Managers don’t really mean it when they say that people are their most valuable assets. If they did mean it, they wouldn’t reduce their workforce as soon as the going gets tough.
Letting people go is like taking the wheels off a sports car to save money.
When Kurus Elavia says “people are my most valuable assets,” he really means it. Kurus transformed his organization, Gateway Group One, into one of America’s fastest growing private companies. I met him while doing research for my book Lead by Greatness. Kurus drew inspiration from his childhood India where he witnessed priests caring for their simple and poor congregants, even washing their feet. He saw how this act of service elevated people, and this led him to prioritize making both customers and employees feel valued and cared for. One of the things that sets him apart and to which he attributes much of his success, is his commitment to never laying off an employee, opting instead for retraining and reassignment. “Letting people go is like taking the wheels off a sports car to save money,” he said.
Humans are not assets waiting to be managed; humans manage assets to make them productive.
The common mantra “people are our most valuable assets” oversimplifies the true nature of human contribution and sets leadership up for failure. Humans are not assets waiting to be managed; humans manage assets and make them productive. Humans are initiators and creators who breathe life into the workplace. Using the term assets to describe humans can inadvertently create a culture of dependency and micromanagement, stifling innovation. Humans are far more valuable than any asset could possibly be.
When we treat people merely as assets, we communicate the expectation that our employees will not act of their own volition but will wait to be told what to do. We communicate the idea that our people are somewhat mindless and in constant need of direction and micromanagement. When top-down management styles reinforce this idea, a low-energy culture of poor innovation results.
Picture business as a university of greatness, where talented individuals are attracted to work not for the money, which they could as easily earn elsewhere, but for their holistic growth both professionally and as individuals.
Imagine a different corporate world where people are not there to be used by the company, but the company is there to be used by people. Companies should be used by committed and talented people as a vehicle to express their own unique purpose in the world, make a difference to others, and develop their talents, expertise, and character. Picture business as a university of greatness, a place where talented individuals are attracted to work not for the money, which they could as easily earn elsewhere, but for their holistic growth both professionally and as individuals.
Steve Jobs embodied this philosophy at Apple. He paid less than industry standard salaries to be sure that people working at Apple could get other jobs at better salaries elsewhere. He wanted them to choose working at Apple because of the contribution they could make and the growth they would experience.
Satya Nadella is another great corporate CEO who attributes much of his success to the values with which he was raised in India. He stunningly transformed Microsoft from a place that uses people to a place that people use. Just before Thanksgiving last week, after five days of management chaos at OpenAI, a company 40% owned by Microsoft, Nadella tweeted, “At the end of the day, the greatest privilege of my job is working with people who are driven by mission. These last five days I saw people across OpenAI remaining calm and resolute in driving their mission despite all that was happening around them. Thank you for your resolve and for the work you do each day to advance AI safely and responsibly and distribute its benefits to all of humanity.” It takes effort and deliberate intention to engineer a business that instead of using people, offers itself to people. It takes a very specific cadre of managers and leaders to build a university of greatness and attract the best talent in the industry. Kurus Elavia and Satya Nadella really get it; do you?