This article is based on a presentation from Women in Saas Summit 2022. Catch the full, unedited talk right here.

My name is Leilani Carbonell, and I'm the Senior Manager of Customer Success at Tipalti. We help businesses modernize their financial operations so they can scale and reach their full potential. I'm so excited to be here to talk with you about people-centered leadership.

To get us started, I want you to think of a person who you consider to be a great leader. This can be someone you work with, someone who you report to currently, someone you reported to in the past, or another leader that you admire. Got it? Great.

Now I want you to think about a time when that person demonstrated their leadership. How did they make you feel? Or, if you weren't there in person, how do you think the people around them felt? Make a mental note of that feeling and hold onto it for later. We're about to go ahead and dive in.

Here are our key talking points:

  • Why people-centered leadership matters
  • The whole person approach
  • What is people-centered leadership?
  • Leading vs. managing

Why people-centered leadership matters

Let me ask you my favorite question: why? Why are we here today? Why did you decide to take the time out of your day to read my thoughts on people-centric leadership?

Maybe you want to upgrade your skills. Maybe you haven't heard about this style of leadership before and you’re curious. I’m hoping you’re here because you care and you want to be a better leader.

I'm here because I believe in people-centered leadership. Doing my research for this piece cemented in my mind the fact that this is the right direction for any leader to take. I’d like to share a few statistics that show why people-centered leadership is so important.

According to Microsoft's Work Trend Index, 41% of the global workforce is considering a job change. Think about that number. It’s a lot.

Here’s a figure for US-based readers to think about: according to Zenefits, $1.5 billion a year is spent looking for replacement workers for those folks who have left. Nearly half of that huge sum of money comes from the loss of productivity and delays to customer products or services.

People walking in a line behind a leader.

A more concerning statistic: globally, only 21% of employees are engaged in the workplace, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report. In the United States, we fare a little bit better; about one-third of employees are engaged at work in the US.

Engagement is a big thing. When your employees are not engaged, that means they're not happy with their job and they're not satisfied with their work environment, which means that they're looking around. They’re essentially a flight risk.

The last piece of data I want to share with you is that only 33% of employees that they're thriving in their overall well-being globally. That’s stark. Two-thirds of employees are battling with the stress that’s at an all-time high, even post-pandemic.

The numbers may be jarring, but the good news is we can do better. We have to do better. These statistics speak to why it’s vital to learn about and take action on people-centered leadership.

The whole person approach

I used to be a teacher. I taught at elementary school and middle school. Now you might be thinking, “That’s great, Leilani, but this is a business article. What does that have to do with anything?”

Bear with me. As a teacher, I learned about a concept called the whole child approach, which ensures that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Let's think about that for a second. As a teacher, I needed to ensure that all of my students were healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged so that they could succeed in the classroom and grow to be productive citizens and join the rest of the world.

What if we flipped this and replaced the word “child” with “person”? What if we applied this approach to the people we work with, who are on our team, and who we are responsible for in the workplace? Let's think about what that would look like.

The whole person approach ensures that each employee is helped healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. I don't know about you, but I think that that's a great approach.

There’s an old adage that the happier your employees are, the more successful your company will be. I truly believe that. Everything is connected. How employees feel and thrive at work translates to their home life and vice-versa.

Paper boats

You might have heard of Brené Brown. She is fantastic. I’d like you to take stock of this quote of hers:

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored whole hearts – so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people – we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

I love this because it talks about how people-centered leadership is core to creating a thriving work environment. Brené Brown embodies what I think of as a great people-centered leader. Look no further for a shining example of the traits and habits I’ll describe throughout this article.

What is people-centered leadership?

There are lots of definitions of people-centered leadership out there and lots of adjectives to describe it. I’ve distilled it into the four points that I feel are the most important.

Earlier, I asked you to think about the characteristics of a leader that you know. Thinking back on that, I wonder if any of the characteristics below look familiar?

Know and care for your people

It is critically important that a people-centered leader knows their team. Of course, when you’re in an organization of 500,000, it's not possible to know every single person and all of their likes and so forth.

I'm talking about your immediate team, the ones that report directly to you. It’s about knowing who they are, knowing their birthdays or anniversaries, knowing what excites them, and showing that you care for them.

The CEO of one of the companies I worked for in the past is a great example of this. He shows that he cares. He's the type of CEO who texts employees on their birthdays.

I remember when I had just started out as a trainer/customer success manager. One time I went out to train a group of people, and I didn't do a good job. I knew this beyond a shadow of a doubt because after every training session, we gave the trainees a feedback survey to fill in.

When the survey results came back, I did not feel good.

Two people shaking hands

When I went back to the office, my CEO noticed that I was a little bit down, and he took the time to ask me what happened. I told him, and he asked to take a look at the surveys. I was like, “Oh, great. I'm so fired.”

He did the exact opposite of what I feared. He said, “Well, this person says this great thing about you. And here’s another one who was happy.”

He was pulling out the good comments and pretty much ignoring the bad ones. I pointed out that there was a lot of negative feedback too, and he just said, “Yes, but you know that.

I know you'll work on it and you’ll improve, and if you need support, I'll be here to help you.”

That always stuck with me because of the way he made me feel. Remember at the beginning I asked you how you felt when someone you consider to be a great leader demonstrated leadership? I felt seen. I felt valued. I felt heard and supported. That’s what people-centered leadership is all about.

Show humility and empathy

No one has all of the answers, so showing humility with your team is key. Then of course there’s empathy. Look through the lens of the people that you work with, care for them, and be empathetic.

Create an environment of psychological safety and mutual trust

Creating an environment of psychological safety and mutual trust is so important. You need to model vulnerability to create a safe space for employees to also be vulnerable. I'm not saying that you need to pour your heart out, but don't be afraid to show that you’re human.

Think back to the whole person approach; whatever people experience in their personal lives, they bring with them to work.

With this in mind, at the beginning of every meeting, one of my team leads carves out some ‘human time.’ One of the exercises in ‘human time’ is a round robin, where everyone gives two words to describe how they're feeling. They might say, “I'm happy and excited,” or “I'm tired and stressed.”

That allows everyone to get their feelings out before the meeting so everyone else on the team can hear. Then, they’ll circle back and follow up at the end of the meeting or reach out later on. Having that trust and that space to be vulnerable is part of what creates a culture of positivity that keeps your employees engaged.

Recognize and reward your people

The chances are that your team spends most of their week doing good work for your company, whether that’s in the office or working remotely.

Rewarding good work, achievements, and successes is a core part of people-centric leadership. The rewards don’t always have to be monetary. Recognition and appreciation also show your team that they're valued, and that is people-centered leadership.

Leading vs. managing

Shifting gears a little bit, I want to talk about leading versus managing. Don't get me wrong. I know when I started I said that I was a Senior Manager of Customer Success.

So yeah, I am a manager and as a manager, I am responsible for management-type activities. However, you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. There's a leader in individual contributors; there’s a leader in managers. The difference is in the approach.

Leadership is focusing on people, influencing and motivating, asking “what” and “why” and fostering new ideas. Management focuses on systems and structures, supervision and control, asking “how” and “when”, and assigning tasks.

We know that for companies to operate, those management activities have to be in place; what makes a difference is how you approach them.

If you approach those tasks from a people-centric leadership angle, it doesn't feel micromanage-y. It has a different effect on people when you're being empathetic and vulnerable and providing a psychological safe space, so keep those elements in mind.

I like this quote. This is from Jon Clifton, the CEO of Gallup. He says,

“Managers need to be better listeners, coaches, and collaborators. Great managers help colleagues learn and grow, recognize their colleagues for doing great work, and make them truly feel cared about. In environments like this, workers thrive.”

I want to highlight the word “thrive” because that's the end goal. I want the people that I work with to thrive. It's not about them just reaching their KPIs.

Yes, of course, we do want to reach those business goals, but if I can get my employees to thrive, if they’re healthy and healthy and they feel safe, they're going to be better employees. They're going to reach those goals because their other needs are met.

A group of people standing in a line

As managers and leaders, let's focus on being better at all of these things. Let's coach rather than supervise. Let's do more listening rather than talking.

Michelle Obama is another person that I deeply respect as a leader. When I think about somebody who screams those characteristics of a people-centric leader, it’s Michelle Obama. She is authentic.

When she speaks, she speaks with conviction. She's an effective communicator. She's relatable. All of these things make up a people-centric leader, and those are qualities that I strive for.

I love this quote from her. In one of her speeches, she said, “Success isn't about how much money you make; it's about the difference you make in people's lives.”

Don't get me wrong – I work for a financial software company. Money is good. However, when you stop and think about the difference you can make in the lives of your team, what a great honor that is.

It’s not only a great honor but a great responsibility. I talked earlier about the interconnectedness of our work and home lives. If you're stressed at work, you bring that stuff home and it affects your loved ones.

What if we made sure our employees could thrive at work instead? That’s something we can do through people-centered leadership.

The more we can make space for vulnerability, build safe and trusting environments, and show authenticity, the more we create an enjoyable workplace, where people can be fulfilled and thrive.

Then, hopefully, when they go home they'll feel that joy as well. At the same time, they're going to be happier at work, which means we’ll have better results.

Now it's your turn. How will you lead?