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  • Published Dec 15, 2023

Unlocking the Power of People Leadership

Explore the transformative power of People Leadership, emphasizing team dynamics, empathy, and emotional intelligence for impactful organizational growth.

Megan Cook
Megan Cook

Happy Companies Cofounder & CAO

Six happy people standing against a wall

People. When it comes down to it - it is always about the people.

As a Cofounder of Happy, I blend my past experiences into my present role to help shape our team around something that I strongly believe in and which shapes my leadership style: the heart of every organization is its people. Time and again, I have seen that no matter the business, success is ultimately built around a team that is connected to a mission and to each other. But it took me some time to understand the full power of people and team dynamics and what it meant to have a people-first leadership approach.

My background includes various roles in executive leadership in administration and finance. At Happy, I am responsible for steering the day-to-day operations that keep our mission in motion. Overseeing critical functions like HR, Finance, and Administrative Operations, my role ensures that our company's backbone remains solid and agile.

But at a deeper level, my role is about much more than just focusing on the business's operations. Throughout my career, I quickly realized that the people were the most essential part of any company. I saw firsthand how an understanding and supportive culture could transform ordinary teams into extraordinary ones.

Six business people gathered in a circle laughing

When sitting around the conference room table with any leadership team while strategizing around new initiatives, discussing challenges, or acknowledging big wins, the conversations inevitably circle back to people. Questions like:

  • How do we motivate the team?
  • How do we get everyone involved and aligned about the same goals?
  • How do we celebrate our successes together?
  • How can we connect better with our clients?

These are all central to the conversation and the company's success - and all ultimately comes down to people. This realization and my desire to understand it led me to dig into the nuances of People Leadership and team dynamics.

What is People Leadership?

I am not trying to date myself here with a "back in my day" moment, but the truth is that when I first joined the workforce, people-first leadership wasn't discussed much. There were pockets of it, and I was lucky enough to land working under some truly wonderful managers and leaders who helped shape my early years. But when I thought about a boss or manager, it tended to be this idea of a person sitting up at a distance, focused on the bottom line, and maybe a little out of touch with the day-to-day of a "regular" staff worker. I wasn’t thinking about how they were managing people as much as I was thinking about how they were managing “stuff”.

Daniel Goleman's pioneering work on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) marked one of the first significant shifts in our understanding of people leadership. At the time, leadership was often viewed in terms of how someone could contribute to the company's financial performance, optimize ROI, and their personal competence or technical skill. Goleman introduced a new perspective, emphasizing the critical roles of empathy and interpersonal skills in leadership based on four domains:

  1. Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and understand one's own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, and their impact on others.
  2. Self-Management: The capacity to control or redirect disruptive emotions and impulses and to adapt to changing circumstances.
  3. Social-Awareness: The skill of understanding and empathizing with others, including sensing their emotions and understanding social networks.
  4. Relationship Management: The aptitude for managing interactions and relationships effectively, including inspiring, influencing, and developing others while managing

Goleman demonstrated that emotionally intelligent leaders could garner endorsement from their team and get everyone working together towards common goals.

Quote by Daniel Goleman, Psychologist and NYT Bestselling Author. "Leaders with high emotional intelligence find ways to respect emotions, be authentic, and hold others and themselves accountable"

People oriented leadership became even more important as the millennial generation entered the workforce. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, began to shift the narrative about what was valuable in a workplace environment, emphasizing the importance of flexibility, work-life balance, and opportunities to grow and develop, not just punch a clock. And as a part of that, they wanted a different relationship with their leadership and managers. In fact - a 2016 article in the Huffington Post put it perfectly - they want a coach, not a manager. For businesses to be successful with what was about to become the largest section of the workforce, it was clear that there had to be an alignment between the company's and employees' goals.

So what is People Leadership? Well, like most things - there are a lot of different views and definitions, but core to the concept are a few major themes:

  • Empathy & Understanding
  • Communication
  • Empowerment and Autonomy
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional Intelligence

A People Leader recognizes their team members as more than just contributors. They can tap into the needs and motivations of their team. They take the time to listen and to learn. However, genuinely effective People Leadership extends beyond that. It requires going a step further by integrating that approach and leveraging it to drive organizational success.

A group of people in a meeting

Each of us has a different natural leadership style and will have to make different adjustments to be most effective as People Leaders. Those leaders who are driven by goals, success and action may have to train themselves to adapt by slowing down and making time and space for their team when needed. If you are highly task-focused, you will need to shift your focus to include the interpersonal elements of leadership and team dynamics. Even those who are naturally empathetic and who may appear to have the upper hand in people oriented leadership will have to hone their skills here. They may need to find the right balance between empathy and accountability, using candor with kindness to move their team through challenges while staying focused on the organization's goals.

So, how can this paradigm shift to people-first leadership move from theoretical to practical? When coaching others on personal and professional development, I often tell people to confront what makes them the most uncomfortable because it might be the area they need to lean into the most. This was certainly true for me.

Evolving As a People Leader: Lessons in Empathy and Connection

I have always had an ambition to excel and grow in my responsibilities. Promotions felt like checking off a box towards the end goal - which, in my mind then, was represented by working my way up to a particular title or position in a company. However, if I am being honest, my definition of a leader was pretty superficial early on. Sure, I could repeat my high school ASB days mantra, "Leadership is action, not position." Still, some of me thought getting to a certain "status" or role in the company was necessary. If I could perform flawlessly and efficiently, I could prove myself. But I was wrong. Authentic leadership was about more than proficiency, and it would take a lot of self-reflection before I really understood that.

A group of people sitting at a table

People can tell you - I am not always the most approachable person when I am hyper-focused or under pressure. My introverted nature really comes out, and my instinct is to shut the door, hunker down alone, and emerge when I have solved the problem. I have had to understand the impact that has on others.

I didn't always realize that there were moments when my facts-based approach was blocking my ability to connect more deeply with my team. I saw it as focusing on the task at hand, but what someone else needed from me was for me to take a moment to check in on their emotional needs, which was challenging. I wasn't leading people; I was checking off boxes, which didn't always feel great to my team.

I am also not naturally assertive; I don't command attention or conversation, which is quite frankly okay with me. I am comfortable supporting things from backstage or working independently on deep, thoughtful work. But how far did that get me working in Human Resources? I should have known, right? It's in the name itself - HUMAN resources. To grow in my position and expand my scope of responsibility, there were times when I had to push past my conflict avoidance and navigate uncomfortable conversations. There were times when I had to lead discussions and presentations, representing our company and team to others. There were times when I had to not just support my team but inspire them. I had to be willing to stop being a task manager all of the time, so I could become a people leader when needed.

After working with my cofounder, James Lawrence, at a previous company for some time, he came to me with what he was sure was the best idea ever. When he told me we should dress up as farm animals for the next company All Hands Meeting, I probably looked at him like he was absolutely crazy. But by golly, I ordered that pig and cow costume from Amazon for us, put mine on for the All Hands, and sat up there and facilitated the meeting anyway. And the team loved it - it brought humor and levity to the meeting. It was silly and harmless, and at the end of the day, it was totally worth it to feel a bit foolish for a moment only to feel fantastic by the end of the day, knowing that we had fun together as a team. James was able to push me out of my comfort zone, and I was able to take a risk that I wouldn't do on my own.

Megan and James, Founders of Happy, dressed as a pig and a cow

This is a silly example, but it is one of many times I had to learn to adapt. I had to be willing to get uncomfortable. And I had to learn that being uncomfortable isn't always a bad thing. In fact, often, it is where growth occurs. Learning to understand what others needed from me and being willing to get uncomfortable to meet those needs has made me a better team member and people-first leader.

Quote by Megan Cook, Cofounder of Happy. Reads "Being uncomfortable isn't always a bad thing. In fact, oftentimes it is where the growth occurs"

This commitment to understanding my team's emotional needs better, also laid the groundwork for an incredible - and initially unlikely partnership. A collaboration that evolved into something meaningful and transformative, and ultimately led me to Happy.

Diverse Team Dynamics: Turning Differences Into Synergy

I have a long working history with my Cofounder, James, spanning over a decade of working together. I started working for him at a previous company he had founded and was actively running as the CEO. But I will let you in on a little secret. On paper, James and I shouldn't work together as well as we do.

James is the ultimate CEO - driven and entrepreneurial. He sees the big picture and will take the risks needed to make it happen. And he does - time and time again. He is passionate and expressive. His leadership is motivational, and I have watched him inspire teams to action through his words alone.

I am on the opposite side of the coin - quiet and reflective. I prefer to study a problem and approach it analytically. I look at things like puzzles that need to be solved, and I like to establish my position based on facts and evidence.

  • Where James can throw himself into a situation and wing it - I like preparation and the ability to back up my opinions.
  • James is comfortable acting from his intuition - I want to sit back and observe for a while, gathering data or researching things before I take action.
  • James is fast-paced & action-oriented, constantly driven by goals and thinking ahead. I am methodical and persistent, ensuring we cross all our t's and often looking back to learn from previous experiences.

Given our differences, it seems impossible that we have been able to establish this working relationship which has worked so well for so long. How do we not drive each other crazy?

The truth is - sometimes we do.

Our success doesn't come from the fact that we never have challenges, disagree, or even get frustrated with the situation and even with each other. Our success comes from our ability to understand the value of each other's differences, to adapt to each other's needs, and to focus on our shared vision rather than the potential obstacles.

James probably wants to rip his hair out sometimes when he is two steps ahead, and he has to slow down to give me space for reflection and processing. But he also sees the value in my ability to plan and how my focus on details can help catch potential issues before they happen.

It can be challenging for me at times to match James' enthusiasm and energy - but I also love to see how his creativity sparks innovation, and I know that actively brainstorming with him is one of the best ways to tap into that.

It is a give-and-take. And at different times, each of us has had to adapt a little more than the other. But at the end of the day, our ability to understand each other and what the other needs in different situations has allowed us to form synergy where otherwise it may just be differences.

Because actually, James and I are way more aligned than it seems at first glance. We have similar values. We both believe empowering teams can unlock great things. We are committed to hearing each other out, reflecting, and making changes when needed. We both love learning new things and challenging ourselves. Those fundamental parts of us are so similar; it is just how we act on them that are different. Once we could see that - it felt much easier to focus on what made each other tick, to try to better understand the other person's motivations, and to work together to achieve amazing things.

At its core, this is what Happy is all about—understanding people.

In almost every possible situation, work involves people. Very few roles don't involve interaction with others, whether a manager, colleague, client, or vendor. And the fact of the matter is that to do our best work - we have to be able to work well with others.

This isn't about acquiescing and always giving in to the most assertive personality or loudest voice in the room. It is about understanding the underlying drivers of others and how to communicate effectively, build connections and alignment, and improve workplace relationships and collaboration.

Shaping a Happier Future

As James and I continued to build on our work together, we focused on developing these skills in our teams. We believed helping them understand and connect would create a stronger, more successful company. This is what motivated us to build Happy - the chance to share this vision with every team and to impact and improve relationships, communication, and outcomes.

For me, Happy is so much more than just a product or company; it's a reflection of our belief in the value of each individual and the idea that understanding each other can lead to more than just productivity – it can lead to happiness, fulfillment, and meaningful work. It builds understanding, communication, and self-awareness, serving as the bridge that connects people. I sometimes see Happy as the ultimate puzzle-solving tool that helps solve the complex puzzle of team dynamics.

The future of work can be - and should be - one where people not only love what they do but also feel genuinely understood and empowered.

At Happy, our commitment to this runs deep. We genuinely believe in the potential of what we have built and how it will make that vision a reality. We are so excited to share it with you, to be a part of your journey towards a happier, more connected workplace, and to help your team work better together.

With Warmth & Love,

Happy Cofounder Megan Cook's signature

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