Our greatest assets are our people. Your people are looking for a home where they can be valued as contributors. Are you giving it to them?

As leaders, one of the most important questions that we can ask ourselves is whether we are focused on our own enrichment and our staff are just our tools, or whether we are striving to build a business and workplace that adds meaning to everyone we touch, from our employees to our customers.

Perhaps this question makes you feel uncomfortable. Most people don’t consciously focus solely on their own enrichment. They care about their employees. There is also a growing movement towards purpose-driven businesses that understand their reason for being, even if this isn’t always articulated as well as it could be, and aligned with the purpose-driven business is an understanding that people are a business’s greatest assets.

But there’s a disconnect. First, because at the end of the day you’re running a business, and sometimes (or perhaps more than sometimes?) the bottom line takes preference over people. And second, leadership teams love to talk about the importance of people, but how does the ideal translate into reality?

In my experience, management teams are quick to say that they put their people first – but those same leaders cut jobs when costs need to be trimmed, rule by fear and don’t recognize the unrest (and resulting lack of productivity and customer-focused service) within their own businesses.

Build a culture that supports your greatest assets

Here’s the truth about putting people first, learnt from decades of running businesses, including building South Africa’s largest beauty salon franchise that employed 3 000 people: This is not just a warm and fuzzy human resource fantasy. It’s a hard-core business practice that is critically important to the ultimate success of the business as a whole.

The culture you build and the people-focused practices you instill in your business are your brand.

This is the bedrock of Cultureneering and why the Hatch Institute’s philosophy and business framework focuses on building and supporting Cultureneers.

When we were building Sorbet, brand building had an incredibly powerful effect on our citizens (the name we used for our employees). Because of the culture we were instilling, our citizens could see the value of loyalty and that a positive attitude brings good rewards. Even the name we chose – citizens – spoke directly to the role each employee played in the business as a whole, which we viewed as a community.

We took our first steps towards building the culture and brand we wanted when we articulated our Higher Purpose (which was touching lives) and gave our culture a name (the Soul of Sorbet).

But that was the simple part. Embedding new ‘operating models’ or paradigms into the hearts and minds of our people took time, patience and more than a few false starts.

I believe that business leaders don’t hear this enough: The road to change is filled with landmines. The road to building a unified culture that everyone believes in a buys-into, even more so.

Pillars that support an unshakable culture

As I’ve mentioned, it’s easy to say that people are the heart of your organization. I haven’t come across a business yet that doesn’t speak about the value of their people. But what does this mean on the ground, and how do you build a culture that goes beyond saying into the realm of doing?

Step one is determining what pillars your organization is built on. These will be different for every business, but they are essential building blocks if you want to create a roadmap and patterns that your employees can understand and follow within the business.

At Sorbet, our unshakable culture was built on four pillars:

  1. People before profits
  2. Community building
  3. Culture-Driven Leadership
  4. Passionate service

At the Hatch Institute, our culture has been encapsulated in one image:

At Sorbet, every single rule, operating model and performance indicator within the business could be traced back to one or more of the four pillars. This gave our citizens a quick way to determine if they believed in our Higher Purpose and if it aligned with their personal values, as well as a predictable and transparent understanding of what was expected of them.

At the Hatch Institute, we use the Hatch House in the same way – it’s how we navigate everything we do within the framework of our Reason for Being, core values and Purpose.

Using Sorbet as our example, here’s what each pillar looked like in practice:

1. People before profits

People before profits seriously challenges the popular model of profits before all else. The reason this usually fails to gather any real momentum in business (despite the fine words about ‘people are our greatest asset’) is because of the more powerful belief that focusing on people means disregarding financial performance and that these two are mutually exclusive.

They aren’t. If anything, the opposite is true. If we sincerely believe that the purpose of work is to serve people and that money is simply the reward of good service, it follows that we have to believe that we can’t perform profitably if we don’t create working environments that encourage peak performance.

Top tip: If you don’t have your people on board, working to their full potential, profits will be elusive, it doesn’t matter how fantastic your product or service is.

2. Community building

This is based on your ability as the leadership team to create a working community that focuses heavily on relationship development. It promotes understanding, respect and tolerance among different races, religions, cultures, languages, political persuasions and sexual preferences.

The workplace is a melting pot of diversity. The problem is that this can lead to your customers to the best of their ability. If employees are not treated with respect and dignity, it’s highly unlikely they will direct their energies into touching the lives of their customers.

Top tip: Don’t ignore the diversity in your business. Instead, embrace it. Silent and even invisible disputes are less likely to happen when everyone is open and honest about their differences. Build a culture of mutual respect and then give everyone a common goal or cause.

3. Culture-Driven Leadership

This controversially challenges many existing management models at their roots. But even though it can be controversial, it’s also become a much ‘mouthed’ slogan that is nevertheless seldom acted upon.

Here’s why – and I’ve seen this more times than I can count, particularly when I was running Labour Link and engaging with the blue-chip management teams: Leaders in organisations cannot fathom how you can be both a leader and a Culture-Driven at the same time. They see ‘Culture-Driven’ as the opposite of leadership.

This is the result of deeply entrenched paradigms that are based on the idea that leaders should be served by their employees and not the other way around.

Here’s the massive problem with that logic: Employees that are trying so hard to please their bosses lose focus on their customers. It’s impossible to pay attention to what your customers want when you can’t take your eyes off your manager.

Unfortunately, the concept of Culture-Driven Leadership continues to receive pushback from the business world. This is especially true in South Africa, where many people struggle with the idea of being a servant leader of any kind, which is one of the core components of Culture-Driven Leadership.

Top tip: Culture-Driven Leadership ultimately comes down to ‘serving the people who are serving the people.’ If you want your people to focus on your customers instead of you, you need to start serving their needs, instead of the other way around.

4. Passionate service

This is the fourth and final pillar for a reason. Passionate service can only be launched when the first three pillars are in place. Without a focus on people, there will be no passion. With no passion, there’ll no (or limited) emphasis on service. If there is no true community inside your organization, then there is no foundation of trust on which passionate service can thrive.

If people are too busy trying to satisfy their leaders, passionate service will be missing. But passionate service can emerge from the depth of mediocrity when a Higher Purpose touches our lives. Even more rewarding is the fact that passionate service will be performed to perfection when people feel supported, are treated with dignity and love serving other people.

Top tip: A business built on passionate service is fueled by people who care about others – as opposed to serving and enriching themselves. This attitude must begin at the top. If your leadership team serves your employees, your employees will serve your customers.

Pulling it all together

These are the pillars that Sorbet was built on. We firmly believe that they are the foundation for any successful business with a Higher Purpose. However, as a business owner, you need to find your own path.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • As a business owner, how would you implement these pillars in your business?
  • Is there a fundamentally important element that you believe your business needs that does not fall into one of these pillars?
  • How would you articulate it, and how does it align with a culture that is passionate about service?
  • As a leadership team, how do you support your employees to give your customers the best possible service they can receive?
  • Why do your employees choose to come to work each day and give you 100%? – and if you can’t answer this question with absolute certainty, it’s time to go back to the drawing board in terms of your culture.
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