I have been a CEO for nearly 20 years. During this time, I have learned a great deal about people, especially other leaders. One of their top-of-mind questions is, “How do I solve my people problems?” I’ve faced many CEO problems over the years, but one I no longer struggle with is people.
Understanding people did not come easily to me. To be honest, I was a horrible people manager earlier in my career. I am a big-picture thinker who is highly effective at executing plans and visions, but I was completely oblivious to the fact that my employees needed more from me than ideas and orders. You could blame this on my young age and inexperience, as I first became a CEO in my early 30s, but I now know that my age had nothing to do with my people problems.
Why wasn’t I a good people manager?
I wasn’t a good people manager because my brain was wired to excel in other areas. I have a natural tendency to go from idea to action with a nod to planning, but without creating external awareness and getting buy in from others. When I don’t build external awareness around a plan, I skip right over inspiring others to come on board with me, which is a crucial step in creating good work. I thought my get-stuff-done mentality was my greatest professional asset, but I was wrong.
I recognized that I had people problems from the grumblings in the break room, the loss of good employees, explosive meetings, eye rolling, etc. At first, I tried everything from executive coaching and assessments, to reading leadership books—but nothing seemed to work. This changed the day I met Mike Sturm, a jovial man who had no filter and a total lack of interest in corporate America. As a social psychologist and learning diagnostician, Mike’s work was at the crossroads of counseling, Gestalt therapy, learning and educational psychology. Mike spent 25 years developing a methodology that explains why people do the things that they do in three minutes or less. Curious, I took his assessment and years of my people questions were answered in three minutes.
Learning about my natural energy
What I learned wasn’t about my personality or competencies. Instead, I was finally able to recognize where my natural energies (or tendencies) most comfortably took me. Mike’s methodology gave me insight into where I’m likely to spend more time — executing and planning — and areas that require more energy, like inspiring people and getting buy-in for a plan.
Empowered with this knowledge, I began to modify my process for connecting with my team. I added communication plans to every new project. I slowed down and took the time to listen to my team and to share my thoughts and plans with them. I began to pay attention to verbal clues, speech patterns, body language, and was able to recognize a person’s preferred energy very quickly. That was my biggest discovery. If I understand how an employee is naturally wired, I no longer take certain behaviors or gut reactions personally. The first step is recognizing what others need from me and vice-versa. The second is creating a compromise by balancing the needs of the business with the needs of each individual.
We all know that the demands of running a business do not always allow leaders to slow down and explain every detail of every plan to employees who need to understand the big picture first. So, I realized I needed to compromise, to make a better effort to align with their optimal way of working. In exchange, my team members needed to understand that I couldn’t always slow down to explain everything to them. In practice, I included my employees in the bigger picture as often as I could, and my team consequently let go of their need to know it all and just do what was being asked of them.
You don’t have to be a charismatic leader to be effective
I once told Mike Sturm I was bothered that I didn’t have more energy to inspire people. He made me see that having creative and action-oriented energy aided me in starting four businesses, and also gave me a keen ability to project future challenges and opportunities. With awareness and understanding, I now know not to skip over the “charismatic” aspect of leadership, and to make my team aware of this so they can support me and assist in developing a positive culture.
For me, it was all about understanding — understanding myself first, and discovering that I could then understand the way my employees were wired. Sharing this knowledge with my team has done wonders in removing personal feelings and getting everyone on the same page. From time to time, you may still have misalignment with an employee that goes beyond their energy and learning styles, and perhaps they’re not the best fit for your company, but at least you will have a primer that helps you understand the basics of human nature.
About the author: Karen Gordon is the CEO of 5 Dynamics and has taken the methodology discovery she described above, and turned it into an online platform that companies like LinkedIn, Harvard and Camden Coalition use to foster positive, effective team environments.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Nicole Fallon.