Why Great Leaders Focus on People, Not Numbers

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By Jas Singh

So Jas, any questions?

I looked down at my paper pad. It had been two hours. All I could see was numbers – 20 years experience, experience leading a 250 FTSE business, must have managed at least $100 million in annual revenue. Double-digit growth, managing a company of at least 1500 people. And so on.

I was meeting the board of a well known UK based global company that was looking for a COO. Three great people were at the meeting, with the best intentions to help me find the right person. I had stopped by for the morning to find out more about their exact requirements. But all they had done was fire numbers at me. It’s what they were used to – managing by numbers.

As a follow up, they thought it would be a good idea for me to meet the Chairman. He was a key decision maker in the process. He recommended I meet him for a coffee in Starbucks on the South Bank – that felt different to start with.

“Find us an executor” he said. “That’s what we really need. Someone whose got a track record of executing large scale strategy. Someone who can get things done”. After 10 minutes of transparent and honest discussion I had an exact idea of what my client is looking for.

Numbers are essential in managing any business. Great for measuring results. The only way to accurately compare share price, sales revenues and profits. But they fall short in measuring the most essential part of any business. People.

Great leaders like the Chairman understand that outstanding businesses are built by outstanding people. Their primary focus is to focus on the people they serve.

Here are some ways great leaders put people before numbers.

1) They focus on building great culture

The reasons why numbers are used so much to manage an organisation is that they are easy to measure. And so easy to get others to stick to. Agree to the new sales target? Great, we’ll take that as commitment to deliver. Want to double the share price in three years? OK….if you double my salary. Need to cut cost by 30%? Sure, all we need to do is fire half the staff.

Numbers allow people at the top to often cut deals based on performance. Usually at the expense of other people.

There’s another way to manage a business. Something that is much harder to create, and even more difficult to define. It’s also something that you might not even receive full credit for – in the world of trying to maximize personal benefit and credit, why would you want to do that?!

But it’s the best way for leaders to run a business.

The only way to inspire others.

It’s called creating a great culture.

You see, some of the top leaders realise that numbers are just the end outcome – what really drives performance is great people. And great people thrive in a great culture. They are inspired by great values.

Whether it is Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson, great leaders leave the numbers to others so they can spend their times inspiring the people they lead.

2) They assess things that aren’t “measurable”

Whilst at University I had a part-time telesales job selling satellite television packages to home users. (Hey it was the 90’s, believe it or not back then these things were sexy and sold like hotcakes). The team was around 200 people and attrition was high – the company I worked for was a well known large firm and there was always competition for places since the demand was so extensive.

To survive the chop, you needed to be making at least 5 sales a week. Most people who had been with the company longer than 6 month were doing this.

Yet on our team there was a young guy called Lenny. Lenny sucked. He never sold a single thing. But he had one quality that made him indispensable. Man, Lenny was funny.

This guy cracked you up. Jokes, witty comments, funny sounds. He was great for team morale and incredibly popular. In an environment with regular rejection and failure, he kept the team going. If you wanted to feel better just have a quick chat with Lenny. Whenever he did eventually do a sale, he’d be greeted with an ironic cheer and applause. He was brilliant.

You see the manager I worked for at the time was clever. He saw that although from a “numbers” perspective Lenny wasn’t performing, from a motivational perspective he was galvanising the rest of the team. Our overall numbers were better because of him. He had more to offer than what was purely measurable by numbers.

Great leader understand and apply this concept. They realise that the most important powers in life – inspiration, motivation, team-work, innovation, problem solving, relationship building – are not easily measurable by numbers.

Rather than constantly hunched over their spreadsheets, they are continually assessing those things that are truly important – whether measurable or not.

Great leaders value intangibles.

3) They make hiring a priority

There is something ironic about measuring people with numbers. Great leaders understand that if you hire the right people in the first place (something not easy to do), then guess what, the numbers take care of themselves.

It’s business fashion these days to say how the most important part of any business is its people. OK, we get it, but then the more important question to then ask is –then what exactly are you doing about it?

If people is your most important asset then simple logic says that your most important focus should be hiring and developing existing staff. And further logic says that as the most important person in your organisation who should be leading this drive to hire the right people? That’s right. You.

It’s been my personal experience that the most successful leaders are those who are hands-on in the hiring process. Although this percentage is very small – leaders are usually much more occupied with shareholders, management meetings and client proposals than spending time to develop the quality of their people.

Great hiring managers value prevention over cure.

Rather than continuously managing the wrong people against numbers, they’d rather just spend the time hiring the right person in the first place.

Conclusion

Numbers are great for measuring most things.

But few people can be accurately be described by a set of figures, grades and targets.

Hiring managers should understand the importance of intangibles that are not measurable, but often even more important in success.

Are you being treated like a number?

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