Good leadership is people curiosity, not people management

September 22, 2022 | By Shafi Shaikh

I was recently included in the list of ‘good people leaders’ in Mastercard and must admit that I was deeply humbled to be part of this list. I have always cherished my ability to support and guide a diverse group of people. It’s something I’ve always cared deeply about. Having managed a dispersed team across the region since before the pandemic, the challenges of the last few years have brought into sharp focus many of the lessons I learned managing a less-than-traditional working environment.

The thing is, being a people leader wasn’t something I set out to do, nor did I have a particular mentor in getting to where I have. In one of my early positions with a bank, I was always curious to learn about the different areas of the business and the roles that people played across various functions of the company. It was this curiosity that helped to land me a people leadership role within 12 months of me starting that position.

While I do have a set of guiding principles that help to guide my approach to leadership—I call it the “H.I.G.H.” factor—for me there is a common thread that runs through all of these principles.

H.I.G.H. is something I’ve developed over my years in leadership, and it stands for Hard work, Integrity, Grit, and Humility. Here’s how it helps to guide what I do.

Hard Work: Leadership is a major responsibility that requires serious, unwavering efforts to help your team develop, and to nurture your staff’s career and developmental needs. As a people leader it is important for you to show empathy towards their needs and demonstrate that you are a coach to them rather than a manager, while also showing that you’re willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears right alongside them. Coming back to the idea of curiosity, your ability to lead by example through hard work also demands that you also take a close interest in the struggles and doubts of the people you’re leading, and to help them to deal with these roadblocks so that you can all move forward with a similar sense of drive and purpose.

Integrity: The trust of your team is not a given—it’s something which is earned through how you conduct yourself when it comes to your actions, ethics, values, transparency, and authenticity. It also means personally adhering to policies, procedures, and commitments in the same way you expect your team members to do so. A huge part of this is always giving recognition where it’s due; you may be the team leader, but that doesn’t mean all, or even most, accolades belong to you. You need to take a deep interest in the efforts of individual team members, as there may be things happening that fly underneath the radar but deserve recognition.

Grit: This is something that manifests itself in many ways. It certainly intersects with the “hard work” part of the equation, but it also means having the courage to make tough decisions, to have complex conversations, and to push hard when it’s needed. I keep an open-door policy with all my team members, and I routinely send reminders throughout the year encouraging them to reach out to me. The thing is, with this openness comes an understanding that sometimes you’re going to hear things from them that are challenging or critical, and that likewise, you may have to deal out some hard truths yourself. Leadership, while rewarding, wasn’t meant to be easy, and a personal strength needs to be balanced with an unwavering sense of empathy to have these kinds of complicated interactions.

Humility:  Nobody likes an arrogant or bossy leader, and for many employees, this kind of behavior is enough to drive them to leave a company. Being humble, transparent, and—here’s that word again—curious about what your team is dealing with, can make all the difference to the culture of a work environment. Unfortunately, many leaders want adulation, and they want accolades. I don’t want people to think that I’m the best—I want my team members to know that I want what’s best for them, and I want to understand how to help them become the best they can be. I’m always learning from my team, whether it’s one of the most accomplished, experience members of staff, or it’s someone who’s just joined the company. Humility means realizing that important guidance can come from anyone, and that you’ll always be a better leader for absorbing the thoughts and ideas of others.

Are people born great leaders, or is it something they learn? I think both of these things are relevant, but I’d argue that probably the most important thing is to have the drive to understand people. The thoughts I’ve set out above are based on observations I’ve made over my years of leadership, but I was able to arrive at these principles by starting at a baseline of wanting to understand the people I work with.

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Shafi Shaikh, Executive Vice President, Customer Delivery, Asia Pacific, Mastercard