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The people puzzle

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A good leader knows no two people are created the same. Teofilus Ponniah, head of corporate services HR and head of talent at British American Tobacco, shares a story about what can happen when a manager can’t put the pieces together.

Anna was a very ambitious and bright young lady.

With the right amount of stretch and support, she would have been an outstanding star. She adopted a quick-paced, no-holds barred approach to her career and was determined to be better than everyone else.

She was fiercely aggressive at performance reviews and talent discussions. Many of her line managers would often give in to her demands, as no reasons could be used to stop her from being the very best in the organisation. Her performance and potential was unparalleled and she got her way most of the time.

On paper, you could not fault her performance or potential. She was highly visible and her gravitas in large crowds was apparent.

Within a relatively short time, Anna was heading a department of 20-odd people and life was looking pretty good for this 30-year-old. As with all things in life, it is precisely at these moments that life throws you a curve ball. The seams, which had held Anna’s enviable rise to success and that had been so tightly held together, seemed to slowly, but surely, become undone.

Anna had high expectations of everyone she worked with.

As the head of her department, she expected everyone in her department to be exactly like her. She demanded and often insisted that everyone have the same amount of intensity and commitment to work. To her, work and deliverables were second to none.

After all, her nice apartment overlooking the lake and two-door convertible were all a result of her painstaking commitment to work. Why would other people not want the same things and the same success?

This was a misjudgment on her part, because the fact is they wanted different things from her. This undeniable truth led to Anna’s team slowly falling apart. Some were asked to leave, others were given poor performance ratings and many were highly demotivated because of the continuous amount of stress.

Eventually, Anna’s department of 20 people was standing at 50% of establishment numbers. Workload and deliverables remained the same, but spread over a smaller headcount, the pressure was mounting. Deadlines could not be met and the organisation was becoming increasingly frustrated with Anna.

Anna was swiftly pulled from her pedestal and moved onto the dart board. She was held accountable for poor service delivery and questionable people management. Eventually, she left the company after a long painful conversation with the head of the organisation, and her once perfect life was in tatters.

So what happened? On the surface, Anna did nothing wrong. After all, it could be said the high churn in her department resulted from people being incompetent – from not being able to keep up with her. Perhaps they ultimately should not have even been hired.

But there is one important piece of the puzzle Anna forgot to consider: No two people are created the same. It seems like a painfully simple statement, but it’s easy to forget that different people are complex in many different ways.

What motivates one demotivates the other; what interests one is of no interest to another. The slower one is to accept this, the longer it will take to succeed.

It is of paramount importance that line managers or a manager of managers spends time understanding the department and the people which make it up.

How often have you heard managers say, “My door is always open. If there are any issues, please come and talk to me”? But when you ask how many people actually take advantage of this open door policy, the answer is, usually, very few.

Instead of inviting, a true leader is the one who goes to the people to sit at the cubicles or strike up a conversation. The amount of traction that is gained by doing this is phenomenal.

The key is to fully understand the different parts of this complex machinery and leverage upon it to attain success. Ultimately, if we all spent more time with our people, deadlines are more easily met and deliverables are more effortlessly attained.

Anna should have spent more time understanding her people and not trying to make them “mini-me” versions of herself.

Ultimately, there is no one sure-fire way to success, but time with people is a sure step in the right direction.

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