The central challenge of the people-first era in corporate culture may be corporate structures and how officers are raised within the organization, says Michael O'Malley, a managing director of Pearl Meyer and co-author of "Organizations for People."
"A lot of people who make it to the top come through finance and marketing, and are more schooled on things like product, pricing, markets and investments," O'Malley says. "To them, people are part of the mechanics and not fundamental or central, but you need actual people to make the profit."
Marriott International has long made a people-first philosophy part of its core culture by design and very much about the bottom line.
"Take care of associates and they will take care of the customers, who'll come back again and again," says Marriott CHRO David Rodriguez.
Doing that, according to both O'Malley and Rodriguez, means corporate cultures have to change, putting the people in the company first.
6 ways to move toward a people-first culture
- Beware the lure of forcing a culture. "Some cultures are often made-up words from consultant-facilitated executive off-sites," Rodriguez says. "Then, they come back and tell their employees, ‘here is our culture and here is how you should behave.’" That’s no way to build a sustainable, winning and profitable culture.
- Give employees ownership of the culture. Rodriguez suggests getting employees to take the company's core values and express them in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them. In this way, the people who power the organization build an authentic corporate culture and ensure its core values are "being constantly refreshed by the people who are genuinely living them," he says. "That's the bedrock of long-term success."
- Nurture and reward autonomy and growth. "People have to feel like they're growing, that they have a sense of autonomy," O'Malley says. Being given the authority to make their own decisions and pursue their own ideas breeds self-confidence and the desire to do more, and that's exactly the kind of workforce shareholders and leaders want. "Boards are being called upon by the investor community to be more attentive to the quality of leadership and culture."
- Make the leadership accessible. "You can see the differences in work ethics and attitudes of companies whose CEOs appear to care and those who don't," says O'Malley. At one software company he studied, employees said they thought of themselves as "Spartans" who would "die for the CEO" for merely being a talented leader who treated people well and enforced an open-door policy.
- Embrace next-generation technology. "Research consistently shows optimism toward tech in the workplace," Rodriguez says. "Digital curiosity and technology adoption are rooted in the quest for opportunity. Embrace it. It is a gateway to future opportunity."
- Boost employees’ life satisfaction. Go beyond job satisfaction when thinking about morale and engagement. "Career counseling, financial counseling, daycare -- companies need to think about bringing into the workplace things that benefit their employees as people, not just as employees perform better," O'Malley says. "This includes learning opportunities for employees that aren't specifically job-related. We want people who are curious and in the habit of learning something new."
Why people-first matters
As in all human endeavors, this push for people-first cultures goes back to an ancient and basic human instinct: to form authentic connections with others.
"Building meaningful relationships on the job is vital to our wellbeing," says Rodriguez. "Inspired organizations that build a strong sense of community will have an inspired workforce with the commitment and enthusiasm required to tackle the changes and challenges all businesses invariably face."