Do we treat our people as if they are our greatest asset?

Why is it that if the people ‘on the company bus’ are a company’s most important asset, they are not treated as such?

For years, I have been taught through many leadership courses, business books, etc. that a company’s greatest asset is their ‘human capital.’ In fact, as early as 1982 when Tom Peters released, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (Collins Business Essentials), he espoused the merits of ‘management by walking around’ in an effort to really get to the brass tacks of what was going on in the organization…you know, ‘around the water cooler’ discussions of what the ‘people were really saying’ about the company. When I have seen executives embrace this belief (of really listening to their employees, and really putting their feet squarely in their employees’ moccasins) the difference in the company’s culture, teamwork, respect for each other – and performance – is notably and measurably different.

When the executives don’t care – and yes, as you know, that is the case in the majority of companies – you can sense the difference in the company the minute you walk through the door. I have worked in companies where the employees felt no more important than the pawn in a chess game. They knew it, their managers knew it, and the company knew it.

Now, I am not referencing the proverbial health care benefits, 401K package, stock purchase plans, bell-curve salary hikes – or even the niceties denoted in quarterly and annual reports– these are simply the ‘tickets to entry’ in today’s world. I am talking about the stuff that really drives employee loyalty and over-the-top performance.


I am of the belief – that if all the other ‘tickets to entry’ are basically equal (and sometimes they don’t even have to be) – people choose to work for people.


Whether it is a first level individual contributor working for a first line manager – or an SVP working for the CEO, they are all individual people. Each person has their own individual needs, insecurities, challenges, and dreams.Thus, creating an environment where people are truly valued as the company’s greatest asset starts with the individual. That individual will set the tone for his or her team, organization, or even for an entire Fortune 50 company.

As Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric has said: Leadership begins as a constituency of one. In this case: leadership of people.

How do we truly become leaders of people who will create and foster our company’s greatest asset? A few basic thoughts:

  1. If someone were to watch you or members of the leadership team in your company, would they know or authentically believe that you valued your people/team as your greatest asset? Do you ‘walk the talk’ and really care about your team? Now, be honest with yourself – what I mean by this, is not the casual questions of interest of weekend plans or children’s ages. No, I am talking about really caring about the folks on your team – their goals, their aspirations, their struggles.The best leaders I have worked for – bar none – took an interest in my life. Not just what I could do for them or the ‘team quota’ or the ‘company P&L.’ Certainly, those metrics were/are critical and necessities for the job. However, what drove me to deliver over the top performance was that they had taken an interest in me – as a person, a striving executive, an individual intent on doing the best job I could for them, who had dreams of my own. They would (and did) whatever they could to help me succeed. They pushed me for the best I could deliver. They gave me ‘tough love.’ They never ever asked me to do more than what they would ask of themselves. And in return – I worked like a Trojan for them, and remain loyal to them, to this day. I felt, believed, and behaved as if I was their greatest asset.So you see, as a leader, this basic approach – costs no money, no increase in salary or stock options – it is basically ‘free’ from a corporate budgeting perspective. However, the investment through sincere interest pays huge dividends. It takes nothing more than desire to learn about your individual team members as people, to try to understand what it is like to ‘be in their moccasins,’ and to truly listen to them. Try this first step: the next time you are with one of your team members, ask them: ‘what is the greatest hurdle you are facing right now?’ And then be quiet – let them talk – and LISTEN. You will be amazed at what wisdom may come from the conversation…from both directions.
  2. Does your team or organization see you as a ‘real person’ or have you built a nice image around what you present to the troops? When I first started out in business and was intimated by ‘calling high’ as a rookie sales person, my father coached me by saying – they put their pants on one leg at a time, too. In other words, they are just people, too. Basic wisdom. Yes, those ‘people’ had gone further in their career than I had at that point; nevertheless, I have never forgotten that they are just ‘folks.’ So, are you still ‘just folks’ to your team – or have you allowed your position and the perks of the position create a mote around you separating you from the team?

What I suggest is that the truly great leaders ‘keep it real’ with their teams. They allow their vulnerabilities to show. Their fears, their hopes, and their dreams for their company. By getting everyone ‘in their boat’ and heading in that direction – despite how stormy the seas – they collectively will pull together toward success. In addition, when they openly share their whole lives they become human, approachable, a person easy to talk to and to ask questions.

I have watched Colleen Barrett, CEO and President of Southwest Airlines (recently retired on July 16, 2008) over the years. As anyone who has flown on Southwest Airlines, you will know that their culture is well-known for its ‘Company Spirit’ while delivering consistent double digit growth and profits through the years as other airlines struggled. I want to suggest two observations relative to Colleen, Southwest and their perspective toward their people:

First, relating back to a prior blog referencing aligning ‘mission and metrics,’ the mission of Southwest Airlines directly ties the ‘Company Spirit’ to their overall company’s objective:

“The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

The company culture (Company Spirit) is part and parcel in the overall company mission. Amazingly, in the very next statement, tied directly to the company mission statement, is this mission statement to their employees


“We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.”

Make no mistake about it Southwest Airlines absolutely places their people front and center as their greatest asset. Secondly, and much more importantly than this public declaration, Colleen Barrett, much like her predecessor Herb Kelleher, walks the talk. Her actions are completely aligned to her values and belief that her employees are her greatest asset. Colleen has been referred to as the ‘mother’ of Southwest Airlines due to her nurturing, supportive – yet ‘tough love,’ strong – yet ‘approachable,’ real way of leading her team. When you speak to employees from Southwest Airlines there is a tremendous respect for Colleen. Even better, she is still referred to as “Colleen” and she is a ‘real person.’ That is powerful, authentic leadership. So, as we enter into these turbulent times in our economy and we struggle to remain competitive on many fronts; my questions are these:

  • Are our employees truly our greatest asset? If so, do we treat them as such?
  • What are we doing to foster the best in them and equally the best for our companies?
  • Are our intentions fully aligned to support the individuals who make up our company?

When you can honestly answer, address, and align yourself and your company to those questions – you will have found the secret to getting the most for and from your greatest asset – and deliver the greatest value to your shareholders.