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Tired of the statement ‘people are our greatest asset’

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When I see the statement ‘people are our greatest asset’ in CSR reports, on websites and in marketing statements. I am always tempted to dig deeper. It pays to look for positive proof that the statement can be backed up. In many cases disappointment often results!

This phrase has become a modern day HR & business cliché. Any CEO tempted to use it should ensure that they have satisfied themselves:

  • that the organisation has put a bit more thought behind the phrase, and
  • that they personally have an understanding of organisational reality at shop floor or operational level.

Our People are not Our Greatest Asset

Lets start with the Devil’s Advocate counterpoint that sets out several reasons why People are NOT your Greatest Asset. The could range from:

  • Only leaders and high performing employees are assets, all others are liabilities that need management
  • Employees are ‘temporary labour units’ and not a physical asset that can be a tangible item on a financial balance sheet; to
  • Your workforce is not your greatest asset because polls indicate that upto 85% are disengaged from the organisatiion!

Personnaly I take great issue with the first point. We all know that individual leaders and entire leadership groups can be your greatest liability in organisations. Bear in mind the Swissair groupthink scenario as acautionary tale

Swissair became so powerful and financially stable that it was given the stockmarket nickname “the Flying Bank.” In time, the Board and its senior managers came to believe themselves not only invulnerable to the marketplace, to making bad decisions, but also morally superior to other airplines. There are many other warnings from history on the asset value of leaders and individual employees – reflect on Enron , Lehman Brothers, AIG and Countrywide!

My recommendation is to leave the safety of the C-suite. Go downstairs and spend time engaging with all tiers of the workforce. Not only to answer any questions but to evaluate for yourself whether your people are your greatest asset. Listen to what they are saying about the business and remain in listening mode. A previous CEO (Dr Ian Sword) inspired me to adopt this management practice a long time ago. It can be extremely tough but also rewarding.

Why? If only 20% of a workforce feel ‘engaged’ with the organisation and its leadership, what is happening? Your people can be your Greatest Asset, but only if your leadership and management processes let them!

What listening can tell you (if people are your greatest assets):

Employees are at the sharp and pointy part of your company’s interfaces – the first point of contact with customers and are ‘living the dream’ of what your customers are thinking. Richard Branson is a great figurehead leader but just ask Virginmedia customers what they think of the groups customer service arrangements. These staff will have the ground-floor information on what, and how, your customers are thinking about the organisation. This allows them to:

  • identify customer trends;
  • define and anticipate customer needs;
  • resolve major problems before they escalate upwards;
  • develop a view of what and when an organisation should pay attention to an issue;
  • which customers and stakeholders are disengaging from the products and services on offer; and
  • can provode a wealth of information on organisational and product improvements based on thier customer feedback

A Leadership myth

It may come as a shock to leaders surrounded by attentive managers, but across many business value lines it is the employees that are the ones doing the work. They have the feet-on-the-ground perspective, knowledge and organisational understanding of how well your enterprise is working together or how effeciently it is getting the work done. This enables them to:

  • Identify ineffeciency;
  • Try to avoid trouble spots or show stoppers;
  • Provide a wealth of information and insights into optimizing operational processes;
  • Be innovative in the development of new ideas;
  • Recognize cross-functional blockers as well as teamwork opportunities;
  • Offer insights into customer communications and information sharing;
  • Highlight or promote areas that working well; and
  • Diagnose when things are not working well and will let you know it without the shield of management speak!

Yes, the last point can be a brutal disection of what a manager has come to believe is the corporate worldview. Just try sitting down with a group of Glaswegian trench diggers for an hour as they demolish an organisation’s health and safety culture and the gap between leadership reality and perception. It was brutal to be on the recieving end of that session but ultimately rewarding in what it revealed. There are few routes to find out what is really going on in the daily life of organization without asking colleagues for that information and listening for information (not just opinions). If your people are your greatest asset they will tell you!

Whilst it is important for employee’s to ‘hear’ a CEO express such a statement. The exercise will mean nothing unless the workforce:

  • ‘feel’ it in the daily reality of thier employment or more importantly
  • ‘know’ it in their interactions with their leaders and managers

That’s the basis of having an engaged workforce. 

Sustainability is one route towards successful Employee Engagement

When seeking to encouraging wider engagement in corporate cultures from within the workforce. How can businesses, and in particular leaders, motivate others in their alignment with the business vission and mission?  Sustainability has different meanings within different settings and sectors – but manager-employee relationships are likely to be the same in all businesses. One way in which an employee feels they re ‘valued’ is not just through a financial relationship, but through other tangible and intangible arrangements:

  • the organisational culture,
  • how the organisation aligns with their own beliefs and values,
  • the manner in which the business treats them and wider society –

This can determine whether the intangible factors of employee goodwill: – their support; loyalty; and, ultimately retention as employees remain. Workers in the knowledge based or innovation driven employment sectors are particularly sensitive to these factors.

Adopt an active leadership approach

An active leadership approach to sustainability helps employees engage with the organisation and to feel alignment with it. A statement such as an ‘Our people are our greatest asset’ statement in a CSRMaking clear to the workforce the value and importance of the work they perform, and its contribution to business success is an effective way of demonstrating value. than . Take time to research how their contribution fits into the larger picture, and by investing in their growth, engagement and satisfaction.

Reflection Points

  • So if it’s not people, what is your greatest asset? – It is how you empower them as a leader.
  • Do your employees ‘know’ and ‘feel’ your organisation’s core values?
  • Do they aligned with your sustainability objectives?

Leading Green

At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business training & consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.

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