Organization Development: The True Meaning of ‘People come First’

Lego puppets

A few weeks ago I received an unexpected call from a senior executive (I will call him Thomas) of a company I worked with some years ago. We had not seen each other for a long time and it was nice to hear from him again. He was facing some new challenges in his division and he invited me for lunch to discuss it with me and see if I could help him. It was great to hear how well he was doing and how he had taken up exciting new responsibilities in the company since we worked together. He was now leading the Eastern Europe division, a fast growing and fast changing market that required a substantial amount of change management and organization development.

While listening to his story I was struck by the way Thomas was talking about the changes he was managing. He was genuinely enjoying his work. He was facing complex transformation, resistance and no certainty he would make it, but he talked about it with a degree of calm. Almost as if he knew it would turn out just fine. When I mentioned this he looked at me with a smile and said: “I’m not alone in this you know. I have the best team of people around me you can imagine. Without them I would be in big trouble. We perfectly complement one another. It’s just a joy to work in such a team.”

His team was his key to success. That was why he could see opportunities instead of problems and handle the current reality with all its challenges and unpleasant details, and still keep the focus on the future organization he was building.

The story of Thomas is not ‘one of a kind’. If you look around you will find more leaders that build success by surrounding themselves with people who form a winning team. Also in leadership literature you can find many examples of companies that create their success by focusing specifically on bringing together the right people.

Jim Collins for instance studied a large number of companies for years to define the reasons for their success (or lack of success) and came in his famous book ‘Good to Great’ to the following striking conclusion: Successful companies have leaders that first bring the right people on board (and let the wrong people go) before they define the destination and the road to follow. They do not define the strategy first and try to find the right people for the execution afterwards. (watch Jim explain)

Another example is Richard Branson who claims that his success in building and growing his conglomerate of divers companies is based on the people he collected around him: “When it comes to business success, it is all about people, people, people.”

This may sound a bit logical and maybe even obvious to you. But if you take a closer look at what it takes for leaders to do what Jim Collins and Richard Branson describe, it is maybe less obvious than it seems. What does it really mean ‘People come first’?

Successful leaders have a special quality when it comes to bringing people together. They have a specific attitude and mindset. They go beyond ‘managing people relationships’. They put people in the center of their lives, in the center of their dreams, of their plans. They envision their success because of the people around them.

After his election for President Abraham Lincoln chose to put some of his biggest opponents in his team, people who openly had criticized and ridiculed him during the elections and in the years before. He knew these people did not even like him, but he knew they were the best men for the job and he wanted them into his team.

If you observe successful leaders in action you notice the following specific behavior:

  • First the people, then the results

They believe that creating success depends on the people around them. They believe that the people together define the destination and the road. They do not define results before they have the right team.

  • Genuine interest in people to understand each others qualities

They show interest not only in what people HAVE or what they DO, but also in whom the person IS. They want to understand the person’s background, experience, inspirations, ideas, drive, and concerns.  They are good listeners.

  • Patience with building relationships

They understand that it requires time to build relationships that are based on mutual trust, openness and respect. They know that merely ‘using’ people to establish results will only lead to incidental success, not lasting success. They don’t sit and wait but they actively invest in building lasting relationships and they are persistent because they know it is crucial.

  • Independent thinking without ego

Strong and deep relationships do not prevent them from staying independent thinkers. They will never just follow an opinion, decision, or action without checking the reasoning and the facts behind it. They will not ‘follow the group because others do’, and do not hesitate to choose a different direction on their own. They do not do this out of suspicion or driven by ego, but out of continuous curiosity. They want to go for the best and they inspire their team to have the same curiosity and independent thinking.

  • Always asking for feedback from others

Although being independent thinkers they are always open for feedback and different viewpoints. They actively ask their team for second opinions and alternatives and they trigger others to have the same attitude. They believe the complementarities of the team members are crucial for the team’s success. They embrace contradictory opinions as the necessary fuel for sharpening judgments and decisions.

  • Taking decisions when necessary

They detect clearly the moments when decision taking is required. They can stimulate people for in-depth discussions and exchange of ideas and opinions, but they know exactly when the time has come to take decisions. On those moments they will not hesitate to take a decision.

  • Not wanting to please others, but building mutual respect

They do things or take decisions that lead to the desired destination. If these actions or decisions do please others, even better. But they are willing to take unpleasant decisions if it serves the common purpose. They understand that this will eventually lead to mutual respect. Trying to please others but undermining the higher purpose, will not lead to respect.


Do you recognize these leaders? Did I miss some points in the list above? Please share your story or comments with us!

If you have questions about organization development, leadership alignment or related topics, feel free to contact Aad .

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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