eagles tribute show and it bases success on crowd numbers, social media activity and our followers. To ensure success, we spend weeks in rehearsal to get the right sound. We want people to feel like they’re listening to the original track. We also need to look like and even behave as the band did on stage to create the ultimate Eagles tribute experience.

Everything about these teams is different — their goals, how they determine success, personalities, and the cultures they operate in. But I’ve discovered there are common steps I take when managing them — and it’s all about putting people first.

Step 1: Building relationships builds trust

The people that I manage are my heroes. In the execution of their skills, they each lead the team to ultimate success. Without people operating at their best, I fail as a leader and we fail as a team.

To build strong relationships I need to really understand the members of my team. It’s paramount for building respect, culture and a sense of worth. If you don’t know the members of your team, you will not understand their strengths and weaknesses. Without this information the decisions you make in critical moments will most likely be off the mark and thus fall short of the outcomes expected.

So, here’s what I look for:

  • What are the members of my team passionate about within the team’s purpose?
  • What drives them?
  • What are they passionate about in their personal lives?
  • What makes them laugh?
  • What annoys them?
  • Who do they admire in their lives?

The key to learning about your team is Listen, Learn, Question & Empathise.

Understanding the individuals of the team allows you to adjust your communication approach with each person. As we know, everyone is different and encouraging drive, passion and engagement is not a one size fits all. It takes time, strategy and practice to learn how to adjust and adapt as a leader to different personalities in the team.

An example of this was one of my players within my soccer team who was so quiet I barely got 5 sentences from him after the first 10 games of the season. In a soccer environment, most players are full of bravado & hype. I made it my job to connect to this young man and increase his confidence so he would want to share his knowledge and show his abilities. To build trust, I ensured our personal catch-ups were in a very quiet space and that my voice volume was as low as his. We caught up at the library of his university.

It was in these sessions where we started to share stories bout our own player experiences. I spoke about how frustrating it was for me when a certain coach treated me like I was a superstar while a new coach the following year benched me for an entire year.

In a very short time I found out this young player hated the position and role I had set for him.

He really admired coaches that were tactical and showed quiet leadership — such as Carlos Ancelloti — and that he found it more valuable in a game to interpret hand signals for instructions instead of voice commands.

So I changed his role to what he felt his strengths were and changed my approach when I delivered game day instructions to him. The outcome? He played a pivotal part in the team winning its first state championship and the very next year he signed a contract with a National Premier League team.

To ensure this guy performed at his best:

  • I made sure I was in the best environment for him, when we had our conversations
  • I exposed my own vulnerabilities, development path, challenges and life values
  • I really listened to him and when I spoke it was at the same volume as he spoke.

I found this type of analysis — looking for the right system to best suit each team member — setup the right environment to allow these talented and creative team players to co-exist and work together to achieve our teams goals.

This is the foundation of trust and as trust builds so does mutual respect, deeper relationships, clearer expectations and an understanding of the dreams and aspirations of each team member.

This is the approach I take when building rapport on a professional and personal level and the end results are:

  • Effective two-way open communication
  • Identifying the development steps needed to effect change in their performance
  • Higher engagement & contribution to effectively help achieve the teams desired outcomes

Step 2: Communication using Ubuntu (not the operating system)
As a manager, Ubuntu is a word that excites me. I first heard it used by the NBA Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. It means caring about the team around you and he used it to bond his team. I’m a passionate guy, and this really clicked with me, although my take on it is slightly different:

I can’t be all I can be as a manager, unless each team member is all they can be

At some point during the team’s journey there will be moments where the team will face adversity and that’s when UBUNTU and working collaboratively with open communication comes through for the group. It’s about being close-knit, with everyone invested in each other’s success.

It’s a complex and high-pressure world out there with demanding stakeholders that expect outcomes. It’s about togetherness when the pressure is on and I try to act in a way that I want my team members to act:

  • sticking it out together
  • being calm under pressure
  • being slow to anger
  • thinking about the greater good and not the immediate result.

Establishing clear two-way communication channels and techniques assists teams deliver successful outcomes but more importantly builds their development, advancement, growth, and passion. Communication skills are the key to building rapport and relationships in all aspects whether it’s our professional or personal life.

With the three teams there are different types of communications that are necessary to convey the correct information at the right time:

  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication
  • Non-verbal communication

These all take daily practise from every member of the team and are all as important as each other within the team’s journey. Each one conveys information to their recipients and it’s important to be sure that information is accepted and understood in the same terms as intended by the sender.

Whether it is a well written email, face to face conversation or critical eye contact/hand signals, the importance of a continuous two-way communication process creates a culture of openness, transparency, trust and means the right tasks are actioned at the right time.

Managers that I have worked with in the past have believed that open communication is all about transmitting information which creates an “I say, you do environment”. When I came into management I made it a priority to learn and practice various communication skills. Effective communication is as much about listening, questioning & learning as it is about telling someone what to do & when to do it.

We all need each other within the team to be our best so we can work towards our common goals and outcomes the team has been set. Together we can move mountains!!

Step 3: Match individual goals to teams goals

It sounds obvious, but I’ve seen this so many times. If you can’t match your personal goals to the team’s goals it won’t work. It’s like trying to match two puzzle pieces from different puzzles. There’s no way they’re going to fit together the way you hope .

Individual tasks might differ between team members, but there needs to be clear connections between personal tasks set and teams goals. My belief is there is more than 1 steering wheel on the ship. I feel it’s critical that each team member understands that with their individual tasks achieved only then can the over aching team goal and outcome can be achieved.

I strive to build a sense of ownership from each team member by having team members accept responsibility and accountability for delivery of their specific tasks, this includes:

  • Stakeholder management duties
  • Estimations on delivery
  • Subject matter expertise
  • Sharing knowledge

We are all responsible for managing our individual tasks and feel a sense of pride and leadership in delivering outcomes set for ourselves. Creating this type of ownership culture breeds a sense of individual & team passion which makes any team a force to be reckoned with.

Step 4: Keep Learning

For me to deliver successful team outcomes whilst empowering my team members to strive for improvement, it is critical that I continue to learn from other leaders. I need to improve and expand on the steps I use in my approach to people first management and I do that by reading, in conversation and observation. This allows me to adapt, broaden my techniques, and continually improve my leadership as all three teams continue to evolve and improve.

One of my favourite speakers who really opened my eyes is Simon Sinek. In this video, he talks about putting people first and making team members feel secure. For me, it reinforces that being a leader is a lifestyle decision that means you’re willing to take care of and guide others. It’s 20 minutes that’s well worth your time.

One of my first drum teachers told me that if you only learn to play basic rock music and then stop practising you will shut down these avenues in your brain and restrict your potential to really understand the beautiful language of music. So I made sure that I learnt Funk, Latin & Jazz which means I can adapt and communicate with many more musicians than if I stopped after learning rock.

I apply the same logic to my leadership — when I stop being a student I will only be able to guide, influence and mentor relationships with the knowledge I currently have. This limits my effectiveness as a manager.

So to continue my learning I ask:

What works for you? Is there something I’ve missed that makes a difference to your teams? I’d love to hear your thoughts.