Most Important Lesson Learned: People First

It’s not controversial to have a people-first leadership or management style, or even a people-first life philosophy. We say all the time, “It’s all about the people!” But prioritizing people above all else is something that’s much easier said than done. While many of us have the intention to be people-first in our decision-making, our actions are often discordant with that desire.

I’ve spent much of my career reflecting on what it really means to be a good person and a good leader. Over the last three years, I’ve researched this topic extensively and collected my findings in my forthcoming book, Good People, on sale April 25. I researched nearly 100 case studies of leadership, and all unequivocally affirmed that real goodness is about quality of character, not measures of competence. Being “good” means many things, but certainly one of the most important is having a people-first philosophy. You can identify the best leaders by how well the understand that being people-first means creating more leaders, not mere followers.

As the managing partner of a venture capital firm, I constantly remind myself and my colleagues that we should think of ourselves as “human capitalists” or “mentor capitalists,” rather than “financial capitalists,” and that we should always put people before the idea. This was a guiding principle of “General” George Doriot, a forefather of venture capital who founded INSEAD and also taught at Harvard Business School. Doriot taught his students that they should always choose a team over an idea. In fact, he stressed that if his students were ever in the position of choosing between an A-idea with a B-team or an A-team with a B-idea (or, for that matter, a C-idea), they should choose the A-team. People win out over ideas because good people will always be able to build the right teams around them to collectively translate a mediocre idea into a great one. In contrast, even the best ideas go nowhere with the wrong talent to execute on them. You can’t lead the parade if no one’s walking beside or behind you.

Why do people find it so hard to choose A-teams over A-ideas? One reason is that many of us struggle to define what it really means to be “people-first.” When you look for A-teams, you must search for something more than just competency. Good people have the right competencies, but more importantly, they have the right character and values. Yet in our judgment of people, we tend to bias competency over character, which we think of as a “nice to have.” This is because it’s simply easier to screen for what is “hard” than it is to screen for what is “soft.” When faced with this difficulty, we would do well to remember what the late General Schwarzkopf once said: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of being people-first is our built-in confirmation bias. We tend to be more comfortable collaborating with people whose work styles resemble our own, and who in turn we feel confident managing. This makes sense on the one hand, but on the other, we should keep in mind the old adage that A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s. It’s great to share common values and standards, but we must remember that people may express the same values and standards in different ways and drawing on different skills. The leadership imperative has to be to find people who inspire and challenge your thinking and doing.

When you have the right people on your team, you hold the key not just to transformative change, but to a real, enduring work cultures, and therefore real, enduring competitive advantage. Your people assets are your most valuable assets. Leading in a manner that recognizes your duty to serve will bring out the best in others and, by the extension, the best in your organization.

In business, goodness isn’t a “nice to have” luxury, it’s a “must have” mandate. It’s entirely possible to run a competitive, hard-driving, and high-performing business while expressing truth through humility and self-awareness, and compassion through empathy and generosity. Good things happen to good people-and good people are not just good for business, but great for it. We can proactively choose to be people-first. Ultimately, this commitment is expressed over the long-run. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. And when we imprint goodness onto others whenever we have the opportunity, goodness goes beyond being just a label or an ideal. It becomes a way of being.


Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball, former vice chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck (HBR Press, 2012) and author of the forthcoming Good People (Penguin Publishing Group, 2017).

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