People-oriented leadership: advice from a president

People-oriented leaders inspire their employees to do their jobs well with minimal oversight. To achieve this, leaders must cultivate a culture of mutual respect that encourages employees to communicate and take ownership of their day-to-day tasks.
man carrying board with employees

A U.S. Navy veteran and London Business School MBA, Ryan S. leverages a people-oriented leadership style to simultaneously run two Teamshares network companies.

By leading with a people-first mindset, Ryan has seen stable growth at both businesses. More importantly, he’s created a culture of empowered and satisfied employee owners.

Teamshares is building a network of 10,000 employee-owned small businesses. To do this, we’re working with successful, mission-driven leaders like Ryan who understand that people are the most important part of any company’s success.

While everyone at the Teamshares network company is an owner of their respective business, a people-first culture works regardless of stock ownership, and empowers employees to own their sphere of influence.

In this post, Ryan shares insights into being a people-oriented leader and other learnings from his experience running two Teamshares network companies.

What does it mean to be people-oriented?

“[Being people-oriented] is about enablement. It means giving your team the ability to develop goals and drive execution independent of your input as a leader, or with very mild touches.” Ryan explains.

As a president responsible for the success of two businesses, enabling an ownership mindset early on allowed Ryan more time to develop high-level strategy and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that lead to stable growth.

“[It’s important to] be there to continue to knock down roadblocks or obstacles that employee owners shouldn’t have to deal with in their day-to-day,” he advises.

Once employee owners communicate obstacles and big-picture ideas, it falls on leadership to take a step back and prioritize appropriately, then pull the right levers.

How to be a people-oriented leader in any industry

According to Ryan, while the industry doesn’t change the philosophy of people-oriented leadership, it does change the speed and the approach you take to achieve employee buy-in.

During his tenure in the U.S. Navy, corporate America, and as president of two small businesses, Ryan has learned that he must earn support and trust from colleagues and employees.

“Mentors taught me that you cannot lead solely with granted authority. I was lucky to have good leaders who helped me to understand that before I could screw it up.”

“You can’t lead with authority alone. Without respect, you’ll fall flat on your face.”

Ryan has gained the respect of his employee owners by recognizing that they are the most important part of the business. That recognition means allowing them to voice collaborative ideas and celebrate them.

“A lot of people-oriented leadership is knowing that your way is not always the right way,” he says. “Even if you were right all the time, you wouldn’t be the only one, because there are so many different ways to be right.”

Ryan also believes keeping a level head as a leader allows employee owners the space to make decisions, even in the face of adversity.

“In people-oriented leadership, just being that calm presence is half the battle. It’s taking [your employee owners] out of the mindset where they’re just trying to react, grounding them, then taking them back to the decision from a safe place.”

Apply to become a small business president of an employee-owned company near you.

Integrating people-oriented leadership into customer conversations

Ryan found success thanks to his ability to implement people-oriented leadership with employee owners and customers alike.

“Leaders need to try and lead everyone they interact with, including customers,” he explains.

To illustrate, Ryan recounted a project that had been underquoted by a factor of four. Unsurprisingly, the misquoted project created stress between employee owners, the general contractor, and the customer.

He used the same people-first approach to find the best solution for everyone involved, including the customer.

“People-oriented leadership is Socratic; it’s all about asking questions and listening. For customers, it’s ‘what do you want and what do we do to get you there.’”

Ryan communicated the mistake to the customer, calmly reaffirmed their commitment to finding a solution, and asked how the customer wanted to move forward.

“That’s not me saying, ‘Hey, we need more money’,” he explains. “That’s me giving the opportunity to the customer to provide a solution that they think is the best for everyone, and then going back and forth from there.”

“People-oriented leadership is Socratic; it’s all about asking questions and listening. For customers, it’s ‘what do you want, and what do we do to get you there?”

Navigating “no” in a people-oriented company

At its best, a people-oriented organization will have multiple employees bringing their ideas to the table.

But what happens when there are too many ideas to implement at once? Or when an idea presented would have significant downstream consequences?

Ryan believes that navigating ‘no’ without negatively impacting a difficult-to-build people-oriented culture requires context and positivity.

“It’s also important to minimize how often I do that,” he explains.

“You have to let people make mistakes, and trust them to learn from those mistakes,” he explains. “Letting someone do something you know is wrong and letting them make those small mistakes drives ownership.”

Ryan also thinks those small mistakes help people understand they’re responsible—and that they’re allowed to make them.

This comes with the caveat that while leaders should empower employee owners to make smaller task-level decisions, major strategic and budgetary decisions impacting the organization require leadership involvement.

“On a rare occasion, I may have to say, ‘I don’t think this is right, here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s how we’re going to do it’,” Ryan clarifies. “In those cases, it’s important to have a conversation about the [decision] to give them context or understanding as to why the timing is not right.”

People-oriented leadership tips for new managers

For new leaders, Ryan emphasizes the importance of allowing employees to make task-related decisions, which will inevitably lead to mistakes at some point in the journey.

“Allowing your employees to make small mistakes and [giving them the confidence that] you trust them and will be there if and when they screw up is the most powerful way to build an empowered team,” he explains.

Ryan explains that empowering a team to make task-related decisions comes with the caveat that both the leader and the employee owners must work together to clearly define goals so everyone knows what success looks like.

“It’s critical to have a common scorecard and cadence for review,” he says.

To do so, Ryan holds a monthly open-book meeting with the team where they discuss company financials and performance.

Whether inheriting a team or building it from the ground up, Ryan also advises new leaders to start by having one-on-ones with each employee to encourage a culture where they feel valued and empowered to take initiative.

These meetings allow leaders to establish rapport, encourage employees to voice areas of desired growth, and surface difficult feedback.

Ryan starts with a few baseline questions when meeting with someone new:

  • “Where do you want to be in five years?”
  • “What do you want to do?”
  • “What makes you happy?”
  • “What makes you excited to come to work every day?”

When he encounters employees who have a difficult time communicating what they want professionally, Ryan asks additional questions to help them connect the dots:

  • “What do you do at home? (Do you like working with your hands, etc.?)”
  • “What do you like to do outside of work? Does that apply to what we do here?”

Conducting one-on-one meetings with empathy can help leaders create buy-in and an ownership mindset by tying company goals to what employees care about.

Ryan ends with an uplifting note for new leaders, “There’s no losing when you treat your people well.”

Task-oriented vs. people-oriented leadership style

Task-oriented leadership and people-oriented leadership both have the same objective: to achieve company goals and, therefore, company success.

The key difference between a task-oriented leader and a people-oriented leader is how they achieve success.

While someone who leads with a task-first mindset will focus on directives and deadlines, someone who leads with a people-oriented mindset will focus on the individuals doing the tasks.

Both can be successful in the right application, but as a leader, it’s important to distinguish when and how to use each.

Task-oriented leadership style

A task-oriented leader will communicate with their team using clear directives, processes, and deadlines. This type of leadership style may work best for those in highly regulated industries.

A task-oriented leader considers the following attributes when creating directives:

  • Clear objectives
  • Explicit processes
  • Strict deadlines
  • Rewards upon completion
  • Retroactive reflections

The key difference between task-oriented vs. people-oriented leadership styles is that a task-oriented leader gives directives and processes without employee-level contribution.

People-oriented leadership style

An organization with people-oriented leadership removes the hierarchy often associated with task-oriented leadership. 

Instead, it gives employees the confidence to execute their tasks with little direction, encouraging an ownership mindset.

A people-oriented manager creates a culture of empowered employees through:

  • Aligning company and individual goals from the ground up
  • Building employee trust
  • Actively listening to personal and professional goals
  • Empowering employee ideas
  • Fostering organizational learning from mistakes

At its core, people-oriented leadership means creating a culture where employees feel valued and empowered to make decisions. A people-oriented leader has the opportunity to build an impactful culture with satisfied, engaged employees and efficient operations.

If you’re a people-oriented leader who wants to make an immediate impact by leading a small business into employee ownership, apply to become a president of a Teamshares network company.

Teamshares writers follow strict principles for sourcing credible information within articles. Any outside information including direct quotes, paraphrased information, and concepts that are derived from external sources adhere to our standards for accuracy and transparency.

S., Ryan. Interview. Conducted by Jessie Baker, 15 Sept. 2022.

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