How to Lead When You're in the 'People Business'

See also: Ethical Leadership

Most businesses make goods, sell products, or provide concrete services, like legal advice, tax preparation, or medical care. These organizations are judged by how well they make their products or whether their services accomplish measurable goals.

Other organizations, like schools, human services agencies, and not-for-profits are in the people business. Their goal is to make human lives better, but it’s not always easy to define what that looks like.

In addition to facing nebulous goals, they see the best and worst of human nature. Change happens at a maddeningly slow rate, and stress is high.

Being a leader when you’re in the people business means persevering in the face of many tough challenges. The reward is the knowledge that your professional life makes a big difference to your clients. Let’s take a look at some of the unique problems that leaders in the people business face. With the right mindset and communication, you and your team can truly change the world.

Limited Resources

In the U.S., people businesses face increasing demand for services while simultaneously grappling with decreasing funds. Funding also varies from year to year, according to the political and economic climates, even though demographic trends, like the aging population, mean that more people need assistance.

In the people business, it’s tough to come up with ways to increase your revenue. You can’t dig a new oil well, invest in a real estate development, or invent an amazing new product. That’s why so much training for education, NGO, and human services leadership focuses on how to get the most out an ever-decreasing set of resources. It’s not easy, but innovative leaders figure out a way. They inspire their workers to make the most of what the organization has.

Think like a Leader...

True leadership means tackling big puzzles, like limited financial resources, and not letting those limitations keep your team from achieving great things.

Instead of thinking about delivering services cheaply, figure out how changes to procedures or affordable new technologies can offer better service delivery for less time and money.

Recognize your employees when they come up with great ideas, and show them how much you value their creativity and ingenuity.

Lack of Obvious Metrics

What does it mean to make human lives better? How do you define concepts like health, education, happiness, and well-being?

It’s easy to tell whether or not you’ve manufactured a good car.

It’s a lot tougher to tell whether you’re making better humans or whether your hard work is paying off.

Using concepts like social ROI and cost-benefit analysis, real leaders are doing the tough work of defining what success looks like in the people business. They’re becoming more knowledgeable about which programs actually make a difference and those that don’t really improve people’s lives. Also, they’re holding their teams accountable for achieving results.

When you have a vision for what you want to accomplish, you can guide your team toward achieving it.

Think like a Leader...

Involve your workers in conversations about metrics. Ask them for their input into defining success, and meet with them regularly to review progress toward goals. When metrics are hard to define, it’s even more crucial to communicate your vision for how to accomplish goals.

Make time to talk to other people business leaders or attend conferences to learn how other people quantify success.

Big, Big Problems

People businesses tackle some of the human race’s biggest philosophical and social problems.

Human services leaders, educators, and NGO leaders take on poverty, inequality, disease, and other huge challenges. Even the strongest, most seasoned leaders look into the faces of these problems and feel very, very small.

Think like a Leader...

When you’re in the people business, you can’t afford to ignore the contributions that your team members make. Celebrate successes publicly, and meet one-on-one with your team members and give them the chance to talk about their frustrations. Take innovative ideas that have worked on a small scale and try to expand them to take on bigger challenges.

Tough Clients

If you ran a snow-cone stand, you’d sell delicious shaved ice to people who were grateful for your product. Your customers wouldn’t be difficult, and they’d usually appreciate both you and your product. In the people business, people aren’t always grateful for your help. They make progress one day, and then return to old, self-destructive behaviors the next day.

In the people business, clients often lack skills for self-sufficiency, for parenting, or for sticking to a work schedule. They might come very close to the finish line and decide that making changes is too tough. They battle not only themselves but also people around them who don’t want what’s best for them. As a leader, you have to equip your people to see the best in people while sometimes facing the worst of human nature.

Think like a Leader...

In the people business, you have to lead with a balance of idealism and pragmatism. If you set impossible goals, your team will fail to meet them, and they’ll only feel discouraged.

In addition to setting realistic goals, prepare your team to deal with people’s realistic behaviors. Give them access to training and resources, and provide both group and individual support.

Psychological Stress

Working in the people business is incredibly rewarding, but it can also take a toll on workers’ health. As a leader, it’s your job to help others manage stress while also taking care of yourself.

Think like a Leader...

Take care of yourself by eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and using good stress management techniques like meditation, relaxation exercises, or journaling.

Make an effort to encourage your workers to incorporate these practices as well. Support healthy initiatives, set aside space for socializing, and act quickly when you notice burnout or depression in your employees.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

You Can Do It

As a leader in the people business, you have the chance to make the world a better place. Remember that you and your team won’t solve all the big, big problems, but you’ll change many lives while you try.

About the Author

Megan Andrews is a freelance writer who is just stepping into the wonderful world of content marketing and SEO. She has a BA in English and experience in many fields, ranging from finance to health (and a few odd ones too). When not creating quality content for quality sites, Megan enjoys reading, photography, and learning new things about the amazing world around her.