Mar 25, 2024

Lessons From the People Trenches: 3 Tips for Aspiring CPOs

Reflecting on my career as a People Leader and the advice I’d give my younger self

Lessons From the People Trenches: 3 Tips for Aspiring CPOs

Lessons From the People Trenches: 3 Tips for Aspiring CPOs

Reflecting on my career as a People Leader and the advice I’d give my younger self

Albert Einstein once said "The only source of knowledge is experience." After two decades in the Corporate Jungle, I've got a treasure trove of both successes and stumbles to draw from. While the journey's been full of twists and turns, these are my three key lessons I've learned that are valuable for anyone looking to becoming People Leader.

Always Be Curious

The key to any People Leadership role is curiosity and the best leaders are lifelong learners. Before diving into a new People Leader role, chat with everyone you can – leadership, employees (past & present), even investors. Get to know the company inside out. Ask questions that dig deep into the company's vision, how it's perceived currently, culture, and challenges.

Here are some of my favorites:

- What makes [Company] awesome? What are you most proud of?

- Where are there roadblocks to achieving the vision?

- What are the top priorities for leadership?

- How do people typically feel showing up to work each day?

- What are the skeletons in the closet? What past stumbles can we learn from?

- If you could change 3 big things about the company, what would those be?

By comparing these diverse perspectives, you'll uncover valuable insights into the company's true state - the good, the bad, even the ugly. This knowledge is gold; it will guide you in choosing the right People Leader role and the company you truly want to champion and go to bat for. 

This will also help you through your entire career. Asking lots of “why do you think that” or a simple “tell me more” will provide you with all sorts of nuggets of information that will continue to help inform everything you do.

Lead with Heart, But Set Boundaries

As a People Leader, you’ll work with a fascinating mix of personalities and be in a unique position where people will share all sorts of feels with you. People Leadership life is a balancing act, wearing many hats: empathetic supporter, strategic thinker, rule follower, stakeholder wrangler, herder of sheep - the list goes on. How you show up will help you succeed or fail. To lead well, you need two things: 

  1. Willingness to lead with heart and vulnerability, and
  2. Ability to set clear boundaries

A thing that's always struck me through my career is when I encounter leaders who seem...well, unapproachable. Leading with heart means being genuine, relatable, and vulnerable.

Being genuine and creating safe spaces for people to feel seen and heard by you is critical to not only building solid, high-functioning teams, but also providing the safety for someone to come to you when something goes really wrong. Strong leadership is built on trust.

Think back to a leader you had who made you feel like you had to walk on eggshells. Not exactly a recipe for trust, right? You probably felt deeply uncomfortable being yourself around them, couldn’t bring your A-Game, and it likely didn’t foster any sort of open communication. It’s a lose-lose for all. At the end of the day, how you make people feel and the type of space you create for them is what they’re going to remember the most. 

A pro-tip I've developed is to try and end every conversation with a simple "thanks for [their time/insights]." or “I really appreciate how you [did/expressed this thing]”. Creating a simple moment of appreciation goes a long way in bringing your heart to the game and showing someone you truly see and value them. 

While leading with heart allows you to connect with your team, it thrives alongside setting healthy boundaries. Your role isn’t to be a pushover or having to constantly “get creative” for people. Sometimes you’ll need to be firm in saying “no” for right reasons, sometimes you’ll need to prioritise your well-being or workload and say “not now”, occasionally you might want to flick a match someone’s way (don’t!) - know when you need to step away and reset. This will allow you to recharge and have the energy to be fully present for them when it matters most.

You Can't Control Everything, But You Can Control Your Reaction

Finally, let's be honest, sometimes work gets messy and intense. Here's the thing: you can't control how people react to you or your decisions, but you can control your own reactions.

This is crucial in any leadership role, but it’s especially important for a People Leader. You'll hear all sorts of things, some informed, some uninformed, and some of it tough to swallow. People have opinions, and your choices will impact them in different ways. And sometimes what you do won’t hit the right spot for every single person, or feel like enough.

Early in my career, I struggled with having big feels and visceral reactions to things. Over time though, I learned to parse interactions and compartmentalise them into three buckets:

1. Gold Nuggets: These are the actionable insights you can use immediately to improve or change things. Write them down, bounce them off other people to get additional insights, use these immediately and keep evolving. 

2. Food for Thought: Maybe it's not relevant now, but it’s good info that could be a future-state gem down the road. These go into your mental back pocket (or if you’re like me and your brain is a sieve, write it down immediately!)

3. Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: This is when you’re given a lump of coal. Not everything is going to serve you, and it’s ok to mentally throw garbage input in the garbage. Though this one's rare for me these days, trust me, it happens. For these situations, learn to let it go.

Mentally sorting things into these categories helps avoid overreacting or underreacting.  By giving something a label, you eliminate the overwhelming feeling of "WTF do I do with this?"  Of course, there will be times when things fall outside these categories and that's when I reach out to my trusted network for advice.

Looking back, having stronger role models early on would have saved me a lot of grief and helped me become a better leader, faster. But hey, that's why I'm sharing this with you! I hope these tips help you navigate your own journey as an aspiring People Leader.

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