I read an eye-opening article recently about a well-intentioned, but misguided head of a large company. He had a distorted view of what matters most when it comes to putting people first. It was written for the St. Louis Business Journal by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller. Bob’s company is widely regarded as a corporate pace-setter in the policies and practices that underlie its “culture of care and compassion.”
Who Are the “Right” People?
The company chieftain had heard Bob talk about his personal passion, Truly Human Leadership. Later, the guy sought Bob out to talk about his speech. At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the guy what he felt good about in his life. He replied that he was especially proud of the minority athletic scholarship program he underwrites. While admirable, Bob challenged the man by asking how many people the program supports each year. The guy said about six to eight. Then Bob asked him how many employees he had in his company. Turns out there are about a hundred thousand.
You can see where this story is going. Bob asked him one more pointed question. “What you’re telling me is that you feel good about helping six or eight people outside your company, but the hundred thousand people who work for you every day, whose life and joy depend on the way they’re treated, they’re simply a means to achieve your wealth?”
Reaching In Before Reaching Out
After three hours of conversation, the guy conceded the point. The article goes on to explain that business leaders like him would do well to focus more heavily on their “most important social responsibility” – the people inside the company. Bob put it this way in his article. “As leaders, the greatest act of charity is to care for our people. Corporate social responsibility begins inside the walls of our organizations.”
Barry-Wehmiller puts its money where its mouth is with an array of policies, practices and programs that tell employees unequivocally they come first above all else. The not so surprising upshot of that business imperative can be seen in research they’ve done with their employees. The data show that their caring culture has produced a “heightened sense of altruism, or philanthropy” among 70-plus percent of the workforce.
If Customers Are Your Priority…Then Put Employees First
I’ve written for years in this column, in articles and books about “The Engagement Imperative.” Simply put, it’s based on the principle that there is an inherent connection between “people-first” systems, policies and practices and the way employees relate to customers. As Bob’s article illustrates, it’s also apparent that “care and compassion” inside the organization naturally leads to an elevated sense of social responsibility outside the organization.
One of the best business books ever written on that subject is “The Customer Comes Second.” Its colorful subtitle captures the book’s main premise – “Put Your People First, and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.” The author is Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of Rosenbluth International, one of the world’s most successful travel companies.
I often cite a passage from his book that gets to the heart of his philosophy for business success: “Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people first because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.”
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