Building a people-first culture as a leader

Building a people-first culture as a leader

On November 26, 2008, as waiters served dinner around 9:30 to guests at Taj, they heard a loud commotion outside.

Unbeknownst to them, these were amongst the first gunshots fired by the terrorists that stormed the city.

Quickly realizing that something was wrong, they switched off the lights, locked the doors, and patiently went around asking the guests if they needed water or anything else.

While evacuating, the staff was amongst the last and insisted that guests leave first.

But, Taj didn’t have a guideline on what to do in a terrorist attack. So, why did the employees have to go up and above and display absolute customer-centricity?

That is because Taj built up a people-first culture at its core and empowered its employees to react the way they did without involving a supervisor.

Here’s how you can build a culture that puts empathy first and ensures you have a world-class customer experience.

Lessons from Taj on how to recruit the “best” talent

“If we take care of our people, they will take care of our customers, and the customers will come back.”  - Bill Marriott

Taj Hotels, part of the marquee brand Tata is one of the largest conglomerates in India. Over the years, Tata has built a reputation for being hospitable and generous with customers and employees by making empathy part of their core culture.

Started in 1903, the vintage Taj has been an architectural marvel featuring the best of Asian culture. India is known for its culture of hospitality for guests (“Atithi Devo Bhava”), and Tata wanted to preserve this aspect by hiring from the hinterland instead of from the cities.

Despite being immensely popular with foreign tourists, the Tata group doesn’t look for folks who can speak fluent English, but check for the following parameters to achieve a perfect culture fit:

  • Respect for folks around them.
  • Optimism towards life in general.
  • Their recruitment teams hire from small towns and semi-urban areas instead of metros.
  • According to locals, they choose schools with good teaching standards rather than top-tier B-schools.
  • When it comes to referral hiring, they talk to school principals to select suitable candidates.
  • They hire fresh recruits rather than lateral hires.
  • Choosing small-town folks and opting for people with integrity and devotion to duty rather than folks with immense talent and skills.

In a lower-middle-income country like India, they are among the biggest recruiters and stepping stones for fresh graduates looking for their first white-collar job.

Culture isn’t just a fancy word.

While we live in a fast-changing world accelerated by technological advancements, human empathy is still the core to business success.

According to McKinsey, companies that scored in the top quartile in the “Organizational Health Index” posted a 60% higher ROI than the companies in the median and 200% higher than the bottom quartile.

A company’s culture in its root is defined by the behaviors and beliefs that people hold. Not only does unhealthy culture lead to underperformance and burnout in the long run, but it can also lead to bad PR and bring giants to their knees.

As a leader, you must communicate and forge your culture by your values, rituals, and rules that you have already put into practice. You ought to ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Is your culture collaborative or competitive?
  2. Do your employees work in an asynchronous flexible work environment or expect them to perform certain hours.
  3. Do you wish your employees to take ownership of their work, or do you ensure perfection?
  4. What kind of learning opportunities are you willing to offer your employees?
  5. What is life-work balance according to you?

And there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions.

A 21-year-old fresh graduate with a fire on his belly would be more likely to opt for a high-growth startup with little work-life balance than an established corporation.

A 40-year-old married man with a kid, on the other hand, would love to join a more traditional workplace with a healthy work-life balance.

It is perfectly fine to have a competitive culture or a culture oriented towards work than life in the work-life balance conundrum. There are myriad examples of successful companies with a cut-throat environment doing just fine and vice-versa.

But, when you lie to yourself and convince others of something that is not, do you attract the wrong kinds of people that do not fit into your organizational culture.

Importance of employee recognition

“People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers.”

No matter what your leadership style is, the importance of employee recognition can never be understated.

Rockstars and peak performers don’t like to be “siloed” to do a particular type of work. Most companies design job titles and fit people into them, thus “curbing” people into a kind of work.

At Peakperformer, our coaches deal with this problem quite often and advise people leaders to ensure that they are open to the idea of creating jobs around people and not vice-versa.

Recognizing workers in a post-pandemic reality

A study of 2000 Americans by the John Templeton Foundation found that folks are less likely to recognize the efforts of their colleagues than any other environment. And the reason for this is that employers still see employees as transactional objects and don’t believe in the vision present in their collateral.

Expressing gratitude can not only lift downed spirits, but it will also help you feel good about yourselves and strengthen your relationships with folks around you.

As cliche as it might sound, in a post-pandemic reality, here is how you can recognize your folks:


Yup, things are as simple as this. Create an onboarding document that you make your employees fill and mention how they would like to be recognized.

Some would like to be recognized with “titles” and “monetary benefits”, while others would welcome a more vocal appreciation in front of others. As a leader, you must understand your employees on an innate level and give them their due right when they meet and exceed expectations.

Be prepared to have difficult conversations.

Being a people manager is not just about niceties. Open and honest communication sometimes involves arguments and disagreements.

You need to have mechanisms to resolve this. Having honest conversations at work will ensure that your employees develop new ideas and bring their authentic selves to work.

Because at the end of the day, good leaders speak up, even when they don’t have all the answers, and invite and expect team members to contribute and take ownership of whatever they do.

Get advice from leadership coaches on building a people-first culture in your organization.

At Peakperformer, we provide personalized leadership coaching and help executives resolve their day-to-day challenges.

Our digital executive coaching platform is currently used by tech behemoths such as CRED, Groww, MPL, Bizongo, etc.

We help people leaders transform employees into global leaders in an effective, scalable, and measurable way by letting them choose an apt coach from a range of top executive coaches.

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