People-First Leadership

People, Purpose, Process

In her book, "The Making of a Manager", Julie Zhuo offers a trivariate of key ingredients for composing and leading teams: people, purpose, process.

  • People: First and foremost, effective leadership must prioritize people. Managers should build strong relationships with their team members, recognize their individual strengths and weaknesses, and provide the necessary support and resources to ensure their success.

  • Purpose: In addition to focusing on people, leaders must also have a clear understanding of the team's purpose and goals, as well as those of the broader organization. Effective managers communicate the team's vision and purpose, helping team members see how their work contributes to the larger mission of the company.

  • Process: Finally, strong leadership requires establishing efficient systems and processes that enable the team to work collaboratively and effectively. Managers must create structures that align team members towards shared objectives and allow for seamless execution of work.

This ordering is not accidental. To be overly reductive, without people we don't have much of a company. We may as well pack it up and go home, because there's really not much else to say. Less dramatically, if our goal is to strive for effective and efficient leadership, it's not just a good idea to start with people but an absolute prerequisite.

People First

From a business perspective, people might sound like a factor that's necessarily, if perhaps unfortunately, secondary to a cold, hard truth: the bottom line. We might argue that without revenue, there's no business. Indeed, that's likely the case. However, not only is this a myopic outlook, it's also too simplistic to be entirely accurate; there are many existential threats to a business, bankruptcy being just one.1

While it is true fiscal mismanagement can doom a business, it's important to recognize that there are many other factors that contribute to a company's success or failure. Business is complex, and any enterprise that requires more than a person or two to operate effectively must consider a range of additional factors.

Chief among these is the people who make up the business. Whether it's a small startup or a large corporation, the individuals who work for a company are the ones who bring its mission to life.2 Effective leaders understand this and prioritize the well-being and development of their employees, recognizing that their success is intrinsically tied to the success of the business as a whole.

While fiscal management is undoubtedly important, it should not overshadow the critical role that people play in a company's success. By valuing and investing in their employees, businesses can create a culture of engagement and innovation that drives long-term success.

Doing Our Best Work

The difference between a company that merely gets by and one that thrives is stark. Struggling businesses are perpetually on the brink of catastrophe, whether due to financial woes or a failure to resonate with the market or a mix of both, with one often leading to the other. In contrast, thriving companies are marked by a completely different kind of work environment.

Within these successful enterprises, talented individuals are brought together and given the resources they need to excel. Rather than operating in reactive survival mode, as struggling businesses often do, thriving companies foster an atmosphere of proactive innovation and progress.3 We might say this slightly differently: These are the cultures that not only ask us to do our best work but actively create the conditions to increase the chances that we can.

In my own experience, the companies that have prioritized investment in people have also been the companies that have seen outsized success in their industry. For instance, at one such company we were an otherwise unremarkable e-commerce business. However, we consistently attracted top-tier talent because we became known for our exceptional emphasis on individual well-being. These folks, supported with the investment and resources of the company, did some of the best work I've seen and as a direct result the business thrived.

This isn't exactly a secret, with many industry leaders frequently citing their people as the raison d'être of success. Companies have even built strategy around direct investment in people. With examples like Google's famous "20% time", which is noteworthy for spawning Gmail.

Consider where you think you're most likely to do your best work. While there are some incredible stories of fantastic success arising from the ashes of disaster, the likelihood of great work happening increases dramatically when companies start with investment in their people. Moreover these are not accidental cultures: People-first environments are born of intention and actively created by the way the business is led.

Leading with Empathy

Effective leadership requires a level of emotional intelligence that goes beyond the traditional command-and-control model. Leaders must be able to understand and empathize with the perspectives and experiences of their team members, and create a work environment that fosters trust and psychological safety.

In practice, this means taking the time to listen to employees and understand their unique challenges and concerns. It means providing support and resources to help them navigate those challenges, and being flexible and responsive when it comes to work arrangements and accommodations.

Leading with empathy also means recognizing the humanity of team members, and treating them with respect and dignity. This includes acknowledging and addressing issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and actively working to create a workplace culture that values and celebrates differences.

These are the basic building blocks to create a strong people-first foundation built on the principles of empathy, trust, and open communication. The scope of this work is tremendous and ongoing. Like gardeners tending to a garden, we must show up to this work with consistent attention and intention. This difficult work but it's also important work.

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The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, effective leadership is about more than just achieving financial success. Put differently, financial success is a side effect of a highly effective culture and such a culture starts and ends with people. Even if the fundamental concern we have is for the business, it behooves us to realize that the business is people.

By prioritizing people, purpose, and process, leaders can create a work environment that fosters engagement, innovation, and long-term success. By leading with empathy and treating employees with respect and dignity, they can build a culture of trust and psychological safety that empowers team members to do their best work.

Ultimately, this kind of leadership is not only good for employees; it's good for business. By investing in their team members and creating a culture of empathy and innovation, leaders can drive long-term growth and profitability, while also making a positive impact on the world around them.


  1. We would be at best naive leaders to consider only one threat and moreover to make it the primary focal point.

  2. To belabor the point: the people are the business, quite literally.

  3. Note here that the emphasis isn't keeping the lights on, although that's no doubt a side effect of success in the marketplace.

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