December 17, 2015

Your Most Powerful Business Asset

How you treat your employees will affect your company’s success in tough times

“No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.  —Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

We are at a turning point in our industry, a point at which our decisions may well determine the long-term success or failure of our businesses. Times are very tough, with some notable exceptions, as you know. And with the holiday season upon us it is an ideal moment to reflect on the business and human values that are most important to us.

Through this season and over the next several months we will be marking our path to the future, establishing once again how we want our businesses and our lives to proceed as the world swiftly changes around us. Our challenge now is how, or in some cases whether, to adapt and change to the new realities of business that are charging at us.

There is always the temptation to resist, to hunker down, to cling to business models that have worked in the past, to just try to ride out the storm. Ours has been a commodity-based service industry focused on keeping costs as low as possible. But I suggest in the strongest possible terms that this narrowly focused, lowest cost model is now unsustainable over the long-term. To survive, literally, we must aggressively move beyond it.

You will be hearing us talk a lot about this in the months ahead in terms that you are likely all too familiar. Disruption, the Internet of Things, big data and advanced analytics, value-added processing, and early stage manufacturing: these are the future. And you will have to decide how you will deal with all of them.

The men and women who work with us are our most critical asset and competitive edge over the long term. The quality of our human asset base will determine whether we grow and prosper.

But the most important strategy for breaking away from this increasingly outdated, commodity-based model will be how you choose to develop your most powerful business assets. Those are the men and women who work with you each day to make your business grow and prosper. They are assets important beyond measure. And I also suggest that how you treat them and invest in them through these hard times will show not only what you value, but also how your business weathers the gale forces of change that are ahead of us.

Over the years I have seen two dramatically different and competing visions of what employees are to a business. There are those who see them as a commodity, most valuable at the lowest price obtainable, a necessary expense, and always a potential liability. When times are hard, they are expendable. When times are good they are tolerable.

The other view, and one that I believe we must embrace fully, is that the men and women who work with us are our most critical asset and competitive edge over the long term. The quality of our human asset base will determine whether we grow and prosper. We need high performance from the people who work with us every bit as much as we do from the equipment we use each day.

But good people are not replaceable like a piece of machinery. We must invest in them, with training, with a safe workplace, with the best tools for the jobs they do. We must create a workplace that encourages them to think critically. They are our most important investment and the return on that investment is productivity, high morale, growth and prosperity. They are how you differentiate yourself from your competitors. They are how we meet the challenges ahead.

I would ask you then to reflect during this holiday season on the things that you value most. It is a season, after all, that at its best shows us the way toward generosity of spirit, fullness of heart and good will. The author John Maxwell said “To add value to others, one first must value others.” I say “amen” to that, and the warmest of holiday wishes to all of you.