Leadership’s Secret Sauce: Take Care of the People Who Take Care of the People

When the door opened a young man walked in buried into his phone. He did not look up, which I thought strange because in the outer office there were 3 customers and 4 of his workmates. He proceeded to his desk still looking into his phone. He sat down turned his laptop on and started work.

A few minutes later the owner of the firm walks in. An older man, he looked to be in his early 70s, but in good shape. Coming in, he worked the room, shaking hands. I was sitting awkwardly away from him, still he reached over and squeezed my shoulder and said, “Good to see you again. He greeted all his employees including the young man who was still looking into the phone.

This took place at the rental office for my apartment as I was renewing my lease. The young man was his son; the older man was the patriarch of the organization with beautiful buildings all over Dubai. To say the least, he is a very wealthy man. Yet he showed everyone how it should be done. To him everyone meant something to him. He knew they could take their business to another realtor. To him it is important to build relationships. To him every person counted. His son, who never looked up, has a lot to learn, as I am sure one day he will inherit this business.

What is wrong with this picture?

I am a keen observer of people dynamics because, as my father once told me, you can learn a lot by just keeping quiet and watching what goes on around you.

My apartment building is in a very beautiful and historic part of Dubai. Across the street is another building which is inhabited by airline stewards from one particular major airline. I notice that that when they are standing outside in groups, they don’t speak to each other. They come out to wait for the bus that takes them to the airport; no one acknowledges the others. Living together, working together, riding to work together, spending time together, and not the most basic pleasantries are uttered.

I finally met one of the big shots of that airline and told her this story. She finally admitted that engagement was very low and they had a lot of issues. Bingo!!!

People before strategy

I have always believed that if you get the “people thing” right there is no challenge that is insurmountable. However as so many leaders have learned the hard way, discount your people and they will definitely discount you as well as your organization. All the time spent on developing strategy are lost if talent is not a part of this process. Do you have the right people; how are they feeling about you?

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Are we developing a culture based on the employee experience the same as we do for our customers? A dear friend of mine told me one day that his role as the CEO of a major hospital here in Dubai is to “take care of the people that take care of the people.” Quite a little tongue twister, but very clear in its meaning. Are we running our business this way? If we spent as much time on our employees as we do our customers, over time we would see monumental results.

The secret sauce

Empathy, authenticity and consistency are required across the board or else “value”’ is lost for employees and customers alike. The young man in my example quickly engaged in conversation with me as a client after he got settled. Yet, by end of my business meeting, he had not acknowledged his co-workers. I am willing to bet this goes on every day. However, the old man gets it; he manages by that principle of taking care of the people who take care of the people. He greeted his employees, and then acknowledged everyone in the room.

That simple lesson can’t be taught in an off the shelf leadership class or some off-site. Just conquer the basics and begin your leadership journey from there. Concentrate on your people. Get to know them not as workers but as human beings that want respect from you.

Take care of your employees and you need not worry about some customer experience score; the better you do your job on the former, the latter will take care of itself.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.