You Are One of a Kind, and I’ll Lead You that Way!

This past weekend, I went to the History and Science Museum with my family.  My kids paused at the exhibit that explained, “You Are One of a Kind!”  The display showed graphical images of DNA structures and genetics.  It also included a large hand with the detailed patterns of its fingerprints.  My kids were amazed that no two are alike; that every single person is unique.

This fact of nature can provide quite the challenge for leaders.  How could you possibly treat everyone as unique?  After all, you may have a large team that reports to you.  Then, of course, there are corporate policies and procedures.  Let’s face it, they exist to ensure that you treat everyone the same – no preferential treatment and no discrimination. 

So, should a leader even consider “individualizing” their people?  How can it be done in a way that keeps your HR team happy at the same time it increases the effectiveness of your team?

I’d like to offer four ways that leaders can further motivate their teams by better understanding them as individuals:

Discover Their Strengths

There’s a reason why StrengthsFinder 2.0 has been a consistently best-selling book.  We all want to better understand our strengths, and we want to use them!  Of course we do!  By using our strengths, it allows us to have a posture of confidence, which further promotes our motivation and desire to be engaged.

Gallup research shows that organizations offering strengths intervention are 12.5% more productive, 9% more profitable, with 15% less turnover than organizations offering no strengths intervention.

Leaders, this is great news!  By understanding individual strengths, you can empower each person to use them more consistently and more effectively.  You can build better teams knowing there is great strength in a particular area or complementing strengths across the board.  You can challenge your people in a way that motivates them instead of frustrating them, and you can also discover when you should be following your people instead of leading them – it may turn out that someone has a strength where you have a weakness, and that can be a rewarding win-win!

Understand Communication Styles

We all process information differently in our own heads, and like most things that come in…they also come out.  Some people speak with an excruciating amount of detail; others prefer the ten thousand foot view.  Some want to provide constant updates; others just want to let you know a milestone has been achieved.  Some people like to provide feedback; others won’t offer an opinion unless prodded.

Leaders need to understand their own communication style, as well as that of their people.  Nobody wants to be misunderstood or unnecessarily frustrated, and we all know that choosing the wrong words, tone or frequency can cause this.

Explain to your team how you would like them to communicate with you.  How often do you want updates, in what form, with what level of detail?  Help them understand how to meet your expectations, so it doesn’t become a stressor for them.

Likewise, you should try to understand their needs.  Does someone need more direction, feedback or a higher level of detail to produce the results you’re looking for?  Does someone else’s personality suggest that you’re better off honing your listening skills, versus your speaking skills?  Is someone prone to getting their feelings hurt, or do they just want to be spoken to with logic?

By better understanding what your people want to hear, as well as how they naturally express themselves, you can become far more effective in building relationships and accomplishing common goals.

Be Flexible

Not many people enjoy the feeling of being handcuffed, with no freedom or flexibility.  Nor do many enjoy being droids – simple task-masters, following detailed direction with no need to think creatively or leverage their own skills and talents.

Leaders, work with your team to create a vision.  Be sure they have the necessary tools and support to be successful.  Be sure they’re focused and motivated.  Then, let them do their jobs the best way they know how.

Be sure that your team understands the milestones and deadlines  – in fact, work together with them to set these dates!  Empower them to get there, but don’t micro-manage the process.  Let them know they are trusted, and they will want to show you that trust was appropriately placed.

Again, if they’re leveraging their strengths and you’ve agreed upon the necessary communication, it shouldn’t be too difficult to be flexible with their approach.

Show Your Appreciation

It’s so important for people to feel appreciated.  It’s a large part of what keeps them motivated.  That’s why it’s critical to understand how people feel rewarded and accomplished; what do they value?

While a financial bonus may work well for one, an unexpected day off might be more highly valued for another.  Some may appreciate a big fuss and an award recognition for their contributions; others may prefer a quiet donation to their favorite charity.

Leaders, if you don’t know the answer, then ask your people what they value.  Tell them you think they’re doing great and ask them how you can best demonstrate that.  Your appreciation is no reward, if they don’t get the message.

What other strategies can help leaders more closely connect with their people?  What additional benefits can be achieved by these and other approaches?  How can you become a more personal leader that values the thumbprint of each person on their team?

Erin Schreyer is the President of Sagestone Partners and the Founder of Authentic Leadership in Cincinnati.  She is passionate about helping leaders and organizations reach their greatest potential.  Feel free to contact Erin directly at