Why CARE is the Key to Unleash Human Potential

Who cares?  Why do we care?

Sounds like the musings of a rebellious teenager with existential angst.  But if any leader has spent even a bit of time thinking about it, caring for our people is the very essence of leadership. This is why it is the foundational pillar of living the Care & Growth model.

And, as the name implies, living Care and Growth means, in the first instance, caring.  The care part is half the equation – and integral to the philosophy.  I always draw close the idea represented by the yin and yang symbol.  The concept of dualism, where seemingly contrary forces are actually interdependent and interconnected and cannot exist without the other. Growth in its commercial sense or individual sense cannot happen without care.

My journey with Care and Growth, transforming a complex and toxic environment

But first some reflections.  I have had the privilege – and responsibility – of leading a fairly large team that spans across many countries on this beautiful African continent.   Our audit function, like many large functions or business units in large complex organisations, had gone through life cycles and stages. It had waxed and waned in significance and impact.

My observation however was that Care & Growth was instrumental in cementing our impact in a positive way in the broader group. And, while many parts of Care and Growth are critical and indivisible; I believe it is the care part that has made the crucial difference in the function I led.

As easily happens with individuals, and in teams or organisations, there was a point in our life cycle that a self-serving intent had begun to pervade the fibre of our existence and the way we were perceived in the organisation.  I recall fending off accusations of “grandstanding” from our stakeholders. There was a time where our intent had been interpreted to be our own glory. There were questions about our benevolence. We had palpable internal politics, which was characterised by a scarcity mentality, fighting for recognition, position, status and power. We had rampant mistrust throughout the function. Every leadership action – especially on important matters like reallocating roles and tasks – was enormously charged and fraught with negative energy.

We simply had to change. At this point, I found the answer. What was the answer? Purpose.  And… Care.

In summary, we had to first make sure we are all on the same journey. We had to believe we can do something meaningful. Then, we had to demonstrate our commitment to that purpose by showing real (REAL) care to our people.

People want purpose, give it to them

A lot is currently written (correctly so) about the idea of purpose as a catalysing force for an organisation.  People want to belong and subscribe to a purpose that they can believe in.   Even the most ardent cynic and jaded employee, when you ask them what they want to achieve, will somehow articulate a set of words that talks about being proud of leaving a legacy.  Everyone is attracted to being part of something they can be personally proud of having contributed towards.

My firm belief is that purpose is – at its core – part of the care component of Care and Growth.   In Care and Growth, we call your purpose a “benevolent intent”. No matter how self-serving people are. Or how immature they are in respect to their personal growth in life’s journey. When you frame a purpose aimed at caring about and contributing to something bigger than themselves, they want to be part of it.  This is not necessarily creating a purpose because it normally already exists. Very often it is simply articulating a set of words that creates a “big why”.  Allowing people to rally around a purpose.

I believe that Care underpins your benevolent intent. The purpose is an expression of care.  The primal need to care for each other – as individuals, as teams, even as a species! This is what lays the foundation for us to pick up a purpose.

Articulating purpose in a corporate environment

So, to share my own experience with articulating purpose. Given our initial challenged state and context, we began a journey of deep reflection on our role, and purpose within the broader organisation.  We had many sessions with the leadership team. In addition, we took the time to get input from the broader team. We then distilled the essence of what the function can contribute to the organisation.  This gave us our “big why”!

At the end of this process, we settled on a set of words and a purpose statement. Our purpose statement was an expression of our role as an audit function. We did not create purpose, we articulated it. Here is our purpose statement:

We contribute to the trust system that the organisation needs to maintain and grow value with all its stakeholders (shareholders, regulators, depositors, lenders, the board and senior management).

A noble intent indeed. Very simple as well. But crucially, it showed the organisation that we understood – and cared!   We also captured a vision with an aspiration consistent with the Care and Growth mindset. Our vision was to use the unique perspective provided by internal audit to grow people and contribute to the bank.

Personally commit to the purpose, genuinely care about it.

Once the purpose of the team or function is established, people look for consistency and authenticity.  If the essence of your “big why” is to demonstrate care for something bigger than yourself, people want their leaders to be consistent in living and demonstrating that care.   Demonstrating this care in all interactions has powerful transformative power.  But it needs to be real, honest and meaningful.  Or – that other now overused word in leadership literature – authentic.

Another word for this authenticity is “sincerity”. You have to mean it when you say it. This is not authenticity in the form of some halo of righteousness projected in big moments. It is not the symbolic acts of compassion at all-hands meetings. It is not arranging support for corporate-sponsored social investment projects to someone or something in need.  These may be important and do form a part of consistent benevolent intent.

The moments that matter

Authenticity is expected and experienced more intently in small moments.  In the moments that matter.  Those moments of what I call simply – Human interaction.  Connecting with the people in our teams at a human level.  Recognising and acknowledging their fallibility, vulnerability and insecurity and being honest enough to project and acknowledge the same in yourself as a leader.    Being sufficiently courageous to be vulnerable.  So that the person on the other end of the interaction knows that you are also a fallible human and often also insecure.  Because if you don’t, you will never connect at that human level.   Which is the essence of authenticity.  That human connection, that authentic connection. This is what creates the conduit for showing that you really care.

And heaven helps you if you get it wrong.  People spot it a mile away.  There is some inbuilt sensor into our instincts- and most often we are not even aware of it.   Except when after some interaction you mentally (or even physically) roll your eyes into the back of your head and are overcome with a sense of cynicism of – yet another corporate bullshit interaction.  The result is disengagement, loss of energy and discretionary effort – and further breeding of mistrust.

Because we all know intuitively, both leaders and “subordinates” (although I slightly resent that term), that the hierarchy imposed by an organisation is artificial.  We are all just humans.  Forced to collaborate.   And care can only be experienced with basic respect at a human level.  Failing that it is inauthentic.

The transformation I observed

So, for our own journey, I truly believe that the combination of aligning our team to a purpose that demonstrated that we cared, and then connecting with each other in our teams in an authentic way, was a catalyst for change. I have been amazed at the willingness and energy (and discretionary effort) that have given since our transition.  They have moved mountains.  All simply because I believe – that they believed – we cared!

We have reached the stage where externally our function is well regarded by all our stakeholders (board, regulators). Most importantly we are trusted by our clients – the group senior management.  They believe our intent because they can see that it comes from a place of care.  While the audit process will always be clumsy, our ability to be a positive change on the organisation only really becomes effective when you signal that you care.  Because that enables trust.

Learning that care does not only mean “soft and kind”

And like the Yin and Yang, at the heart of the – often perceived – “light and fluffy” side of caring is the tough part.  But it is indivisible.

In the early days of the adoption of the Care and Growth model, people didn’t get it. There was an association of the Care part of the framework as creating a legitimate expectation of entitlement.  “You should be promoting me because you care for me”.  This needed active management and education.   But guidance in this regard is best achieved through direct experiences and one and one conversations at a human level.

Caring for people should not be confused with only being soft and kind.  The toughest feedback and holding people accountable should be done because you care.  Caring means being courageous enough, to be honest with people – but again – only because you care.

“Why had no one told me this before?”

I was reminded of this in an interaction with a team member. He was prone to bouts of abrupt disruption, disagreement and then sullenness and withdrawal when he disagreed with a point in a team discussion.  I suspected that he was coming from a position of fierce devotion to a noble principle. But, his behaviour came across as dogmatic and rigid and had a big negative impact on the energy and engagement levels of the rest of the team.  It needed some honest feedback.  I had a human interaction and an honest conversation with him. I explained the way I had experienced him. And how I believed this would hamper him in life. I explained how I thought this was currently impacting on the team.

The result of this feedback surprised even me.   Instead of defensiveness and argument that I expected, I was met with receptiveness and gratitude.  He had been suspicious that he was having that impact, but no one had ever cared enough to tell him.  “Why has no one told me this before?”   The results have been amazing.  While he will not easily change his fiercely principled approach (and perhaps shouldn’t) a foundation of trust has been built to allow his energy to be channelled positively and still contribute meaningfully.

So caring enough to give honest feedback, and holding people accountable because we want them to succeed is at the core of Care and Growth. It is about caring enough that you don’t accept mediocrity.  It means truly implementing the inversion of means and end.  Putting the person first – showing you care enough about the person’s wellbeing and success first and then allowing them to use the work to apply it.

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