Making Your Company Human
When I was a brand-new second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, I was out with the troops in the field on a training mission. It had been a hard day, and when the mess line was ready I went over to eat. But before I could be served, an old sergeant took me aside.
"Lieutenant," he said, "when your men have been fed, if there's any food left, then you will eat." And while he was at it he added, "And after all your troops have been bedded down, if there's a place for you to lie down, then you will sleep."
The lesson learned in this brief encounter is at the heart my explanation of the responsibility of leadership. In my book Making Your Company Human I explain how leaders can create a more successful organization where people enjoy and are turned on by their work. In a business climate where excesses of some CEOs have driven a wedge between workers and management, the personal and organizational rewards of this philosophy can be tremendous.
Companies are usually viewed as inanimate. They have no self. It's considered high praise to say that a business runs like a well-oiled machine, controlled by a CEO who cranks out earnings every quarter.
But a company is made up of people, not pistons. And in the long run, its success is greatly influenced by how these people think and feel about it.
If they see it as an impersonal machine, the effort they put forth on the job may range from diligent to fair. Some people will contribute just enough talent and energy to get by. Why not? What incentive is there to do more?
Now imagine that they consider their company to be a living thing with a character, personality, and values they understand and believe in. It's hard for anyone to feel apathetic in a situation like this. Invited to use their talents in this spirited environment, people are more likely to respond positively and even enthusiastically. Work can become inspiring, fulfilling, and exhilarating.
Nor are they the only ones to benefit. As this excitement and energy spread throughout the organization, the company itself can reap tremendous rewards.
Unlocking personal potential
When you first start work, you may not know much about what your company stands for. Sooner or later, though, you'll recognize that you feel either comfortable or uncomfortable there. The more fully you understand its principles and personality - its "self" - the better you can judge whether or not to give it your best efforts.
Most of us would prefer to work for a business that personifies qualities we admire and respect. Honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, respect, and fairness are the kind of characteristics quality organizations are built on - characteristics that are similar to those of good human beings. When you feel in sync with the company's values, you may become more open and willing to share your talents. There's a good chance you will surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.
Think of what happens when you start talking with a new acquaintance. If you discover that you have a lot in common with that person, you tend to open up more. Hearing your own beliefs and ideas reinforced energizes you. You probably look for ways to expand the relationship with this kindred spirit.
In the same way, it can be liberating to discover yourself in an environment where your beliefs are affirmed and appreciated, where you don't feel vulnerable to being penalized for your views. When people recognize that their company stands for principles they can be comfortable with, and even more importantly admire, it leads to a sense of ownership. The more ownership they feel, the more willing they are to give the best they are capable of. In this process, they help shape the kind of company they want to work for: a community of people who share similar ideals.
The importance of inspiration
As the legendary management thinker Peter F. Drucker has pointed out, the work environment has traditionally been an extension of the family. We all want to feel that we're an integral part of this family - that our thoughts are welcome, our work is valued, and important things are shared with us.
This kind of relationship is frequently found in smaller companies, but it can become more difficult to maintain when a business reaches a critical mass. Sometimes precious little information is given to workers, and that which is given may be finely filtered or distorted. As a result, many people don't know what the company is trying to do or how important they may be to its success, so they end up giving only a fraction of their creativity, skill, and initiative to their work.
The cost in human terms is huge. With their potential hidden away deep inside, these people are deprived of opportunities to grow and expand their abilities. They miss out on the joy of using their talent fully, and the satisfaction of achieving things they never thought possible.
Their companies suffer, too. Struggling to become more profitable, they often focus on slashing costs instead of benefiting from the huge untapped potential that walks out the door every day. This short-sighted approach may lead to layoffs whose ripple effects blight entire communities.
By helping to unlock people's potential, the process of making a company human can create an alternate and more desirable reality. The principles are not very complicated, and they hold true for almost any kind of organization - business, government agency, school, community group, or congregation.
F. Leon Herron spent his business career at three companies with challenging workplace environments. While serving two of the three as a chief executive officer, he discovered a profound interest in helping people turn on their talent. Le learned business operations at Franklin Hardware & Supply in Philadelphia. He was then recruited as the first outsider CEO of O.M. Scott & Sons, the national manufacturer and marketer of lawn care products. Le's leadership strengthened Associate loyalty and fostered a remarkable increase in productivity. His timeless philosophy is the focus of Making Your Company Human: A Way to Unlock Your People's Potential.
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