Welcome back, everybody. It’s great to think about the year 2024 and what will it mean to you? What is most important to you in this new year? How will you make sure that it is designed with purpose, with meaning, so that you get to the end of this year and you don’t think where did it all go, what did I do with it all? Or you don’t have that lingering feeling that you spent your time on many good things but perhaps not on what was most important. In fact, by the end of this episode, you’ll see that even that question may not be the right question, which, I have to say, in a way, is news for me, having spent a considerable time of the last decade asking that question myself not just what’s important, but perhaps a slight twist on that question to really reveal what’s most essential. Let’s get to it.
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As we began this new year, I took a moment to reach out to a whole series of friends to ask them a single question. At first, my question was, what’s your most important goal for 2024? I started getting back so many interesting responses from people. Some people who are really thoughtful about their goal-making process sent back to me not a single goal, which was sort of the point, but four or five or six well-thought, well-crafted answers to that question. Here are the goals. Here are the things that I’m trying to work on as I go through the year. Nothing wrong with that.
Some people sent me back a single phrase, and that’s not a bad idea either. I put it out on LinkedIn, a similar question: In one word what is your top priority for 2024? I got back hundreds of replies. Some people expressed that their top priority was a specific work objective. Perhaps it was launching a business or getting to the next level in their organization. One answer that suddenly, I’m remembering, came back in a single word was bravery, and I wondered what all of that meant to him, and I’ll be so curious to see how his year unfolds holding that intent of all intents. My goodness, how easy it is not to be brave, not to be courageous. Somebody else said their top priority was family and organizing time.
As I continued these outreaches and these conversations, my questions started to become more precise. It became what is your number one highest priority for 2024. Well, that’s only a subtle shift, you could say, from just asking people what their top goal is, but suddenly it makes you think in a little bit broader terms or at least that’s what that difference means to me, and I started to notice that perhaps the most common answer I received was around a single theme: connect. And I mean that quite literally. That if I were to tally up all of the different answers I received across all of the different platforms, both these personal outreaches and also the platform outreaches. I would say that was the single most common theme.
As I wrestled with this question myself, I found a shift happening inside of me, and I can express that shift simply from what’s important to who’s important. That’s non-trivial from what’s important to who’s important. Just think about the difference between that. When it comes to managing teams or leading people, or influencing the people around us. If you have a what’s important perspective, then your primary consideration is tasks, it’s things that need to get done, whereas in who’s important is all about relationships. Think of how that shifts your approach to decision-making. A what’s important approach is all about efficiency, whereas in a who’s important approach becomes all about the team and how to make sure the team is unified and functioning and working. It’s the difference between task-oriented and people-oriented.
Communication shifts as well. If you’re in a what’s important mindset, then you become directive, whereas, in a who’s important, you’ll be empathetic. Even the idea of measuring success is different in these two at first glance, very similar ideas. If you’re focused on what’s important, it’s all about achievement, whereas in who’s important, your focus is culture, which allows you not to achieve once, but many, many times. In the future, perhaps one’s approach to problem-solving will become analytical if you’re just focused on what’s important, but you might focus more on collaboration if you’re thinking about who’s important.
Certainly, the motivation strategy will change from incentives to get somebody to do the thing to recognition because you want them to do the thing, but you want to do it in a way that the relationship is primary and is built and is not damaged in the process.
I think it’s fair to say that it’s a game changer in leadership in general to be able to shift from projects to people – people over projects. If you think about any managers, any bosses you’ve had that stand out, you’ll find, I think, that it wasn’t just about hitting targets or ticking off tasks, that the big secret of that kind of game-changing management is that it’s focusing more on who is doing the work, not just what they are doing.
Maybe in the old days, bosses were all about what needs to be done, even what’s important, the deadlines, the numbers, the nitty-gritty of getting things done, even getting the right things done. But we know what happens if we do too much of that. It turns a workplace into a bit of a robot factory efficient, yes, sure, but not exactly inspiring, and academic research provides some fascinating insights into the impact of different leadership, particularly contrasting task-oriented styles to relationship-oriented approaches.
One study focusing on service sectors, including tourism agencies, highlights the difference between task-oriented and relationship-oriented leadership. Task-oriented leaders emphasize completing necessary tasks to achieve organizational targets with less concern for employees’ personal needs. So while that approach ensured tasks were completed efficiently, it also led to a lack of creativity, low morale, and high employee turnover due to a rigid adherence to rules and procedures.
My goodness, what a difference that alone makes. I don’t know about you, but my own experience bears this out, especially post the lockdowns. So even now, we’re a couple of years past it all. The experience I have in a customer service environment is almost always less socially rich and less socially skilled than it was just a few years ago.
And going beyond my own personal anecdotes in working with major organizations, brands known the world over, brands known for their distinctive customer-centric strategies, companies known for their ability to connect with the people at the point of service have substantially deteriorated in their ability to find and to maintain, to find the right people, to find people at all under some circumstances, and certainly to be able to maintain them, to keep that talent, which means, of course, it makes it even harder to be able to nurture the kind of relationships, not just with the employees, but also then to help those employees know how to work with customers in a way that makes a distinctive difference, a competitive advantage against the companies that they are competing with on a day to day basis.
On the other hand, the study found that relationship-oriented leadership focuses on job satisfaction, motivation, and work-life balance of employees. Leaders adopting this style prioritized supporting, motivating, and developing their employees, encouraging teamwork, and building positive relationships. This approach fosters an environment where team leaders are more productive and willing to take risks, knowing they have support. However, it also has its drawbacks, such as potentially hindering task completion and overwhelming employees with responsibility without adequate leader guidance.
Okay, you can see that that of course, what I’m advocating here can’t just be shifted completely from what’s important entirely to who’s important. But I am wondering, for myself and perhaps for you, whether we have become too focused on what’s important and a little less focused on who’s important. Like which is the major, and which is the minor? Which one comes first? If you focus on who’s important and then what’s important, I think you will find a better, more fulfilling, more successful 2024 and beyond.
Another study conducted in the context of school leadership in the Philippines found that certain leadership attributes significantly influence school performance results. Focused leadership, along with fostering teamwork and people development, were key factors in achieving outstanding performance in schools. So this suggests that a balance between task orientation and people orientation is crucial for effective leadership in educational settings.
Of course, that must be true. That’s intuitively right. Of course, what you want is both of these ideas, but in your own experience in education, which one mattered the most yourself? If you could only have one, did you want a teacher who was interested in you or one who is interested in the exam result, the grade? Now, I’m not arguing that you only want one versus the other, but what a difference it makes, my goodness. There are two teachers that stand out for me as disproportionately impactful Mrs. Sweet and then later Mr. Frost, and it was all about primarily the fact that I did not feel they were teaching lessons, but that they were teaching me, that they would keep eye contact with me. Many, many times in a single lesson, I felt like there was a real connection. And then I came alive to their subjects, which in both cases, I was not naturally interested in. But my goodness, how they were able to catch me on fire to their subjects and lifelong interest, first in English and second in economics, that has grown because of these inspiring teachers. Well, that’s the combination. The primary orientation was the people, was the relationship, was who’s important and the second what’s important.
There’s a whole meta-analytic investigation that studied virtual team performance and identified, perhaps not surprisingly, that both relationship-focused and task-focused leadership are necessary in providing effective virtual team leadership. We’ll put the links to these studies in the show notes.
Just imagine if you flip the script this year and go from asking what’s important to who’s important. What magic could happen? What would happen if you see your relationships first?
If you care about your significant other, your spouse as a person, as a relationship first, your children as a relationship first, not people to manage, but relationships to nurture and lead? What if you see your team not just as workers but, of course, real people with their own hopes and challenges? What would happen if the people really could feel that you care more about them than the work itself? Instead of just giving orders, you listen, you support, and you help the individuals grow. You become more of a coach, less, if ever, a commander. What if you could help the people on your team to feel like a group of friends who’ve got each other’s backs, not just colleagues sharing an office going through the transaction? What if, when you’re trying to solve problems, whether at home or at work, it’s less about the quick fixes and more about understanding, respecting everybody’s views and feelings, and operating together to come up with a better solution?
Of course, results matter. Of course, they still matter, but with a who’s important approach, you can get those results by building a team that’s motivated, loyal, and genuinely happy to work together. You can build family relationships where even a tiny gentle correction can bring about significant improvement because the relationship is connected, deeply connected, safely connected, and attached. So it’s about leading with empathy and understanding so that everybody feels valued and therefore they go the extra mile.
So for any person listening to this who wants to make a real impact in 2024, here’s the deal: Put the people first. Figure out who’s most important, understand them, and support them. Watch as they transform not just the results that you want but also the care they give to the work that they do because they feel that they matter.
There is, after all, a primal cry in each of us to be seen, to be known, to be heard, and in our modern world, where people feel so desperately lonely. If you can be the person who helps somebody to feel seen, understood, heard, and that they matter, what a difference you can make, and especially if that is somebody who is really close to you.
Well, that is at least my answer to the question that I have been putting to so many other people this year. The priority for me, the most important thing that I’m focused on, is not a what question, but a who question. The most important person to me is Anna, my wife, and, of course, those who have listened to the podcast for a long time have heard many times from Anna, and of course, we need more of that because we all need more Anna in our lives. But particularly, and perhaps I’m being vulnerable to share this, that she and I can feel deeply connected, closely attached. That is a different kind of focus. It goes beyond just good communication, working together, trying to understand each other, and so on. It’s many layers down below that. In fact, one could argue it’s less skill and more about intent, more about staying with it to make sure that the other person knows that you’ll be there for them no matter what, that you’ll be there to them, emotionally responsive, that you’ll be there for them when, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, you will not run away. That is the kind of commitment that, actually, I think my wife and I do have with each other, but nevertheless, you have to work to make sure that people really feel that day in and day out, in the midst of all of the other things pulling on them, all of the other tasks that can take so much of our attention. That’s the answer to my question, and this is why I think this episode really is like part four in this fewer but deeper series that I started before we entered the new year.
So that’s the question I want to leave you with who is the most important person to you in 2024, and how can you work with them to make sure they feel deeply connected and safely attached?
Thank you, really, thank you for listening. What is one thing that stood out to you in today’s conversation? Who is one person that you can share this conversation with? What is one thing you can do immediately, right now, to be able to apply this conversation? Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.