CEO TalkBack: Four Principles for Putting People First

By Natalie Michael, CPHR

There are many competing priorities for a leader’s time:  customers, products and new innovations among others.  Yet, organizations that put people first send a clear message. The best organizations and leaders actually spend the majority of their time on people, and their development.

Although the actual practices for putting people first may change depending on the market conditions and cultural realities here are four principles that stand the test of time.

Principle 1:  Focus Leaders on People
Focusing on people is a wonderful notion that is too often given lip service. To bring this idea to life requires a clear message from the CEO that people are a priority even when it may be personally inconvenient.

Catherine Roome is the president and CEO of BC Safety Authority, an independent, self-funded organization mandated to oversee the safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment across BC.  Role modelling the importance of putting people first is important to her.  She personally meets with every new employee, seeing it as an opportunity to connect and to communicate what the company values mean to her.

“I want to work for an organization where I can be myself, and express my views,” shares Roome. “I let every new employee know that they have a voice and I value authenticity, and I invite them to share their ideas.”   She reinforces this by seeking employee feedback in many ways, whether it be through 360 degree feedback tools, surveys or town halls connecting their rural offices throughout BC.

Principle 2:  Invest in Culture (and Continuously Adjust)
It’s hard to separate putting people first from culture; this can be tricky because culture and people are so dynamic. Progressive organizations recognize they need to invest in culture while at the same constantly adapting their practices depending on what is happening in the economy and industry.
Ross Chilton, president and CEO of Community Living Society, a crown agency that provides funding for services that help adults with developmental disabilities, has had to recently rethink what it truly means to focus on people in a climate where tenure is declining due to financial pressures from rising housing costs.

“In the past, employees stayed with our organization on average for a decade,” Hilton explains. “Now it is more common for employees to stay for three to five years because they need to earn more to pay their housing expenses.  Given this, we have adjusted our expectations and strategically thought about what kind of employee experience we want to deliver.”

Community Living Society is clear—they seek people who want to do meaningful work, and who care about making a difference in the community, and they find ways to support them to develop and grow.  Some new initiatives include doubling the training budget (much to the excitement of employees) and actively seeking out part-time employees who are in school and more likely to stay for the duration of their education.

As CEO, Hilton is personally involved in the new training programs, enthusiastically communicating about the organization’s mission and goals, and why he is so committed to the work.

For Roome, focusing on culture involves many things, including recognizing when the organization may be over-using their strengths to the detriment of the organization and people.  For example, at BC Safety Authority they value collaboration, but sometimes they tend to take this too far with literally everyone wanting to get involved on a project, instead of having faith that others will represent their interests and perspective.  After working with a culture consultant, they have put in place checks and balances to make sure they stay true to the positive benefits of collaboration.

Principle 3: Go Beyond Individual Development, Focus on Teams
Putting people first also involves developing people in meaningful ways, often carving out job experiences that give them an opportunity to develop their skills, and giving them valuable feedback along the way.  To do this requires a real commitment and focus on developing people, as well as reviewing the succession pipeline with the same level of diligence so often afforded to financial statements.

Yet, now many organizations are going beyond personal development and making a greater investment in team initiatives.  The big idea behind this trend is that teams are the cornerstone of business outcomes, and that being on a high-performing team is one of the most enriching and positive levers for engagement—yet most leaders don’t know how to create the conditions for a team’s success.  Part of “putting people first” is supporting leaders to create high-performing teams, and removing the barriers to trust, and performance.

Along these lines, Roome says, “I tell my leaders that their top priority team is their horizontal team, not their vertical team.  We emphasize lateral development, and even extend this to succession where we often appoint lateral successors.”

Principle 4:  Emphasize the Power of Diversity
Last, but not least, putting people first involves paying attention to diversity, and creating a workforce that reflects the community in which the organization is embedded.  This may involve hiring people with disabilities, minorities, or it may be as basic as hiring people with diverse styles.

I was happy to hear from Hilton at Community Living Society that there is a growing consciousness around hiring people with disabilities, and a noticeable attitude shift in society with more organizations creating opportunities for people with disabilities. There is even a term called “Disability Confident Employer” indicating an organization is a leader in this regard.

He explains:  “In the past, HR would often put up barriers to hiring people with disabilities by saying things like:  ‘Candidates with disabilities have to go through the same hiring channels and follow the same process as everyone else.’ The reality is that often times this equated to an immediate hiring barrier. Now, more and more organizations take a different view, asking themselves:  Why don’t we have anyone with disabilities on our staff? What barriers exist? And they actively take steps to be more inclusive.”

Clearly, progressive organizations embrace diversity as one mechanism for putting people first.

The Principles of Principals
Organizations who put people first recognize that investing in people is their best investment.  They understand that there is a quantifiable correlation between how they treat people, and the organizational outcomes.

Although the organizational practices are always changing these four principles endure.  Bottom line? It pays off to create an environment where people feel valued.

Natalie Michael, CPHR is managing partner with The Karmichael Group, and a Mackay CEO Forums Chair.  Her specialty is executive coaching, team coaching, and leadership development. 

(PeopleTalk Spring 2017)

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