Michael Leimbach, VP of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide, wrote an essay for the May edition of Chief Learning Officer magazine. In it he contends,
Saying employees are assets is well intentioned but it’s no longer accurate, nor is it a viable talent development strategy if the goal is organizational growth.
He is absolutely right. Reading this passage triggered a reflective moment. Many of us are in the habit of proudly repeating that old canard, “Our employees are our greatest asset,” as if employees should be proud of that label. But who wants to be an asset? Think about it for a moment. How do you view assets, and how do you treat them? Assets are investments you want the biggest return from at the lowest possible fixed cost.
Can you say “user”?
Leimbach suggests a different label, and more importantly a different way of thinking about the employee than “asset.” Employees should be treated not as assets but as investors or stakeholders. This is a powerful reframing. Think now about how you treat investors. If you are smart, you select investors carefully and nurture the relationships in the hope that they will become long term and mutually beneficial. Both parties need to win. In any relationship including the employment relationship, this can engender honesty, care, communications and empathy.
Now play this out a bit. Financial investors today can move their portfolios quickly. It is an efficient marketplace. In order to meet market demands, the entrance and exit hurdles have continued to get lower. Investors hope for strong, long-term returns. But they carefully watch short-term indicators to confirm that there is a commitment to the long term, and to ensure that interests are aligned. If not, they move.
The employment marketplace is increasingly taking on similar characteristics. There is no longer a stigma about moving across employers to develop careers; so the hurdles are lowering. Correspondingly, due to the proliferation of information about companies, employees are becoming smarter about where they will invest their time and careers. There are few secrets today. So talent has plenty of options to choose from, and if you do not take care of job one—i.e., creating an engaging environment—you will lose employees as you hire others. This will not change anytime soon.
Now let’s consider the operational issues once you have employees on board. If you think of them as investors or business partners, you will likely get greater commitment and engagement. This will improve productivity and retention. This is easier said than done, of course; we’re talking about heavy lifting. But this new lens may lead you to change many of your processes and communications.
Think about it from this perspective: Each employee in your organization makes a conscious decision to come to work each day. Then when they check in, they make another decision each day, whether conscious or unconscious, to invest (or not invest) their energy in advancing the business. If you treat them like the equivalent of assets—i.e., machines—they will reciprocate and do only what they need to do to get paid. If you do not treat them like important stakeholders, someday they will decide to report in somewhere else.
This is a major shift; if you believe in it and decide to fully engage your employees, it could have a profound impact on your business. Start with Open Book Management: Share everything that is happening in the business in an understandable and actionable way. Treat all employees, not just your executive team, like investors. This takes time and energy but the payoff will be exponential.
Next, ask your people every day, when confronted with challenges: “What would you do?” Then listen, learn and take what you hear to heart. More times than not, the people who are closest to the work make the best decisions. Daniel Pink’s research tells us that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are essential. If we allow those who run certain operations to guide their own destinies, it leads to improved job gratification and engagement. It also makes for better business decisions. Remember, employees are investors, not cogs in a machine.
It is no longer about command and control. Innovation and growth today require a different mindset. Remember that every day your employees walk in the door, they have choices. Further, they will choose to be engaged or not. Treat them like business partners, and you will see improved business results. If you do not, you may be on the road to obsolescence.
If you would like to brainstorm how to transform your culture to improve engagement, give ASE’s Talent Development Team a call at 248-223-8017. This is part of your member service, and ASE is eager to help.