Successful organizations add value to all of their major stakeholders including employees, customers, and investors. The best-led and most successful organizations and teams understand and prioritize putting their people (employees) first. What happens next? Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson explains by saying, “Clients (customers) do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.” When customers are treated well, they, in turn, bring their business and tell others, which results in healthy cash flow to benefit the stockholders and other investors. Bottom line: everybody benefits when people are put first!
Actions do speak louder than words. What are some actions that demonstrate and promote the “people first” philosophy? Here are 10 ideas that can help:
1) Embrace and Practice Servant Leadership. The most respected leadership experts in the world (e.g., Maxwell, Blanchard, Covey, etc.) promote the servant leadership philosophy, and the most successful leaders tend to practice it. In a nutshell, this leadership philosophy is about leaders being committed to serve team members and other people, contrasted with a traditional philosophy where leaders view others as there to serve the leader.
2) Prioritize Employees. With the labor shortages we are experiencing today, now, more than ever, people have choices regarding where to work. Recent surveys show that only 31% of people are engaged at work, 33% feel undervalued, and only 26% feel strongly valued. And the largest generation in the workforce today (Millennials) and the generation coming behind them (Gen Z) have demonstrated they are very willing to change organizations if not treated positively. Anne Mulcahy was the respected and effective CEO for Xerox and understood the need to prioritize employees. Mulcahy once wrote, “Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.”
3) Focus on Purpose and Meaning and Explain the Why. We all want to feel like we are making a difference and are contributing towards building something important. Serving and adding value to the lives of others (e.g., customers, fellow employees) makes our work more than just earning a paycheck. Leadership expert Mark Babbitt observed, “Millennials and Gen Z are showing that what drives them is the desire for meaningful work, to balance work with life, and a focus more on making a difference than making money.” We also need to explain the “Why” behind our goals and strategies, which Simon Sinek elaborates in his bestseller Start with Why. Elon Musk adds, “People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.”
4) Emphasize the Employee Experience and Employee Engagement. Harold Schultz (founder and former CEO of Starbucks) once stated, "Treating employees benevolently shouldn't be viewed as an added cost that cuts into profits, but as a powerful energizer that can grow the enterprise into something far greater than one leader could envision." I agree and would suggest that intentionally spending time and money to create a better employee experience is well worth the investment. Studies show that organizations with high employee engagement have fewer mistakes, higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and higher customer satisfaction.
One contributor to a positive employee experience is to provide as much flexibility in work schedules and work locations as possible. Not all jobs can allow some of the work to be done remotely, but when possible, enabling a hybrid schedule with some remote work is attractive to many. People also appreciate support for flexible schedules to help deal with childcare, elder care, and other personal responsibilities.
5) Know Our People. Our employees are not mere workers, but human beings with fears, dreams, aspirations, passions, and families. Let’s get to know them (within reasonable bounds)! Asking open ended questions and looking for opportunities to spend time with people outside of normal work hours can be helpful. Remember John Maxwell’s famous quote, “People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.”
6) Train, Build, and Grow Our People. Peter Drucker counseled, “Every enterprise is a learning and teaching institution. Training and development must be built into it at all levels, and training and development never stop.” We have many resources to tap into, including in-house training, university courses, conferences, professional associations, and more. Also, look for ways to align people with their strengths. For example, team members with strong verbal and social skills can be in customer-facing roles, while those with strong mechanical skills can operate equipment. Drucker explains this concept when he said, “A manager’s task is to make the strengths of people effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”
7) Simplify Accountability and Empower People. We should explain and clarify expectations, then as much as possible let our people do their work without micromanaging them. Do you like to be micromanaged? Over the years, I have asked this question to literally a few thousand people, and have as yet had one person say they like to be micromanaged. Coaching and training when needed yes, micromanaging no.
8) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Good communication starts with listening to what our people have to say. There are many tools at our disposal to listen and communicate with our team members, including: regular one-on-one meetings, team meetings (via video conference for those working remotely), stay interviews (focused on employee satisfaction), team surveys (such as the Gallup 12), and pulse surveys (typically one question done frequently to gain a “pulse” on how employees are feeling; good for teams in multiple locations and that don’t have regular one-on-one and team meetings). As leaders, we need to transparently share information on how the team and overall organization are doing – surveys show that generally people most want to hear organization news from their immediate boss.
9) Remove Obstacles. How do we identify obstacles that are preventing our people from achieving their best? Ask them. Our goal is to identify the obstacles and then do what we can to remove them. In some cases, this will include providing better tools (e.g., upgraded equipment, better technology) so people can excel at what they do. In other cases, we may have cumbersome and inefficient processes and systems that get in people’s way. The great quality guru W. Edwards Deming once wrote, “Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and processes rather than the employee. The role of management is to change the processes rather than badgering individuals to do better.”
10) Practice the 3 Rs – Recognize, Respect, and Reward. Prominent psychologist William James after years of research concluded that the greatest need people have is the need to be appreciated. Lasting success in the business world starts with appreciating and recognizing the people that do the work and interact with our customers. David Novak (former CEO of Yum! Brands) speaks to this when he said, “People leave when they don’t feel appreciated. That’s why we’ve made recognition a really high value. Our business is people-capability first; then you satisfy customers; then you make money.”
I advocate for what I call the “3 Rs” approach for treating people on our teams: recognize people for who they are and how they add value; always treat others with respect; and reward positive individual and team performance in ways that are meaningful to them. We need to look for opportunities to celebrate accomplishments. How? For individuals, a handshake (or fist or elbow bump), email or text, and verbal appreciation or handwritten note are all impactful. For teams: thanks, praise, and any type of food are all welcome!
Here is a final thought: Find your team’s true purpose. Articulate it. Put people first. The rest will fall into place.
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award winning University Instructor and Speaker, and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. He serves as the Industry Co-Chair of the Greater Portland PCC. His book, Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you — and your team — soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer. Wes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 971-806-0812.
This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.