It’s About People Not Numbers

To connect with your team, you must listen 80% of the time.

Early in my leadership career, I thought that it was the leader’s role to do most of the talking when in conversation with my team, or as individuals.

I thought it was the leader’s role to stamp their authority on the team, and that the team should listen to the leader. This was a big mistake on my part because we now know that the leader’s role is to do the exact opposite.

1. Leaders Are Learners

I didn’t know what I didn’t know back then, but I was continually learning, and I learned quite fast that it wasn’t up to me to do most of the talking (20% of the talking). It was up to me to do most of the listening (80% of the listening).

I thought of myself as the “expert” because I was in the leadership position. But I was by no means the “expert”. I had a team full of experts, so I should have listened to my experts a lot more, and leveraged their expertise.

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When I started reading leadership books and taking my leadership development more seriously, my listening skills started to improve. I was also improving at letting my team members do 80% of the talking in our conversations.

Especially when we were talking about their frustrations, or personal issues. My leadership styles were improving every day, as I worked on myself every day.

Asking questions of my team, rather than giving them the answers or suggestions was something I developed too.

Especially open questions that would enable my team member to draw out more information from inside themselves, and eventually work out the solutions themselves with my guidance. By doing this I was respecting my people, and they would respect me because I listened to them.

When asking your team members questions and helping them draw out their own answers and conclusions, it takes more time than just telling them the answers.

2. Listening

But, it is worth taking more time because you are going beyond communicating when you listen 80% of the time. You are connecting with your team. When connecting you are increasing your influence, and building up stronger trust with them.

What you will find is, when you make stronger connections with your team, they will become more successful. They will achieve more, so again it is definitely worth taking more time with them by asking them open questions (what?, who?, where?, why?, how?).

When the team start to become more successful and achieving more than they thought, you will find it even easier to get them to buy-in to you, your ideas, and any changes you want to implement.

You and the team will grow together, and you will grow closer. You will no longer need to set the direction for the team, they will happily follow you on their own down the right direction.

The team will choose to stand beside you and unite as one team. When that happens, you will know that your influence is increasing with the team every day.

3. Building Trust

To return the team’s loyalty, trust and faith in me as the leader, I would do my best to help the team as much as I could. I would help them to solve their problems. I would support them and use my leverage to promote any new ideas that the team had.

I would ensure that my presence wasn’t an obstacle to them at any time. I would remove obstacles for the team when they needed me to. I would constantly be available to listen to the team. I would continue to ask the team open questions when it was necessary.

There were occasions when I would let team members lead the team, and myself when it was needed. When I listened to the team I was being led.

By listening to them team, I was creating leaders. By writing this article for you and building this website, I want to create a highly effective leader out of you.

Since working in the engineering sections of the rail industry, one thing I have always been associated with is train performance. Have trains performed well in service? Was there any delays? Was there any failures/breakdowns?

Was there any cancellations? What has been the worst performing train this month? What component has caused the most failures this month? What are we doing to improve performance?

These are all questions that I heard every day as part of the rail industry. When I was engineering technical manager working in London, there was one particular fleet of trains that had been performing very badly for about three months straight in 2016.

The leaders of the business wanted to know why. So they arranged a meeting for my managers and I to present to them the reasons for poor performance, and what we were doing about it.

There were so many reasons for the fleets poor performance; doors failing, couplers not interlocking properly, brakes issues, wheelsets wearing, etc.

This fleet had been poor for years, but the engineering team had just done enough to keep it going. They didn’t go the extra mile to work as a team to improve their own, and the train’s performance beyond expectations.

I knew I had a challenge on my hands. So, instead of laying into the team and demanding ideas of them, me doing most of the talking, I decided I would change it around. I decided I would let them tell me, and I would listen to what they thought.

I wanted to find out from them why they hadn’t gone beyond expectations. I wanted to know their ideas so we could implement them and turn performance around.

The team felt like they had never been listened to before, so it was difficult to get them to open up at first. This was new territory to them, they didn’t know whether I was trying to manipulate them, or if I was being genuine.

So, I stopped. I decided that it was up to them to come back to me with a solution on how to improve performance, and they were going to present to the senior leaders.

4. Making Decisions

When I made this decision, the team were not happy at all. They didn’t want to work on this as a team, and they didn’t want to present to senior leaders.

So, they got together in a meeting room to brainstorm their ideas, but all they did was bad mouth me for making them do this. They couldn’t come out with any ideas, so they wasted the whole time they were in the room together supposedly brainstorming.

So, when I went in to their “brainstorming session” and found that they were just moaning, instead of working, I thought I would try again to get them to open up. I asked them open questions, and then would listen to them.

For about three hours I listened to the team tell me why they shouldn’t be doing this, why the trains performance will never improve, why the fleet of trains should be scrapped. Every negativity that they could come up, I listened to for three hours.

So, I made another decision. I decided that I agreed with what they were saying. I said to them, “Ok guys, if that’s what you’re telling me, then we can’t go any further. Let’s end the session here.” They were surprised at my reaction because they were expecting me to fly off the handle.

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But, I didn’t. I then told them, “Make sure that when you present to the senior leaders that you tell them there is nothing we can do.” They looked at me and said, “We can’t say that to the bosses, they will fire us.”

I said, “You’re right. But, you have decided there is nothing you can do, and I don’t lie to my bosses. So make sure you tell them the truth.”

Straight away, they decided they will start the brainstorming session again and come up with a solution. So, I left them to it. The next day, they had a full presentation of the reasons for poor performance, and three new modification ideas that would help the trains to improve their performance.

When they implemented the new modifications later in the year, the train’s performance improved. All by working together as a team.

Leadership is about people, not numbers. Taking care of the numbers will not take care of the people. Taking care of the people will take care of the numbers.

I welcome hearing how this post has influenced the way you think, the way you lead, or the results you have achieved because of what you’ve learned in it. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me by commenting below.

Check out my other articles by Clicking HERE

All the best,

Tom (LeadGrowInfluence)

8 thoughts on “It’s About People Not Numbers

  1. Hey Tom,

    Just checked out your piece on leadership being about people, not numbers, and man, it hit the nail on the head. It’s refreshing to see someone championing the human side of leadership, especially in a world that often gets caught up in the metrics.

    Your story about flipping the script with your team and getting them to take ownership is a powerful example of what true leadership looks like.

    But here’s a thought that’s been nagging at me: In an era where data and numbers are king, how do we ensure that this people-first approach doesn’t get lost by the wayside? Is there a risk that the pendulum could swing too far the other way, where we’re so focused on the human element that we lose sight of the metrics that also matter?

    Would love to hear your take on finding that sweet spot between nurturing your team and keeping an eye on the numbers that drive success.

    1. Hi Kevon,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I’m very pleased that this article has resonated with you.

      When keeping an eye on the numbers, I would delegate this responsibility to the team. As the leader you can’t do everything and you need to rely on your team to keep on top of things.

      If you treat your team well enough and inspire them to be their best, then everything else will take care of itself.

      I hope that helps.

      All the best,

      Tom

  2. Hi Tom,

    Your article resonated loudly with me. When I became a young Manager, at the age of 21 years, listening was not on my agenda far less for my mind! My approach was more of “my way or the highway”. I felt I was young, bright and had all the answers.

    What a time that was for me.

    Needless to say, I fired myself from the role. It was many years later, after struggling in my relationships that I woke up to the fact that I was not LISTENING. As an Introvert, I did not talk a lot but through my body language and impatience, I was good at ignoring and dismissing people.

    Your article is on point!

    Leadership is not a numbers game – it is not a game at all. It is about human BEING and DEVELOPMENT. And, if we approach it as Learners and Facilitators, it makes life better for everyone.

    This is a great share!

    Thank you.

    Cassandra

    1. Hi Cassandra,

      I appreciate your very insightful comment and very kind words.

      I couldn’t agree with you more that leadership is definitely not a numbers game, and it is about people. Numbers are the by-product of treating our people well. If you treat your people well, the numbers will be good. If you don’t treat your people well then the numbers will be bad. Simple.

      Keep treating your people well Cassandra and all the best,

      Tom

  3. Hey Tom, this is a neat piece of work, highlighting how when you flip a situation around, they will sit up and listen!
    I am so glad though, that those trains have been improved, as I wouldn’t want to be a passenger on one of them, with all these issues, but whose to know, that’s where proffessioanlism comes to the foreground where communication is key, and being listened to is fundamental!
    But yeah, I agree with you that listening to ones’ issues, and allowing them to have their say before you make a comment is important, as we do this in our schools.
    As educators in early years, we will ask a question and count at least 5 seconds, (not out aloud) allowing the kids to answer, as they need time to compute and analyse what you asked them, and it makes them feel good about themselves by simply being heard and putting their ideas over.
    It kind of aligns with your 80% of listening, although scenarios may differ and of course you are dealing with adults.
    Once again, thanks for sharing this insight to helping people move on.
    Keep up the good work.
    Julia. 😊

    1. Hi Julia,

      I appreciate your detailed comment and I’m glad you found this article helpful.

      It’s great that so many people find my articles helpful and I hope they find yours and other people’s contrinutions helpful too so we are continuing to learn fro each other.

      All the best,

      Tom

  4. Hi Tom,

    What a compelling read! Your journey from initially believing in the leader doing most of the talking to understanding the power of listening is truly inspiring. The shift from being perceived as the “expert” to recognizing and leveraging the expertise within your team reflects a profound leadership transformation.

    I liked your asking open questions to enable team members to draw out solutions from within themselves when the team initially hesitated to brainstorm. The pivotal moment where you took a bold step by agreeing with their concerns and suggesting to end to the session, then find out later they found a solution. A strategic approach to fostering teamwork.

    Sitting and listening to their initial reluctance must have been an interesting challenge.

    Your experience in the rail industry provides a tangible example of how a small shift in leadership mindset and fostering teamwork, can bring about significant improvements in performance.

    Looking forward to more insights from your leadership journey!

    1. Hi Chas,

      Thank you for your very insightful comment and thank you for your kind words.

      I hope people can resonate with you just as much as they can from me, and learn from you too.

      I will be posting more articles so keep an eye out and I hope they keep helping you and others.

      All the best,

      Tom

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