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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Sometimes the most important leadership ideas come from unexpected places. I wouldn't have guessed that my own leadership mantra would come from a document designed to guide the physical transformation of a university campus.

The phrase "Putting People First" was initially adopted at Ryerson University to prioritize people in the development of our physical campus. We think that putting people first is a key driver that creates a high-engagement, diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace – where the most talented and in-demand want to learn, work, teach and conduct research.

While each organization is different, here are six key steps to creating a people-first culture of your own.

1. Lead with your values

Put your values and objectives in writing and communicate them widely across the organization. Values that are hallmarks of people-first cultures include respect, trust, diversity, collaboration and fostering an equitable and inclusive environment that values and encourages each person's potential. Declare your commitment to your core values and walk the talk.

2. Make putting people first everyone's job

Who's in charge of putting people first in the organization? Look in the mirror. Everyone must consider putting people first as the top line of their job description. I draw inspiration from my team every day. Some of the best examples of individuals going the extra mile for each other happen quietly or one-on-one: Security personnel helping a student whose car was broken into; two senior directors who came together to create a career development opportunity for a long-serving employee; or the dean who picks up a stray piece of trash as she walks through a building.

3. Create a culture of thanks

Recognition is crucial to building morale and encouraging outstanding work. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that employees who feel valued are more likely to report better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and motivation compared with those who do not feel valued by their employers.

Most employers have awards programs to celebrate service milestones. The ultimate people-first culture goes further. This isn't a program; rather an attitude that permeates management and peer interactions. At its simplest, it is ensuring your workplace is one where sincere thanks happen all the time. Work to create great programs of formal recognition, but work harder to foster sincere gratitude for the actions of the people around you every day.

4. Value the whole person

A people-first culture knows and respects the whole person. That means the culture has to promote health, inclusion and accessibility. Examples include making healthy, delicious, locally sourced food available or putting generous vacation policies in place and managing so that people have a chance to get some rejuvenating time away. Do you provide safe spaces for difficult conversations such as confronting challenges in job mobility, or giving equity-seeking groups the ability to direct how they want to be heard by management? Critical to creating an inclusive environment is truly knowing who you are first.

5. Keep your ear to the ground

Without listening, you can't know whether you are making the right choices to nurture a people-first culture. Luckily, technology makes it easy to start conversations and hear from people in large organizations. Employee engagement surveys are a common example. Another is deploying an innovative tool to generate ideas like the Soapbox app, or effectively using Twitter to get feedback or ideas from large groups.

6. Put a premium on happiness

Taking action to improve one's happiness can motivate important life changes and have positive impact on both family and community. A focus on happiness in the workplace can help with the current acute concern with work-life balance. In addition, reported evidence suggests that happier employees have a positive impact on the bottom line. Do your part to create happiness around you and encourage others to do the same.

Julia Hanigsberg (@hanigsberg) is vice-president of administration and finance at Ryerson University (@RyersonU) and chair of the board of trustees of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.