How many companies say they believe that their employees are their greatest asset? The phrase itself has almost become a cliché and most companies espouse some version of it. If you’re thinking from the title that I’m looking to debunk the cliché, you’re right, but maybe not for the reason you are thinking. Yes, it’s a hypocritical phrase because it’s the easiest thing in the world to say, but to actually honor it in your company’s practices is exceptionally rare. The proof is in the choices that companies make. A company may say the words, and even believe the words wholeheartedly, but when the proverbial #$%& hits the fan, which “assets” do you think are impacted first? Most companies I’ve experienced choose layoffs, or pay cuts before they choose to sell of a portion of the business, or some key intellectual property, or an important physical asset (like a company jet). If employees were the company’s most important asset, the asset would be protected before any other asset.
But I’m not here to make that case. Most people already see that, which is why there is so much cynicism generated by the phrase. My reason for seeing the phrase as a myth goes deeper. I have a problem with the very nature of seeing employees as assets. Employees are not assets. They’re people. As soon as you start thinking of your employees as assets you buy into the mistaken notion that you own them and can do with them what you please. If you see your employees as assets, you start believing you can change organizational behavior by moving people around on org charts. You start believing you can influence events with carefully crafted corporate communications designed to spin and persuade. Most importantly, you start seeing employees as a means to your ends. This approach can work, to a point. After all, it’s the way most companies see their employees and there are obviously a lot of successful companies out there. But if you want to be a breakthrough company, that either out-executes its competition, or reinvents itself to out-innovate its competition, you need something more.
Like any cliché, the phrase “our employees are our greatest asset” does have some basis in truth. The truth is that people are, far and away, the most important element of the success of any business. More to the point, it’s what people bring to work that is the single most important component of business success. Every other component you can think of, from the right business strategy, to the best products, to the greatest advertising, all have one other component either driving them or enabling them: human effort.
Human potential for performance is vast, but so is the range of effort humans choose to give. Most companies leave enormous amounts of performance potential untapped because they fail to get all the commitment and engagement (i.e., effort) that’s available from their people. When you believe you own the asset, you believe the asset owes you its effort. I’ve literally heard this in corporate boardrooms. It goes something like: “we pay competitively and we offer great benefits. Anything else is a ‘nice to have’.” But it’s not. Treating employees fairly is simply the table stakes. It’s the minimum you to even get in the game. To truly engage employees and get their best, you need to see them, literally, as people. People have hopes, dreams, fears, and a whole range of other emotions. Corporate America can be a pretty miserable place, or it can be a tremendously empowering place. The latter is far more enjoyable, but more importantly, it’s far better for business.
I believe a company’s greatest (and most elusive) asset is the potential contribution of its employees. Are you squandering that resource, or doing everything you can to get a return on it?