Motivational speaker Lance Secretan on inspired leadership

Why “Employees First” Drives Dramatically Better Organizations

(excerpt from Lance Secretan’s book, The Bellwether Effect)

The purpose of any organization is to provide maximum value to customers and/or other stakeholders. The people who do that are employees. If we need to prioritize at all, we might put the employee as the top priority, because if we inspire employees, they will inspire customers—and, of course, everyone else.

Therefore, the employee is the new customer. This is how Virgin, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, The Boston Beer Company, The Container Store, EllisDon, HCLTechnologies, New Belgium Brewing and others, have become extraordinarily successful. Southwest Airlines even extends this ranking: employees first, customers second, shareholders third. Ritz-Carlton refers to its employees as “Ladies and Gentlemen” and the company’s motto is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Alibaba.com has become the world’s largest online business-to-business global trading marketplace, with 2.5 million and 14 million registered users in its international and Chinese domestic marketplaces respectively. Its online sales and profits surpassed all US retailers (including Walmart, Amazon and eBay) combined since 2015. The company’s founder, Jack Ma, believes that one of the main purposes of Alibaba is to provide a community, where employees can have fun working together and pursue their dreams with minimal bureaucracy and politics. Ma recently painted a vivid image of his ideal work environment for Alibaba’s employees as follows:

  • Blue Sky (蓝蓝的天): Processes, systems, and decisions need to be open and transparent. There’s nothing that should be hidden from employees. We should be transparent.
  • Solid Ground (踏实的大地): Everything we do should be honest, ethical and contribute to the welfare of the society. The company should be on solid financial ground so employees won’t worry about the financial future of the company.
  • Free-flowing Ocean (流动的大海): Talent must be allowed to rotate jobs across subsidiaries and departments.
  • Green Forest (绿色的森林): Conducive conditions for continued innovation.
  • Harmonious Community (和谐的社区): Peers with shared values and simple interpersonal relationships.

“The ultimate objective of such a community,” he continues, “is to offer employees a work environment to grow, contribute, and live out their dreams. Bureaucracy, secrecy, and stagnation are all attributes that inhibit employees, and the company must actively seek out these behaviors and destroy them.” Alibaba is a company that puts employees first and has built a global success story through the energy of inspired employees who feel a part of the whole.

In healthcare, the buzzword du jour is, “evidence-based, patient centered healthcare”. Considering the first half of this phrase, in cases of pain, nausea or fatigue, and some other conditions, it has been widely documented that placebos are often more effective than drugs. In fact, Dr. Ted J. Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard-wide Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has conducted studies in which even people who knew that they were receiving a placebo still reported significant improvements in their symptoms compared to a parallel test group who received nothing! In fact, another study suggests that more than half the effectiveness of a drug is due to the placebo effect. So evidence-based healthcare though useful, is not the only condition to achieve wellness. The science of evidence-based healthcare is compelling, but it isn’t sufficient on its own—we must also take into account the mysterious art of the placebo.

And regarding the second half of the phrase, if we incessantly tell nurses that the patient is the most important component of the healthcare system, and we drill it into him or her every day for 30 years, is it any wonder that he or she may feel a level of diminished self-esteem? I often tell my healthcare clients, that despite many claims to the contrary, there is no shortage of nurses in healthcare. But there is a real shortage of places where nurses want to work. So it appears that the evidence isn’t the only important thing in healthcare, and neither is the patient.

A better phrase then to describe quality healthcare might be, “results oriented, people-centered healthcare”. In this way, by treating employees as people, we would be elevating their value to equal status with all people, including clinicians, patients, outside vendors, unions, regulators and others. This would recognize the fact that it takes all people to make an organization work, and in doing so, we could change the entire culture of healthcare. Instead of making clinicians feel “second” to patients, we could inspire them by fully honoring them, just as we do for all people.

According to research by Eric Garton and Michael Mankins, partners at Bain & Company, inspired employees are 2¼ times more productive than satisfied employees. The comparison looks like this:

Lance Secretan on inspired productivity

I want to show how to quickly move to employee-first organizations.

First, let’s agree that checking in with each other is not a semi-annual or annual chore (more on this in the next chapter). It is an ongoing, dialogue (dialogue: noun: an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue), in which we learn, grow and inspire. It consists of deep listening and also speaking—in that order.

Secondly, let’s agree that for every individual, there is a tailored dialogue—one-size-fits-all surveys will not get us to an informed place from which we can build an inspiring culture.

Thirdly, we need to agree on the kinds of questions we want to ask. Instead of the traditional engagement surveys that they ask insipid questions, such as, “Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?” If there is any question at all about a fundamental subject such as this, much deeper problems are certain to exist. Any competent leadership team will ensure that the basics are provided for getting excellent work done—this should be considered “table stakes”. Companies that can’t even achieve this basic level of competence won’t be able to stay in the game, or even survive. Can you imagine asking a player in a professional sports team, “Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?”

Deep questioning in regular dialogues requires questions of substance that pertain to the quality of relationships and how inspiring they are, because, peak performance—at work, or anywhere else for that matter—depends on inspiring connections and relationships.

What we want to learn is “What is the quality of the relationship between the individual and their supervisor?”, “What is the quality of the relationship between the individual and the organization as a whole?”, and “What is the quality of the relationship between the employee and the output of that employee’s work?”. One can add additional dyads in certain cases, but these are the most critical. So for example, we might want to ask:

  • Does your leader tell the truth?
  • Do you feel safe to tell the truth?
  • Does the organization tell the truth?

Lance Secretan is a leadership pioneer who is the author of 22 leadership books, and ranked as one of the world’s top leadership coaches and keynote speakers. 

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