Make People Your Priority

How Exceptional Leaders Make Time for People

James D. Ludema & Amber A. Johnson Care for people, Culture, Leadership, Return on Values

Make People Your PriorityNOTE: This post is an excerpt from our eBook, Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time. Download your free copy of the whole book by using the link. 

Jim Horan, CEO of Blue Plate, Chicago’s top event catering company, boiled the responsibilities of a CEO down to just two: 1) Worry about the future, and 2) Spend time with employees. Horan’s to do list might be simplistic, but it captures much of what makes his company, and others like it successful. As Jim says, “When our employees are around, I want to be around the employees.”

As a statement, “make people your priority” may seem obvious. But it is never easy to consistently accomplish, and sometimes requires making tough trade offs. The top leaders at the companies we study have established systems and rituals and habits that make it easier to sustain people as your top priority. Let us highlight a few examples:

Sandy Dupleich, a partner with Seattle-based Dynamic Language (a translation services firm) makes a point of personally signing every employee paycheck. Dupleich walks through their offices, handing out the checks (often with her dog Lucy in tow). “It gives me a touch with each of the employees, every two weeks,” says Dupleich.

At Service Express, President Ron Alvesteffer is quick to refer to a Zig Ziglar quote, “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” Service Express, under Alvesteffer’s leadership, makes meeting the life goals of people their overall mission, whether those life goals are to get a promotion, buy a new house, or make it to every one of your son’s high school football games.

To help team members accomplish their goals, managers follow Alvesteffer’s example by making life goals part of regular one-on-one meetings. Leaders provide support (the name of a mortgage broker, the freedom to leave early on a Friday afternoon) whenever possible. The result is an actively engaged workforce that knows they are the top priority of their senior leadership. This has translated into improved employee turnover rates, down from 20 percent to just 10 percent.

Regular “walk throughs” are practices mentioned by many of the CEOs we interview. These leaders leave their corner office in habitual ways, taking intentionally slow strolls through office corridors and across factory floors. “My job is to walk through the kitchen. My job is to go talk to the sales people. My job is to just touch the people that work here,” says Jim Horan, of Blue Plate Catering. “It’s just walking around and kibitzing and finding out how people are doing and following up on stuff and asking people about their family. Telling people what a great job they’re doing.”

Our research logs are filled with dozens of other examples of intentional actions these leaders take, in order to keep their focus on the people around them. Including,

Maintaining an open door policy, or an open air office

Choosing to park in the farthest spot possible, to show humility and to allow conversation time with others as you walk toward the building

  • Writing hand written notes on special occasions, such as work anniversaries or birthdays
  • Authorizing and participating in robust mentoring programs
  • Maintaining regular meetings with leaders, even when the staff grows large
  • Promoting from within whenever possible
  • Making a focus on others part of the job description and accountability metrics
  • Staying engaged in the recruitment and hiring process, and personally welcoming all new employees

That list is by no means comprehensive, but it is compelling. What struck us, in our research, was the systematic way these leaders intentionally engaged in prioritizing people.

Emotional Intelligence for CEOs & Leaders

With these stories accumulating throughout our research process, we weren’t surprised to discover that two of the 10 CEOs we’ve interviewed have professional backgrounds in social work (Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing; Jim Horan of Blue Plate Catering). These leaders of high culture/high profit companies have intentionally developed the muscle of emotional intelligence.

“The majority of my time daily is spent being involved with people; emotionally with people,” says Tom Walter, CEO of Tasty Catering, a multiple-time recipient of the American Psychological Association’s “Psychologically Healthy Workplaces” award. “Leaders are emotionally involved with their followers.”

Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others,” including the capacity to identify emotion, harness emotions and apply them to tasks like problem solving, and the capacity to regulate emotions and support others in the regulation of their own emotions.

The leaders we interview have developed the capacity to care for and support team members as they encounter personal and professional challenges, from failed initiatives to failed marriages. This capacity changes the lens by which a leader looks at every meeting and interaction. Instead of approaching time with employees as solely a business-oriented strategy conversation, high culture/high profit leaders focus on the support they provide to the team members involved. Certainly much of that support is strictly professional (what resources do I need to expend, in order for this effort to be successful?) but a significant proportion is emotional as well (what support can I expend, in order for this person to be successful?)

Why Making People Your Priority Matters

As CEOs invest more and more time with people, the results begin to show up in the company’s bottom line. “What we have seen over the years is that when we invest in our people to show them that our value is about them, we’re here for them, then we see them much more engaged in their work,” says Paul Spiegelman, founder and former CEO of BerylHealth (now the Chief Culture Officer for Stericycle). “We see them much more able to sit down and think about solutions to problems.”

Bob Hottman, the CEO of Colorado’s largest accounting firm, EKS&H, believes his firm’s investment in people gives them a competitive advantage. “The only thing that can differentiate us and the marketplace is the quality of our people, how they interact with each other, and as a result of that how we are able to take things to our clients,” he told our research team, led by Dr. Mike Manning. “Relationships are everything.”

Hottman estimates he spends 75 percent of his time mentoring and meeting with the people of his firm. This percentage of time is common among the CEOs we interviewed, and it makes for more successful companies. Other studies have found that CEOs who spend more time with their employees lead more productive companies. Making people the priority pays dividends.

Start Today – To Make People Your Priority, consider:

  • Prepare for each meeting on your calendar by asking the question, “Who is in this meeting, and how can I help them succeed as an individual and as a team member?”
  • Review your routine: does it reflect an orientation toward people? How do you know?
  • What new habits could you start to make clear your prioritization of people? Office walk-throughs? Handwritten notes?
  • Among your executive team, who are the best at caring for people? How do they illustrate this care? Has it made them more successful? How could you celebrate their approach publicly, in order to encourage others to do the same?

How are you doing this in your own work? We’d love to hear your stories – please share in the comments box below.


Do differently cover with shadowThis post is excerpted from Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time, an ebook by Jim Ludema, Ph.D., and Amber Johnson. Download your free copy at

The book features research conducted by CVDL faculty, doctoral students and staff. Learn more about the Return on Values Project at

Interested in participating in this sort of research? Visit to learn more about our executive doctoral program, which allows students can get involved in world-class research.


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