Who Do You Love?

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

It seemed as I was graduating from college in the early 1980’s, prevailing business thought revolved around a passion for the customer. Business writing seemed to be dominated by the power of the customer at least from a marketing perspective. Customers selected the style of car and the flavor of food. Customers were front-and-center of marketing thought and business motivation.

Beginning in the mid 1980’s, coinciding with a general acceleration in technology, the focus started to change. Technology brought about the idea that businesses created value with their hope and that was reflected in the stock value. Shares of stock and shareholders became the central focus of business motivation. Every business wanted to create value for their shareholders. In the interest of shareholder value we experienced the travesty of Enron and WorldCom and we’re seeing the current stock market bust. Many have prospered from the stock market run-up that ended in October of 2008. Fortunes were made, until recently.

In both cases, the groups of people businesses seemed to focus on caused the very problems the businesses experienced. Your customers can run your business in the ground. Customers are fickle and their preferences change quickly. Unfortunately, stockholders are more skittish. The market gives and the market takes away. It seemed in late summer of 2008 that the Dow Jones averages would move 2-3% in a “normal” business day. One news item could create a 5% swing in the value of the market. Companies met expectations and their price dropped. Fortunes were made and lost in the perception of a single report from the government related to jobs or consumption estimates.

Now that we’re all reeling from the roller coaster of the last 20-30 years, can a business succeed? Can it even hope to thrive? Can business focus on a group or goal in order to operate above the drama of customer whim or the fear and panic of stockholder opinion?


There’s an old analogy about breakfast that may give us the answer. In a traditional bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken and the pig each contribute, but only the pig gives his all. In business, customers and shareholders are chickens (no pun intended). Since they choose to participate, their contribution is conditional. Employees are represented by the pig. They contribute their life to a business much like the pig donates his life to a breakfast. Employee contribution to a business is greater than shareholder or customer contribution because of the relative cost to the contributor.

So, what if business operated to reward the people making the greatest contribution? What if businesses operated for the benefit of their employees?

When a company can put their people first, in the truest sense of the word “first,” they create a natural motivation for  rational performance and measured improvement over the long haul.  That rational ongoing continuous improvement in-turn creates a compelling competitive advantage. No employee-first company would price themselves out of business. Nor would they chase the stock market or make irrational sacrifices to hit quarterly targets. Employee-first companies will excel at the important things necessary to improve all employee’s quality of life for the long run. Operating in their own self interest, they will charge a fair price and provide excellent service because fairness provides greatest likelihood of securing the future of the jobs they have. They would continuously improve and cautiously hire because those practices provide the best chance for long-term employment. They would train people and take care of the environment since those things also impact their own quality of life. They would even go so far as to make sure that their associates truly improved as a result of the organization’s success. They might even create a Dream Manager position to help their people accomplish their personal dreams. But that’s a topic for another post.

Wouldn’t you love to own or work for a company whose people are the true priority?


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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Erin Schreyer  |  10 Jun 2009  |  Reply

Great post, Mike! I agree that while it might seem “scary” to some to invest in their people right now…that’s exactly what companies should be doing!!! This market will be coming back around over the course of the next year – and the battle for the best people will ensue. Employees will remain both motivated and loyal to their companies who have taken a genuine interest in them. All others could possibly be a flight risk…especially when salaries begin to increase again. Regardless of market conditions, though, companies will always benefit the most when they take time to recognize and invest in the value of their people. I’m SO with you, Mike!!

Jay Steinfeld  |  12 Jun 2009  |  Reply

Focusing on your employees is of paramount importance. If they don’t trust you as a leader, it is near impossible to get anything done over a sustained period.

However, isn’t it the focus first on the customer that drives real success? As an example, what If you’re CEO and you find that a whole product line is no longer desired by your customers. Would you keep producing those products and keep all the people doing do, assuming there were no reassignments possible?

The companies that we hear about that are successful because of in part “awesome people cultures” (e.g. Zappos), focus on what is in the best interest of the customer.

Of course, the values that enable you to do that include respect, caring, fun, etc and if you’re not also providing those same things to your own employees, then asking them to do that for customers will be disingenuous and inauthentic. And they won’t do it.

I guess what I’m saying is the customer still comes first, but just barely.

Mike Henry  |  12 Jun 2009  |  Reply

In an employee-first company, as you listen to your employees (or associates) they will listen to customers. They should notice that something wasn’t selling first and begin taking action to address the problem. If you truly look out for your people, they begin to be freed up to look out for customers. Employees will grasp pretty quickly that “good” customers are the key to their own self-interest. They will be working to help you understand what the customers want. They’ll invent ways to provide quality service for “good” customers.

It’s a bit less clear in retail, but as you know, “bad” customers can be pretty unrealistic. Unrealistic or obnoxious customers cause the majority of the problems. If your company produces quality products and provides quality service, those customers stick out like a sore thumb. Then, it’s up to the leadership to keep those problem customers from killing employees. Employee-first simply means having the intestinal fortitude to make sure that profit never trumps people. The highest, best purpose of a company is the lives it funds.

Thanks for the great comments!

Jim Seybert  |  13 Jun 2009  |  Reply

Good stuff Mike !! Scott McKain had a link to this post on a Tweet and I’m glad he did. This is the kind of revised perspective we are so hungry for. Somewhere along the line we got off track to the point where workers are seen as a necessary but unfortunate expense.

Your suggestion goes against current conventional wisdom and that’s exactly why it makes good sense. I’m going to add your blog to my RSS feed and look forward to more.

Jim Seybert – author of Leadership Re:Vision (Tyndale – 2009)

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