A few years ago, Khary Hodge faced a tough challenge. At the time, he oversaw a team of eight human resources professionals. His boss felt that he was ready to step up his game and manage a much bigger team of over sixty. However, the challenge for Hodge, now vice president of human resources for Strategic Education Inc., went beyond the increased numbers.
He wanted to manage with a team-first approach. Hodge saw firsthand throughout his career that authoritarian leadership could create an environment where employees were reluctant to take risks and make suggestions for improvement.
This formative episode reflects changing trends in management philosophy. The way Hodge sees it, a younger cohort of employees chafe under the watch of dictatorial bosses and are demanding a more enlightened approach. He has several inspired insights to offer managers navigating this new environment.
Reminiscing over his seminal management challenge, Hodge says the most important action off the bat was to set the managerial tone. “I told everybody that, at the end of the day, we win or lose as a team,” he recalls. “There’s no ‘me’ or no ‘you’—we are a team. That created a positive dynamic immediately.” It was just the beginning of the tough work ahead, but it was a key first step in establishing trust between him and his new team, and it gave him the runway to implement his vision.
A key lesson from that period was the importance of being authentic—giving people you work with insight into what makes you tick along with some understanding of your motivations, your vision, and how projects impact the larger goals of the organization. Ordering people to accomplish a task within a seemingly arbitrary deadline with scant big-picture context isn’t enough to inspire teams to give their best effort.
Instead, Hodge takes a decidedly modern approach. “I don’t give people deadlines,” he says. “I give them challenges and they set the deadlines.” The team knows its capabilities best, he reasons, and it knows how and when it can realistically accomplish a particular challenge over a given period. There is accountability to get the job done well within the deadline, of course, and a manager must keep tabs on progress, but Hodge steers clear of veering into dictatorial mode.
The work environment is different today than it was in the last century, Hodge observes. Many young employees came of age in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Some of their parents, relatives, and adult acquaintances lost jobs due to fraud and negligence committed by others. For that cohort, loyalty to an organization must be earned by the organization. It is not given readily.
What’s more, employees today don’t have to pledge allegiance to one company. The gig economy affords them many options to earn a paycheck including consulting or starting their own business. Managers that fail to take a modern coaching mindset and rely on fear as a motivator are likely to face high turnover in their ranks, Hodge warns.
With much of the work being done in organizations today is project-based or performed by small teams, it’s critical to build trust and a good rapport within the group. The manager sets the tone, and for Hodge, it begins with relating to those you manage on a personal level. To do that, you must understand others’ backgrounds.
For example, a female colleague who grew up in a Midwestern suburban environment carries a far different set of life experiences to the workplace than he does as an African American man from New York City. Your life experience forms your business persona, Hodge notes. He recognizes that when he speaks, his strong, rapid-fire delivery will be perceived differently by others than that of a more soft-spoken colleague who grew up in a more serene environment.
A manager who realizes this can and should try to highlight an insightful point made by the more unassuming colleague in a meeting, Hodge advises. Everyone has good ideas, but sometimes they get lost in the robust debate of a business meeting when not delivered at full bore.
Supporting a teammate in that manner, informed by knowledge of their personal traits and background, builds bonds with them and makes for a more cohesive and effective group. As a sports fan, Hodge observes that championships are not always won by the teams that compile the most talent. Rather, a team with great chemistry often takes home the big prize.
Managers who relate well personally to those they manage catalyze good team chemistry, and that makes all the difference when cultivating winning squads. “If you care about what they need as a person, it makes them more loyal to you and the team,” Hodge says. Then, everybody is happy, and the organization succeeds.
“Congratulations, Khary. We’ve truly enjoyed our partnership over the years.”