5 Things Every Leader Should Know About Their People

Yesterday, I had the privilege of facilitating a leadership program for a group of mid-level sales managers. At one point, I asked a question that I frequently ask leaders – “does your spouse, significant other, family or friends know your boss by name?” Every hand in the room went up. I don’t have to ask why – the boss is a common topic of conversation at home or at the bar after work. Then I asked: “what are those conversations like? Are they reflective of what the boss is doing for you – or what the boss is doing to you?”

After a few seconds of awkward snickering and whispering to each other, I bring home my point with this question: “so, do you think the spouse, significant other, family or friends of your direct reports know your name? What do you suppose those conversations are like?” That usually stops them in their tracks, and you can almost see the gears spinning in their heads. Many leaders have actually told me that they’ve never thought of that before… almost everyone stops talking, and starts, well, thinking – what are those conversations like? It’s a scary moment, and I do my best to let it soak in a bit before moving on.

Here’s the thing – if you lead others, I guarantee that you’re a topic of conversation around the dinner table, probably in several households at once. How do you want those conversations to go? We can’t dictate every impression or emotion that our direct reports might have about us, but we can take steps to create the kind of relationship that garners the benefit of the doubt. And it starts with taking a genuine interest in them as people.

In my experience, there are 5 things that every leader needs to know about their people:

  1. Where (and how) did they grow up? Most people like to tell their own personal history – where they were born, how they grew up, what their parents did, etc. Take an interest in you’re their backgrounds – not only is it respectful, but you might learn something useful in terms of managing them. For instance, people who grew up on a farm generally have deep-seated views on values and work ethic; people who grow up in big, northeastern cities are comfortable mixing it up with peers, etc.
  2. What are their hobbies? What do they like to do when they’re not working? Knowing a little about what gives them joy outside of work helps you relate to them more effectively. You might be able to draw a connection from a work project back to something they have care deeply about in their personal lives. Again, take an interest in your people’s lives outside of work.
  3. Who’s the most important person in their life? Find out who that is, and learn their name(s). If your directs have children, learn their names (yes, all of them – you can do it).
  4. What are they passionate about? What really moves your people? Some people are really into sports, or politics, or volunteering in their communities. I just met a woman the other day who runs her own non-profit organization – and I wonder how many of her co-workers really know about it. You can learn a lot about people if you know what really turns them on.
  5. What do they want to do with the rest of their life? There are countless insights here – including whether you can help them make their dreams come true. What if you learned that someone always wanted to live abroad – and you had the ability to make that happen with a transfer or job rotation?

If you make a sincere effort to learn these 5 things about each person that reports to you, I honestly believe it makes you a better manager. Think of any boss you’ve ever had – didn’t you enjoy working for those who took a genuine interest in you as a person? If you take the time to ask these 5 questions, I think you stand a better chance of being represented in a positive light when the conversation gets around to you – because there’s no question that it will, one way or another!