Great people leaders understand themselves

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Unless you truly understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow?

I consider myself to be one of the more fortunate people in life.

I worked out, from an early age, what sort of career I wanted. And this is lucky because, in my role as an HR director, I meet people time and time again, just starting out and well into their working lives, who don’t know what they want to be, do or achieve. And so they jump between roles and companies, searching for the ‘dream job’.

I didn’t have any of this because I knew, right from the outset, that my career journey would involve people. People fascinate me. I like to find out how they tick, what enables them to develop and how they grow as humans. And because I always want to know more, asking people-related questions, or putting people first, has always been second nature to me.

When I was writing my first book, Be A People Leader: A Sustainable Framework for Achieving Your Full Potential, and putting together my musings on what it takes to be a great people leader, I realised that this start in life – combined with the opportunities I’ve had through mentoring, training and being allowed to mess up more than once – has shaped me into the people leader I am today.

The experiences and exposures I have gained – from starting out as a manager in a fast-food restaurant, moving into housekeeping and front-of-house, and now as a vice president of people and organisational development – have given me a clear picture of who I am, what my path is and how I will continue to grow.

And this is what being a great people leader is all about. It has to start with you. Because unless you understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow as a person, grow their career or achieve their full potential?

Sadly, the way the vast majority of educational facilities – and businesses – are set up, there is no allowance for this self-exploration. And so, instead, managers and leaders are promoted based on their educational achievements, their knowledge of their specialism or their ability to achieve the goal, rather than their abilities to inspire, engage and lead a team.

But if we want to create great leaders, and deliver sustainable leadership, then this must change – and as HR professionals we must play our part in this.

Leadership demands empathy, astuteness, a sense of humour. It needs values, a moral compass and kindness. These softer skills can only be formed and developed once a leader truly knows who they are, what they stand for and what they wish their legacy to be.

A leader must be given the time to gain as much knowledge about themselves as they are given to learn about leading teams, delivering strategy and making considered decisions.

And this needs to start very early on. We need to provide the future working generation with experiences such as the ones I had growing up. Offering real work experience to help them develop soft skills. We need to give our people the chance to lead, offer ideas and get involved in other areas. Let them fall over and help them get back up again – mistakes are learnings in disguise after all, and resilience is key in this changing environment. We must make mentoring part of our non-negotiables – to those inside and outside of our profession and sectors. We need to share our knowledge – online and in person.

But most importantly, we should help all our people, whether they want to be leaders or not, gain a true understanding of who they are, what they stand for and what they can do with this information. Because only then can we create the leadership pipeline that we need to build for the future. Only then can we truly develop the stars of tomorrow and future-proof our businesses. This, as HR professionals, must be our legacy.

Eugenio Pirri is VP, people and organisational development at The Dorchester Collection

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