I thought I knew how to lead a team. Then I started investing in others as much as myself. It changed everything.
My dad wasn’t a mechanic. He didn’t work in a repair shop. I wouldn’t call him a gearhead.
And yet, he was always the first call when someone had a flat tire. He was on speed dial for any neighbor seeking a helping hand, a little encouragement or guidance during tough times.
My dad was plenty busy, running two businesses and raising eight children – yes, eight – in Lansdowne, a blue-collar town just outside Baltimore, Maryland.
“Investing in others is actually the best way to invest in yourself.”
Deep down, I felt like people took advantage of him. I didn’t get why he never said no.
Only decades later did I truly appreciate the humility of a man who understood the power of investing in people. Those memories paved the path in my own leadership journey, reminding me that investing in others is actually the best way to invest in yourself. Whether in the workplace or at home, the most effective leaders bring out the best in those around them.
That task becomes nearly impossible when people question whether you even care about them. Empathy and effort are intricately linked. Would you run through a wall for somebody disinterested in your life or aspirations?
A personal role model of mine put it another way:
“One measure of your success will be the degree you build up others who work with you,” said UPS founder Jim Casey. “While building up others, you will build up yourself.”
I eventually learned this lesson. But the breadcrumbs to this epiphany were already right in front of me – I just needed to look to my father.
A Chicago Dose of Reality
When I first started working at UPS, my worldview hardly resembled my father’s.
People were just a vehicle for me to get to where I wanted. As I moved up in leadership, I thought problem employees were expendable. I would sweep them aside rather than take the time to discuss their concerns. It was a rigid approach: Get on board or get out.
It’s fair to say that over my first 20 years at UPS my bosses saw me as … intense. I needed to get some perspective. In the early 90s, senior leadership sent me to the South Side of Chicago for an internship. It was a life-changing assignment that opened my eyes and unlocked my heart.
“I needed to get some perspective.”
Teenagers couldn’t read or write. They dropped out of school. They were in and out of jail.
We weren’t allowed to go anywhere by ourselves – it was too dangerous. Carjackings and drive-by shootings were common.
I started to make the connection between community, family and my personal leadership role.
I realized that many children are born into a life of abuse and neglect, lacking a father figure or role model to explain the importance of education, personal integrity and hard work. Nobody was investing in these children. As a result, these kids weren’t investing in their own futures.
I began to understand why my father spent so much time helping others. He wasn’t some pushover. He wasn’t just a people pleaser. Better than anybody else, he recognized the transformational power of one small act.
What if I tried to emulate his approach in the workplace?
Help Me Help You
About 10 years ago, I wasn’t happy with somebody who reported to me. He seemed like a lost cause. It would have been easy to fire him.
Instead, I tried something new. I took him aside and asked how I could help.
He lost his home and was struggling to keep his kids in private school – he had five children. He felt like he’d let his wife and family down.
I thought this man would benefit from a job change in my group, providing him a fresh start and new skills. It worked. He made a new name for himself and built up his confidence both at work and at home.
UPS helped put him back in school. We set up a system to track his performance. We regularly met to chat about life, not just the job.
Over time, he turned into a productive and loyal employee. That’s the power of people investment. Isn’t that preferable to simply firing an underperforming employee? Similar situations have played out repeatedly during the last decade because I started investing in people.
“We must understand what is important to our people.”
My career at UPS began 40 years ago as a loader and unloader. I’m now the director of the Customer Solutions’ Deployment team, with 60 people reporting to me. My success is directly tied to people-first leadership principles. Before we ask people to do what we consider important, we must also understand what is important to our people.
I start with three simple questions when I meet with my team members:
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
- How can I help you be successful?
- What can I do to make this job more rewarding?
I make a point of sitting down with every member of my team each year. I give my cell phone number to everybody so they know I’ve available if they need me.
As the so-called father of American psychology, William James, once said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
Start with those three questions. That will create an environment in which every individual feels not just respected, but cherished.
Truth and Trust Leadership
You can’t separate business and people – they are one and the same. Unfortunately, it takes longer for some to recognize this truth. It’s all about climbing their personal ladder to success. I’d argue, however, that the quickest way to get to the top is by building up everyone around you.
In recent years, I’ve returned time and again to a quote from author John Maxwell: “Production may win games, but people development wins championships.”
To be clear, I still give tough love. But it goes both ways. I expect my team to tell me when I’m doing something wrong. In return, I ask them to be open to uncomfortable conversations. If you build trust, your people will be receptive to constructive criticism.
Real leadership starts with taking care of people and empowering individuals – everything else falls into place. I don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room, don’t need to make every decision and don’t need the credit for team victories.
The younger version of myself would hardly recognize the person I’ve become.
Taking a page out of my dad’s playbook, I wanted to do more in my hometown of Lansdowne. In 2004, my brothers and I created Leadership Through Athletics, a community center and organization that provides a safe place for our seniors to visit in the morning and a welcoming hangout for students after school.
Just 63 percent of people in Lansdowne graduate the eighth grade. In turn, crime, drug use and unemployment are high.
“Random acts of kindness produce not-so-random results.”
I run basketball leagues on Saturday. And sure, I talk about the sport. I love the game. But it also gives me a vehicle to stress the importance of leadership.
The results have been extraordinary. So-called “D” students are now “A” students. More importantly, these kids are becoming leaders in their own circles, passing along wisdom to friends and family.
Investing in people is the antidote to what often feels like an endless cycle of despair. Random acts of kindness produce not-so-random results.
My dad was really on to something.
As for my father, he’s now 86 years old and has lived in the same Lansdowne home for more than six decades. Even in his older age, he’s bettering the community around him every day.
I think back to when my family’s basement flooded. When my mom started cleaning up the house, she pulled out this huge box filled with dozens and dozens of awards.
They all belonged to dad; each award was recognition for the work he’d done in the community.
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