Your Most Important Asset Is Your People

“People are the only source of competitive advantage left to us today.”
Michael E. Porter, business school professor

Porter is right. The world is filled with good products and good companies. So it becomes very difficult to distinguish yourself in the marketplace by merely advertising your quality products or efficient service. Just about everybody else is in that same boat.

That means you had better get the “people” stuff right if you’re going to be an exceptional company that makes a decent profit. Dennis Kravetz documented that in his book called “The Human Resources Revolution.” In a survey of 150 companies, Kravetz measured the degree to which companies had adopted a progressive human resource approach and its effect on the bottom line.

His conclusion? “There’s a positive correlation between an emphasis on human resources and STELLAR sales and growth.”

Richard Sloma even took it a step further. In his book, “The Turnaround Manager’s Handbook,” Sloma proclaimed unequivocally, “People are a firm’s most important asset. If you have an excellent product but only mediocre people, the results will be only mediocre.”

The problem is … too many employees don’t FEEL that way … and as a result … they don’t always perform that way. So it’s no wonder Steve Martin in the “Sgt. Bilko” movie said, “All I’ve ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Martin was merely expressing the feeling of many disengaged employees in many dysfunctional companies today.

Well, in a challenging economy, we can no longer afford to keep any of those people on the payroll. We need everyone doing their best and giving it their all … all the time. Here are three ways you can motivate others to do exactly that.

=> 1. Train, train, train your people.

In the past, the expectation of lifetime job security and a juicy benefits package ensured a certain degree of employee loyalty and motivation. But the world changed. The generations changed. And the old, traditional motivators of job security and money are not as effective as they used to be, and in many cases, they don’t even exist anymore.

So what does work? What ensures employee retention and motivation? According to several studies, great training is at or near the top of the list of 21st century motivators. As Penelope Trunk, a newspaper columnist, put it, “If you teach someone skills to run their own company, they are more likely to stay longer at your company … The new workplace currency is training and skill building, and that’s what makes young people stay in your job.”

Of course, some companies will challenge that assertion. They’ll ask, “What if I train my people and they leave?” I always tell them that’s possible, but then I ask them, “How much worse would it be if you didn’t train your employees and they stay?”

Other companies will tell me they’re people don’t need training. After all, they’re “experienced.” Unfortunately, experience doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to do it well. After all, you and I both know a lot of “experienced” golfers that still have a 17 handicap.

From my point of view, I’ve found that a “well-trained” employee is a happy employee … with a heavy emphasis on “well-trained.” And sometimes that means you need to be a little careful of exposing your people to nothing more than in-house training. Internal people, unless doing or managing the task they’re teaching, lack the been-there, done-that knowledge and effectiveness that outside professional speakers can bring to an organization.

For example, in the book “Take Me To Your Leaders,” Sam Manfer says, “Many companies let marketing do training for new sales people. This is a curse to salespeople. Marketing pushes product advantages, features/benefits, and competitive differentiation rather than selling skills. This indoctrination makes salespeople feel they should go out pushing prospects to buy, rather than digging for needs and relevant information. They become annoying and never build their credibility.”

The point is … if you want to motivate the best in your people, give them lots of training. Just make sure it’s the right kind of training.

It has to be fun, That’s what Rose Harris, an RN at the Mayo Clinic, said after attending my program. She said, “It was the fastest four hours of my life. Awesome!”

And it has to be practical. That’s what Dr. Bob Sheeler, the Medical Editor of the “Mayo Clinic Health Letter” learned at my training program. He wrote, “I learned not only the deeper value of attitude as an underlying core skill for succeeding at important facets of life … but also specific skills to develop and maintain a positive attitude.”

=> 2. Make it personal.

Goals, benchmarks, and deadlines are all fine and dandy. But if you want to bring out the very best in people, you’ve got to touch your people in a much more personal way. As communications coach Karen Friedman puts it, “People will not warm to your words if you don’t appeal to their hearts.”

One way to do that is to help your employees blend their on-the-job duties with their off-the-job interests. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton gave one example of that in “The Carrot Principle.” They talked about a manager who supervised a security guard who had a passion for conservation. The manager knew it was the guard’s responsibility to patrol the facility while scrutinizing the lighting and the entrances. But now, on every round the guard is charged with turning off unneeded lights and making sure doors prevent drafts as well as illegal entries. The guard loved his new job description, and the company is not only secure but saves on heating and cooling.

The same goes for the more creative types on your staff. A survey of 250 advertising and marketing execs by The Creative Group found that many managers feel that employees in creative jobs are more productive when they have outside interests that fuel their ideas and energy.

That being the case, encourage your employees to take their vacations. Encourage your employees to stop working night after night or every weekend … if that tends to be their habit. After all, a burned out employee is seldom your most creative, effective, or even motivated employee. Encourage those types to get out into the world and into their families and experience more of that.

You could also encourage your employees to talk about their interests at work. Schedule outings or in-house presentations on topics of interest to your employees. Ask workers how their personal-time experiences shape their perspectives on work-related issues. And listen with an open mind when they draw parallels that may seem far-fetched at first.

=> 3. Allow the negative to be vented and respected.

Most successful people don’t like to hear negative comments. But if you ever hope to motivate the best in someone else, you’re taking a great risk if you refuse to listen to these comments and take them seriously.

Sam Gellerman talked about that in “Motivation in the Real World: The Art of Getting Extra Effort from Everyone.” He described one executive who addressed a group of field managers, outlining a major cost-reduction campaign he had personally engineered. He detailed cost cut after cost cut.

When he finished, a company veteran risked responding honestly by saying, “Sir, you may be pushing this cost-cutting business too far. People are saying their workload is getting too big. They don’t have enough time to do the job right anymore.”

The executive exploded, “D–n it! That’s a bunch of cr_p! Every one of these cuts is absolutely justified! Nobody’s workload is too heavy. Those are just lazy people making lame excuses. I don’t want to hear any more of that nonsense! Do I make myself clear?”

He had indeed, and he got his wish. After that, none of the field managers passed on reports about the rising tide of resentment in the field force.

About a year later, the executive was flabbergasted when hundreds of employees signed a petition demanding union representation. As Gellerman pointed out, “The executive had cut himself off from feedback, which is something no manager in his or her right mind should ever do. It is about as smart as standing on your own oxygen tube.”

Instead, encourage your people to share their feelings, and when they do, respect those feelings. If someone says they’re frustrated with all the changes in the company, you can say, “Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Who wouldn’t be frustrated with the amount of change we’re going through?”

Don’t ever respond to someone’s feeling by saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way. You should be glad you even have a job.” While you may be right, you’ll be wrong in the eyes of others, and that will never motivate anyone.

Action:  The next time someone expresses a feeling you think is off base, find some way to show your respect of the feeling … not necessarily your agreement with the feeling.