By Chris Galy, HR Executive Advisor, Moves the Needle

Every organization’s “greatest asset” is also its most underutilized.  

Of course, I am referring to the people.

The very phrase “Our People Are Our Greatest Asset” rolls off the tongues of CEOs and top leaders so easily that it has become cliche. It’s become just another of those obligatory corporate catch phrases to say in every all-hands meeting and quarterly analyst call.

Not to be overly cynical, but what usually comes next is pretty predictable – statements about how culture is a competitive advantage.  

But how can “culture” be a competitive advantage if virtually every company says they strive to build a strong company culture powered by customer-focus, innovation, transparency, or any number of other “differentiating” core values?

The truth is, an organization’s — and by extension, an employee’s — ability to learn, and translate insight into action rapidly, is today’s ultimate competitive advantage. How organizations structure work and define jobs is evolving rapidly, so focusing on a new employee mindset offers both organizations and workers flexibility and adaptability to the ever changing work landscape.  

As employers, we must not only support building this new mindset – we must also create the workplace environment where people are empowered to deploy it.

Navigating The War for Talent

Although unleashing employee potential is front of mind for many of today’s organizations, we are just seeing the tip of the employee utilization iceberg.

When we get to the point where we can truly harness the whole of our workforce’s collective talents, then the statement – “our people are our greatest asset” – will become real.

Over the last fifteen years, many companies have made a significant amount of progress in how they treat their people. We have seen new employee-centric organizational models like Google, Facebook, Zappos, SAS, Intuit and Red Hat, set the tone for what kind of culture an employee should expect.

The war for talent has created a competitive atmosphere in which many CEOs and founders must think about things like culture and attractability, much more seriously. Their intentions are to build flatter organizations, “entrepreneurial” cultures, recruit and retain the best talent, and offer strong incentives to keep employees from thinking about anything other than delivering value.

And the truth is, great pay, free food and all the employee-friendly office amenities (nerf guns, scooters) are really great. But, the problem is that companies, leaders and employees alike are losing sight of the forest through the trees in our new perk-driven, talent-war focused environment.

Our branding communicates our culture and values to both our buying market and potential employees. But our actual brand is our relationship with our customers. In a similar way, our actual culture is the relationship between the organization itself and its people.

So while we’ve built up our brand story and manage it tightly on LinkedIn and Glassdoor, and we’ve loaded up on perks and cool culture elements, it is all for vanity – looks good, but means nothing.

If we offer strong educational benefits but don’t provide employees the time to use them, we’re failing.

If we speak to innovation and “entrepreneurial spirit”, but don’t empower employees to truly act bold, we’re failing.

Offering cool perks does not a stellar company culture make. There is more to it than ubiquitous flamin’ hot cheetos, open floor plans and pinball.


Creating a Space for Maximum Potential

While the perk-driven economy might soften the blow that work is still work, what employees want is to do something that has meaning: something they can be proud of.

Leadership must create an environment where their people are able to contribute at their maximum potential. They must invest in building the critical skills and mindset necessary to compete in today (and tomorrow’s) economy.

Today’s Companies Need to Focus on Environment, Not Rewards

In order to attract and retain great talent, companies must focus on developing an environment  that empowers and motivates employees to work at their maximum potential, instead of focusing so heavily on near-term employee engagement strategies and extrinsic rewards.

For instance, employees who are given the space to focus on learning and development, who work to solve challenging problems, who are involved in company decision-making, and who are provided the opportunity for advancement (among other things), are more likely to stick around than those who don’t.

Personal development is a shared responsibility between employer and employee with a focus on outcomes that benefit both. Employees desire support in building greater skills and higher competency; yet, they also need guidance on which capabilities to build, and they need the space to do so without fear of reprimand.

It is the job of leaders to unleash potential, catalyze the cause, and protect the organization from falling back into old models. Space for innovators must be created intentionally, where they have “permission” to be creative and bold, and this opportunity should be provided to anyone.

Leaders must distribute power, putting decisions in the hands of people closest to the work (who are also closest to the customer when done properly), and empower them to challenge the status quo.  

They must lead through utilization of 3 E’s of Lean Innovation: Empathy, Evidence, and Experimentation.

Skilled leaders of innovators trust, but validate. Validate, then support. Support and share the learning so they don’t make the same mistake twice. Give direction but not directions. Celebrate victories and learn from losses.

Then and only then, does the stage for unleashing the totality of collective talent become set.

It is true that to compete in today’s war for talent, most CEOs and organizations’ hands are forced to offer costly benefits just to attract potential employees and to retain the ones they have.

But, the war for innovators will only accelerate in the near future and although the right incentives and perks play a role in attracting, retaining and managing top talent, leaders will need to develop a company culture that people want to be a part of.

And to do that, organizations need to go beyond the perk-driven mentality and determine how they can provide value to these employees on a level that isn’t so skin deep.  

Final Thoughts

When an organization and its employees demonstrate the ability to learn, gather insight from the learning and then translate insight into action rapidly, and this process is happening consistently, that is when one knows the people really are a company’s greatest asset and its ultimate competitive advantage.

But, building this environment takes a lot of hard work and to scale it often requires the buy-in and support of the entire organization.

Start small with just one project or task, with just your team. Then, watch the momentum build as you learn and iterate. You will see and feel the difference when teams bond over the problems they are solving instead of who got promoted, the larger bonus, or the corner office.

Once this new way of working spreads, you will earn the right to say that your people are your greatest asset and your culture is your competitive advantage, knowing without a doubt that it’s the truth not just for you, but for your people as well.