Your People Eat First
About 3 years ago I did a survey where I asked people “What is you favorite leadership line you have heard?” I asked this of CEO’s, managers, supervisors, and friends. I wasn’t focused on any particular segment of the economy just those who had the opportunity to supervise people. I received 35 different replies.
One of the simplest, but most prophetic quotes came from a high powered Chicago lawyer. Over 30 years ago Lou was attending the Air Force Academy and as a student was given the opportunity to lead a group of 12 people for four days on a survival training exercise. On the last day, they came back to the academy beat, tired, and hungry. They went straight to the mess hall. As they entered the mess hall, the Active duty officer who was supervising my friend (and the rest of the cadets) pulled my friend aside and said, “Lou, your people eat first.” Lou replied with a quick, “Yes sir” and watched to make sure that all of his people were in line and getting their food before he placed himself at the end.
To this day it remains one of the single, most relevant lessons he has learned and for good reason. It’s all about that “taking care of your people” thing we keep talking about. The simple gesture of making sure your people are rewarded first speaks volumes to them. When you make sure they are first you are being selfless, which is truly one of the key traits of good leaders, because it’s so easy to tend toward being selfish when it comes to getting the work, you are responsible for, done.
How about this situation: It’s Thursday morning and Bob comes into your office and asks for 5 minutes of your time. You invite him in and as he sits down he says, “We have been working on a project that is scheduled to be completed in 45 days, and it looks as if it will be close, but probably done on time. The 8 people I have are all pretty good at what they do and it’s looking pretty good. The problem I have is that Janet (his wife) and I are scheduled to go on vacation to San Francisco next week and I will be out of the office for five days. I’m concerned about this project being completed and I want to keep my eye on it, so I would like to cancel that vacation and go some other time.” So, what do you do? What do you say to this guy?
A lot of people would hear the concern in his voice, understand how he feels, congratulate him on his proactive forward looking stance and concur with his assessment of the situation and then agree to let him cancel his vacation. After all, you need this work done and he wants to do it. What’s wrong with that? I’m not saying the boss is wrong, but I would like to suggest another way of looking at this.
When Bob comes in and spins his web of woe, you could say, “Boy, Bob, I can see where you are coming from and just like you, I would like to see this project completed on time. You and your folks have been doing a great job on it. But let me ask you a question Bob; What would happen if while you are driving home tonight some pickup truck runs a stop sign, broadsides your car and puts you in the hospital for the next two weeks? What do you think would happen here?” Bob would probably map out a sequence of events telling you how Margret (one his people) would take over the project and how the two of you would work something out until he could resume his position. Hopefully, as he is relaying this story to you, this would be the moment when he realizes that the company can do without him for a week. And with a genuine smile on your face you would tell him, “I think you deserve this time off, I want you to go to San Francisco and I don’t want to be the one to disappoint Janet. Have a nice time.”
Sometimes we have to save our people from themselves. Many people feel that they are critical to the job and that they are the only one who can do what they do. That is true in very few cases. It is far more important that they take some time off so they can recreate and reenergize their body and mind. They need to break the stress-inducing environment they are living in for a while so they come refreshed and ready to work.
But the salient point to be made here is; helping Bob to realize he can and should go on his vacation is also selfless on your part. Rather than keep someone here, for your benefit to accomplish the work you need done, you realize your employee’s needs and accommodate them. Can you imagine what will happen when Bob goes back to his friends and says, “I tried to stay here and not go on vacation, but the boss wouldn’t let me.” Talk about actions speaking volumes!
So, yes, THEY come first.