How Do You Cultivate a People-First Culture?

The decision to cultivate a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. Because it is not a project, you will never be done. You will always improve and refine the way you implement your people-first culture. If you’re thinking about embarking on this journey, I hope you’ll find this post helpful.

Phase One – Articulate your vision

First, let’s recognize that there is not one correct definition of what it means to be a “people-first” culture. Therefore each organization must define what it means for that organization. If you don’t start there, how will you and your employees know what you’re building toward? Second, let’s recognize that having a people-first culture is not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. A culture can become more and more people-first over time.

Here are some questions that will help you decide what “people-first” means to your organization:

  1. Who are the people you’re thinking about? Employees? Customers? Suppliers? Job applicants? Community members? All of these groups?
  2. For each of the groups you care to include in your thinking, what would their experience with your organization be like? What would be happening and not happening? For instance, what would it be like to be an employee? Or what would it be like to be a customer?
  3. If your culture were becoming more and more of a people-first culture (as you visualize it in your business), how would you know it? What benefits do you expect to see? How will you measure or assess your progress?
  4. Are there some areas in which our organization already takes a people-first approach? What are they? What are the benefits for your organization? What has enabled the people-first approach in those areas? What can you learn from those successes about how to expand this to other areas?

Answering those questions is not easy, and therefore might well take some time. But if you’re thinking about becoming a more people-first culture, the time invested here will pay dividends for years to come. If you do not invest the time required for phase one, you are unlikely to succeed.

Phase Two – Identify areas of focus and action steps

  1. Once you’ve articulated your people-first vision, ask, “What are one or two areas of low-hanging fruit, areas in which we can create some quick progress?” Then create action plans for each identified area.
  2. Benchmark other organizations to discover people-first practices you can bring into your culture.

Phase Three – Institutionalize people-first

  1. Include people-first as the most important element in your management performance evaluations and compensation reviews (otherwise, it’s not… um, first).
  2. Collect and share stories about successes and high points related to your people-first strategy.
  3. Recognize and reward all employees who contribute to making continuous progress on the people-first initiative.
  4. Over time (possibly a lot of time), review all policies, procedures and practices to ensure they exemplify your people-first culture. You don’t have to eat this elephant in one bite. Just continue to make steady progress.
  5. Implement a selection process that helps you identify candidates who are a natural fit for your people-first culture.
  6. Part company with employees who are not a fit for your new culture, most particularly leaders and managers who do not fit.

The amount of time it takes to make substantial progress will vary greatly depending on a company’s size, the state of its current culture, and other factors. The journey will be different for every organization. As I said at the beginning of this post, cultivating a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. It’s a fundamental stance, based on your value system. If you make this part of your “true north”, I believe you will make your organization healthier and healthier over time.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with building a people-first culture.

Larry Sternberg

Can You Do What’s Necessary To Bring About Rapid Culture Change?

This is going to be a short post. There is a qualitative difference between gradually shaping a culture and rapidly changing a culture in fundamental ways. To see a previous post on how to shape an organization culture, click here.

Rapid culture change requires that certain people leave the organization — particularly those in leadership positions. It’s unpleasant, it’s painful, it’s regrettable — but it’s reality. This applies to leaders at every level. If a particular leader cannot or will not enthusiastically support the desired new culture, he or she must be replaced. To achieve rapid culture change we can’t be patient.

These departing leaders are, in a sense, casualties of war. We should treat them with respect and dignity, but we need to transition them out of the organization. Then, of course, we need to identify new leaders who embrace the desired culture.

Recently I’ve observed situations in which a new CEO is brought in to rapidly change a culture, but he or she is prevented from replacing the leaders. That’s a non-starter. That CEO is being set up for failure.

Rapid culture change is painful and confusing for all stakeholders. We always experience unanticipated consequences. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Working through these types of challenges requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude from the leader. And without the authority to replace people, nobody can bring about rapid, fundamental culture change.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Is Your P/N Ratio Sabotaging High Performance?

In many organizations, out of a sincere effort to improve performance, negative feedback (discussions about what’s wrong) overwhelms instances of positive feedback.  Too much negative feedback, too much focus on what’s wrong diminishes team performance.

Even during difficult, challenging times people achieve successes, but we often barely acknowledge them because we’re so focused on what’s wrong. I enthusiastically endorse the value of investigating the root cause of something that has gone wrong. Continue doing that, but dial-up the focus on successes.

What can you do to improve your p/n ratio? Make a habit of inviting people to focus on successes, achievements and high points in their lives. Try some of these simple tactics:

  • Begin internal meetings by asking each participant to name a recent success or high point. If there is a large number of people, divide into smaller groups.
  • In a client meeting, ask the client to share recent successes or high points.
  • Conduct root cause analyses after major successes.
    • Understanding the factors and behaviors that created those successes empowers you to re-create them in the future.
  • Emotionally rehire your employees and associates.
  • Catch someone doing something right.
  • Celebrate successes. This celebrations need not be expensive or time-consuming. For example:
    • Post congratulations on your intranet.
    • Give someone (or some team) a round of applause.
    • Write a note.
    • Write on their wall.
    • Make a brief phone call.
    • Send a text.
    • Just say, “Great job!”
    • Give someone a high-five.

I’m confident you can add to that list. Increase your focus on successes and high points, and encourage others to do so as well. You’ll increase your influence and bring about noticeable change. People will have more spring in their step, a more positive attitude, and a higher level of motivation and engagement. Who wouldn’t want that?

And FYI, you can do this with your family and friends, too.

Thanks for reading.

Larry Sternberg

Empowerment: How Can I Get Started?

As you can plainly see, in my previous discussions regarding empowerment I’m talking about not merely allowing people to give their input into decisions; I’m discussing a genuine transfer of power. This transfer can be scary because you cannot divest yourself of accountability. As a result, many managers take the position, “If I’m accountable, I need to make the decisions.” I understand that point of view. Many managers are not interested in taking the risks associated with a high degree of empowerment.

Implementing this approach requires a great deal of respect and trust in employees at every level: respect for their intelligence and trust in their motives. It requires you to acknowledge that you do not know everything, and that people with less education and less experience might well have a better idea. It requires you to abandon the (often unconscious) attitude that “those people” cannot be trusted to make good decisions.

Getting started, however, is easy if you’re willing to try an experiment. Ask your people the following question:

What decisions do you need approval for that you are fully competent to make today?

Have a bias in favor of letting people make those decisions. Let them try their ideas, even if you think the ideas probably won’t work. You could be mistaken. Trust that they will change things that don’t work. Look for opportunities to let your people make decisions. Provide them the education and training necessary to assume additional decision-making authority. Celebrate successes in this area. Remember:

The more decisions an employee is empowered to make, the higher the level of job satisfaction, the greater the degree of engagement, the more person learns, and the greater the likelihood of retaining them.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Empowerment Accelerates Learning

I remember being at The Ritz-Carlton corporate office when several visitors were conducting a benchmarking visit. The Vice President of Quality asked me to join one of their meetings. They were asking, “How do you motivate people to give suggestions for improvement?”

They were brainstorming ways to motivate people to give suggestions, and I was sitting there with my mouth shut. The VP of quality invited me to contribute my thoughts, which constitute the lesson of this post:

You dont need to motivate people to give suggestions for improvement. You just need to quit discouraging them or punishing them for giving suggestions.

 People are full of suggestions; they’re full of ideas. Tragically, many companies systematically de-motivate people from giving suggestions.

When an employee makes a suggestion to their manager to change a process, it is not unusual for a manager to reply, “I can understand why you might think that would work, but I’ve got 15 years of experience in this and I’ve tried that before twice. It doesn’t work.” Sound familiar? In that scenario nobody learns anything.

And how motivated do think that employee is to submit the next suggestion?

Consider an alternative situation in which the workforce is empowered to redesign how they get their work done. In this hypothetical example the department team has 51% of the vote about their processes. The employees  come to the manager with the same suggestion. But now they’re seeking advice rather than approval. The manager gives the same response: “I can understand why you might think that would work, but I’ve got 15 years of experience in this and I’ve tried that before twice. It doesn’t work.” But the employees are not persuaded. They decide to try the new approach. Here’s the powerful outcome.

Learning occurs whether the suggestion works or not.

If it works, both the manager and the employees have learned something. If it doesn’t work, the employees have learned that the manager knows what she’s talking about. They might well give her advice more weight in the future.

Furthermore, if it works the employees experience the self-actualization usually available only to managers. They get to come to work every day and say to themselves, “I did that. I created that success.” And it is their success. They will be highly motivated to create the next improvement. In fact, in those situations the manager can dial up this motivation by saying, “Wow! You people are terrific. I can’t wait to see what you do next!”

“But Larry,” you might say, “what do you do if it doesn’t work? Yes, they’ve learned something, but now you have a bad process. If they have 51% of the vote, what do you do?”

That’s a terrific question. The short answer is: direct them to change it. Isn’t this what you should do when a manager tries a new process that doesn’t work?

I have found that in these situations when empowered employees have tried a new process (their process) that doesn’t work, they will decide to change it before the manager has the opportunity to discuss it with them. Who wants ineffective processes? Certainly not the people who have to use them. This is what psychological ownership will do. This conclusion, by the way, is not speculation. I have seen this work numerous times.

That discussion presents another illustration of the difference in attitude and performance when you empower people.

Think about a less empowered model. A manager decides to change a process. He gets some input from the employees, but ultimately he decides how to re- design the process. He explains why to the employees and trains them on the new process. As in the preceding example, either it works or it doesn’t.

If it works, everybody is better off and they appreciate it. Learning occurs for everyone. But the self-actualization belongs to the manager. The employees have no psychological ownership.

The most important difference is observed when it doesn’t work. When it doesn’t work, does the manager immediately change the process? Not a chance. The manager says, “I know this will work. The root cause of the problem is that the employees are not committed, they’re not executing the process the way they’re supposed to.” I know you’ve seen this.

The next thing you know, the manager is into change management, re-training everyone and re-explaining why this new process will make things better. What do the employees hear? “It’s your fault this isn’t working.” They hear it that way because they’re smart and they know that’s the real message however it might be worded. This is hurting their engagement, their motivation and the likelihood of retention.

When a manager decides to try something new and it doesn’t work, in the vast majority of cases she will require people to keep trying for a much longer period of time than when the employees own the decision. An additional lesson:

Empowerment accelerates change.

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences.

Larry Sternberg

The Power of Empowerment

“Let me get my supervisor.” How many times have you heard that when you expressed dissatisfaction with a product or service? Or perhaps you heard it when you requested an exception to stated procedures. The customer often is required to repeat their story numerous times as the complaint or request escalates to someone who has the authority to make a decision. Lack of empowerment results in terrible customer service, and it has a considerable negative impact on job satisfaction and retention.

The concept of empowerment can include many things, including giving people tools, training and information that improve performance. In this post, I’ll focus on the following aspect of empowerment: giving employees the authority to make decisions and take action without first getting approval. Empowerment is always a matter of degree. Every employee is empowered to make some decisions without seeking approval. The important point is this:

The more decisions employees are empowered to make, the higher the level of job satisfaction, the greater the degree of engagement, the more people learn, and the greater the likelihood of retaining them.

Additional benefits include improved customer service, increased flexibility, accelerated process improvement and improved ability to respond to unanticipated events.

The importance of empowering people cannot be over-emphasized as it relates to R.E.D. Empowerment contributes to psychological ownership of one’s job.

So why wouldn’t managers strive for as much empowerment as possible? Many of the reasons appear different on the surface. The manager does not want to give up control because they are accountable for the results. They don’t trust the subordinate’s judgment, or they don’t believe the subordinate has the necessary knowledge, experience, or information to make the decision. Or they are concerned that the subordinate will commit malfeasance. All of those reasons boil down to one fundamental issue: lack of trust.

I wish I remembered where I heard or read the following insight, but I just love it. “In any hierarchical organization, incompetence seems to start just below wherever I am on the organization chart.” People don’t say it so blatantly, but that’s a very common attitude. It’s a general attitude that we need control because we don’t fully trust “those people down there”.

“But,” you say, “I don’t want control, I just want sign off on it so I know what’s going on.” That’s a cop out. You can know what’s going on if you are informed after the fact. The requirement to sign off before implementation exists so you can veto it.

The Chief Steward

Here’s a story, told to me by a seminar participant during a break.

This person was Charlie, a Chief Steward in a very large, luxury hotel. The Chief Steward is responsible the crew that washes and manages all the china, glass and silver, and washes the pots, pans and kitchen equipment – among many other important duties.

“When I need to order cleaning chemicals,” he said, “I need four signatures: the Food and Beverage Director, the Director of Purchasing, the Controller, and the General Manager. One day, I asked the General Manger why we needed all those signatures, because they slowed the process. He told me that we needed standard controls over all purchasing decisions. I replied that I was the only person who had the information to know how much we needed to order, but he wouldn’t consider changing the process. So the next week, when I had to order chemicals, I wrote a purchase order for 100 times the amount of chemicals I actually needed. This would have cost a lot of extra money. They all signed the P.O.!”


His next move took enviable courage. He took the signed P.O. to the General Manager and asked, “Where is the control? You all signed this because you trust me.”

What value did the signatures add? I understand the need to have more than one signature to prevent collusion (lack of trust, again, by the way). But four signatures? How do you think Charlie felt? More like a trusted, respected staff member, or more like a peon whose judgment/ethics could not be trusted?

You might advance all kinds of good reasons for all these signatures, but be clear and honest about the impact of this process on engagement and retention.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how empowerment fosters the growth and development of employees at every level.

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to read your thoughts,

Larry Sternberg