I’m going to tell you a true story with an important lesson—it is OK to bring your humanity to work and treat people decently. The best leaders, what Jim Collins called “Level-5 leaders” in his book, Good to Great, are humble, respectful, and deeply connected to their people.

My story starts in 2004 when my buddy, Scott, was promoted from controller (chief accountant) to CEO at the country’s largest designer and builder of hospitals and clinics.

Scott was a former Price Waterhouse accountant with great analytical skills, but I knew from experience that he also had marvelous people skills. He could sing, dance, do impersonations and entertain a crowd. He was the de facto social chairman of our neighborhood. I often teased him, “Scott, you could have gone two ways in life; CEO of a major corporation, or a cheap lounge act in Vegas.”

On my 50th birthday the second prediction came true. We traveled to Las Vegas with friends to celebrate my birthday and Scott and I dressed as Elvis. He was the young, studly Elvis in his prime and I was the old, disheveled Elvis. We were the only Elvis impersonators on the strip that night and had the times of our lives! Scott commented meekly, “I hope a board member doesn’t spot me!” We straggled back to the hotel 8 hours later, smelling of cheap gin, with just enough time to pack and get to the airport!  

When my buddy was promoted to CEO, he asked me to read his first speech to his 1,000 employees. He wanted my advice from a motivational perspective. I carefully read the speech and then tore it into pieces and threw it in a garbage can. I said, “Scott, this is the worst speech I’ve ever read. You are not an accountant anymore. You are a leader who needs to capture hearts and minds. All you do in this speech is harass people about the lousy quarterly numbers. Do you really want your employees to hate you?”

I suggested something radically different, 180-degrees different. I suggested to lead with people-person Scott and sideline accountant Scott for the time being. I proposed starting the speech like this, “My main job as CEO is not to increase cash flow, profits, or market share. My primary job as CEO is to take care of you and make this the most rewarding, and exciting job you will ever have. If I take care of your needs, I’m pretty sure that you will take care of the customers needs, and as a result we will make plenty of money.”

Scott followed my advice, unleashed his inner people-person, and experienced the following magical outcome over the next 4 years:

  1. Employee engagement went from the bottom quartile to the top quartile,
  2. Revenue increased by 200%,
  3. Profits increased by 300%, and
  4. The company’s value soared from 50 million when it was purchased in 2004 to 250 million when it was sold in 2008.

One of Scott’s main investors was a prominent, private-equity firm. They featured Scott on the cover of their 2008 annual report because their return on investment was the highest in their 23-year history.

The moral here is simple:

We all have a left-brain, accountant-side that is cool and calculating, but we also have a right-brain, social/emotional, people-side that is warm and mentoring. Scott showed what is possible when we bring both sides of ourselves to work.

Highly successful companies do not turn the workplace into a thankless, impersonal grind in the name of operational efficiency. The best leaders are like Scott. They inspire, advise, encourage, support, develop, and truly care about the people who do the work. People-Scott is what employee engagement is all about.

The good news is that we all have a right-brained, people-Scott hiding inside, so it’s possible to implement my suggestion immediately, without years of training.

All it takes is a simple decision to bring your inner people-person to work on a regular basis. It will be good for you, good for your employees, good for your customers, and good for the bottom line.

Primal Management

For more leadership tips like this, check out Paul’s critically acclaimed book, Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Nature to Drive High Performance. Chapters 4 to 8 contain practical leadership tips, mixed with interesting stories, for bringing out the best in your people.

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