Why I Take a Human-First Approach to Leadership

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Jack Kraft, legendary marketer and former COO of Leo Burnett. If you never had the pleasure, Jack is a consummate storyteller. And by storyteller, I don’t mean his talent for crafting brand narratives, although he is the best at this, too.  


So many of Jack's stories and inspiring anecdotes go as far back as his days working for McDonald’s CEO, Ray Kroc. He's an incredible mentor, and he uses his stories to teach, for example, the importance of there being no surprises in communication. I consider myself fortunate to be a beneficiary of the lessons of his career experience. Simply by being human, Jack keeps people engaged, inspired, and motivated to be the best version of themselves. 


Now, I’m the mentor. At this stage in my career, most of my joy and satisfaction comes from helping the people I work with navigate their careers.  


Yet we’re at an interesting moment when employees are feeling conflicted about a myriad of issues — the ever-changing advancements in technology affecting how we do our work and run our businesses, return-to-work policies, not to mention fears or apprehensiveness about the state of our economy, and politics that will only intensify throughout a presidential election year. 


When we consider what companies and their employees have had to endure since COVID, it’s pretty remarkable. In many respects, 2024 will continue what we’ve been experiencing over the last three to four years. People are more preoccupied with just getting through the day than thinking about the strategic moves needed to grow. While leadership often has advantages or lifestyles that make working at the office painless it’s essential to recognize many employees face challenges or have come through the pandemic with evolved priorities.  The value of work-life balance has advanced.   


This is a reality call to us as leaders to focus on workplace culture and employee engagement in ways that go beyond new work-from-home or mental health benefits policies. We must ask ourselves how we recognize and lead through these external dynamics and challenges. How do we help employees stay focused amid these distractions? How do we support our people and create a safe environment where they can feel good about themselves? How do we lean in and be part of the team? 


I’m not talking about something hatched in the HR Department or some special culture sub-committee. I’m talking about leading with empathy and caring gestures that I believe should be among the core tenets of anyone’s leadership principles. Here are a few I have found to be successful:  

  • Meet people where they are. I think of myself as working for Rise employees — they don’t work for me. It’s my role and responsibility to help them achieve their goals, no matter where they are in their careers or stages of life. This starts with listening, paying close attention, and understanding that people have different motivations — that a college graduate with student debt who wants to be able to live on their own has a different set of priorities than someone who’s been working for 30 years and wants to grow their retirement savings. Or someone who is looking to move into management has different needs and requirements than the employee who wants to develop their craft. Much of this is common sense, but it requires awareness and not assuming that the company’s bottom line drives everyone because that’s not always the case.    
  • Show them you’re listening. Before I leave a call or meeting, I make a point of asking people if there's anything else they need from me. I do this all the time, and whether or not people take me up on it, they leave knowing that I'm here to help them solve their problems and be successful. If they're genuine, these kinds of signals are powerful when building an A-Team. People who want to grow and advance will reach out. They'll ask questions and want to hear your thoughts. Others may require a little digging to understand how I can best support them. Either way, people know I'm here if they need me.  
  • Let them know you. I've found it’s easier to connect with people — especially young employees of a different generation — by sharing stories about my kids so that they can relate. When employees hear me talk about how my kids cringe at the thought of me using TikTok or some other social media platform or laugh at me when I try speaking in their language, they see and respond to me not just as a boss but as a human.    
  • Connect on a different level. Show an interest in people beyond what they do at work.  Someone on our team, for example, is the primary caregiver to her parents. Someone else does art on the side. And when you connect with people on this level, I truly believe these moments stand out to them, especially when all they’re trying to do is get through a challenging assignment or a tough day. It helps strengthen bonds, which, in turn, builds trust and loyalty.    
  • Be positive. There are ways of showing people that you care, even if it's something they're not excited about. Return-to-work policies, where many companies are experiencing resistance, are a good example. I use this as an opportunity to underscore to employees that if they're sick, or they have a sick kid, or the weather is terrible, by all means, it's not worth the risk of them coming in. Being positive and reassuring can change some perspectives, which I think is essential.  
  • Be respectful and tolerant. As people, we’re all faced with challenges. It's important to appreciate that people are unique. We don't always know what a person is going through or feeling. Approaching everyone around us with an empathy-first mindset creates a more inspiring world. I don't believe that telling people what to believe is my place. However, I can create an environment where people feel good about being part of a workplace where they can be themselves and don't have to look over their shoulder. 

Consider the new year a great time to take some of these lessons and pay it forward. At some point in their career, almost everyone has crossed paths with a Jack Kraft—someone who made us look forward to coming to work every day, who brought out the best in us, and whose empathy and humor as leaders left a lasting impression. What’s good for employees, after all, is also very good for business. 

Let’s connect, share our stories, and keep leading with empathy. 

02/02/2024 at 01:12