I’ve read a lot of leadership books over the years. Traditional ones by traditional authors like Warren Bennis and John Gardner. Textbooks specifically about leadership but also about organizational design and communication. Not-so traditional ones by poet David Whyte and Quaker teacher Parker Palmer. Books designed for business, education, and non-profit leaders.
And perhaps the only thing that crosses all those different types and genres that I agree with is the idea that leadership is about “people, people, people.”
Recently I was working with an organization that is struggling to retain its workforce. It’s actually an industry-wide problem. The CEO of the organization is focused on the client experience, but this person seems to think the staff who serve those clients are interchangeable when actually they need licensed staff who are highly and specifically trained. Now, to be fair, I haven’t met with this CEO, but I have met staff members from this organization and they are quite clear that they don’t feel valued. As they struggle to do their jobs in difficult circumstances, I’m certain the client experience suffers.
In education, our version of this is to say we’re student-centered. I’ve seen lots of versions of this idea. Sometimes, it seems to mean that the customer (student) is always right. The problem is that’s not true. It’s not even true in retail. Customers, clients, and students can all be wrong whether through a mistaken understanding or just plain stubbornness. Or being “student/client-centered” can show up in unreasonable standards for staff such as “we’ll always return a student’s email in less than twenty-four hours,” I’m not sure that’s ever a realistic policy, but it never is in an academic advising office at pre-registration time. Such unrealistic standards and goals may make an organization student/client-centered, but they don’t create great places to work.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen places where the policies and practices work just fine for staff, but create run around and frustration for the students who are trying to figure them out. That’s not a great place to work either since you’re always dealing with unhappy students, parents, and often faculty. It seems to me, it’s time to have a bit of both/and thinking here. Focusing on the client without taking staff into consideration doesn’t work, but neither does the opposite.
It’s not an either/or situation. It’s not about paying attention to staff and forgetting the client/student. Nor is it focusing on the student/customer and assuming all will be well with the staff. It’s about both. Staff who are proud to work someplace, who are able to do their best work in an organization are staff who take care of the people the organization wants to serve.
This equation is so important right now. We have got to figure out how to design organizations that focus on the people, all the people, who are part of our organizations – faculty, staff, students, parents, etc. We need to design jobs that are effective and humane. We need to design policies and practices that work for both the people they serve and the people administering them. We need to design organizations that are flexible and reliable. And it seems to me that one way to do that is to remember that our organizations are filled with people attempting to serve other people. It really is about people, people, people.
I encourage you to listen to or read today’s resources for a few different perspectives on this idea.