More Than a Slogan: Why “People First” is a Crucial Business Principle

Amila Jamak Pita

What are the essential components of the definition of business as an activity? Different definitions, including those found on Wikipedia and Cambridge Dictionary seem to converge on a few crucial elements, the main of which is that the end goal of business is to make profit. Actually, the centrality of profit to most definitions of business is such that one is left with an impression that there really isn’t anything else to it. 

The problem with this approach to defining business is not in what it says, but in what it leaves out. Of course businesses are about profit, but businesses don’t survive on profit alone. So, what else is business about? Most importantly, is there something else other than profit that is more fundamental to the thriving and success of business? For us at Maestral, the answer to this question has been clear since the beginning: Yes. People. 

“People First” is the first of our three core values (the other two being “Culture of Trust” and “Passion for Growth”), and it’s long been at the core of our organizational mindset. Hearing these somewhat overused buzzwords such as “culture”, “values” and “mindset” may cause you to roll your eyes thinking this is just another marketing ploy, branding without true substance. I actually appreciate the skepticism – after all, the title of the blog suggests that taking “People First” seriously is something that needs elaboration and clarification.

Still, it is a principle we take very seriously. And since I realize this skepticism stems partially from widespread corporate pledges to values, cultures and visions that often have little to do with the profit motive, I want to underscore that “People First” is not about running a business with no business goals in mind. On the contrary, it’s a value that’s essential to the vitality of our business. It’s actually a universally applicable way of thinking that is of the same importance to any other organization, regardless of the wording used to frame it. Here’s why that’s the case.

Taking care of people so they’ll take care of business

Whether your company is into providing services or offering products, you need talented professionals to accomplish your mission. However, apart from their skills, how well employees perform in their tasks is also determined by their overall wellbeing and level of engagement. That means that the first thing leaders need to do, after hiring the right talent, is to make sure that the company provides them with everything they need to function optimally.

That obviously goes far beyond the issues of financial compensation. If it were just about that, then it wouldn’t be an issue of mindset; mindset is never about single, solitary issues, but about modes of thinking. And in the “People First” mode, the job of leaders is not to take care of the core business directly; they focus on providing for their employees and then let the employees take care of business.

Taking care of people so they’ll… bring in new people

When people perform in their roles and the business becomes a success, it usually manifests in growth. There’s more demand (i.e. clients/accounts) that needs to be matched with more supply (more products or product lines, more service offerings, more diversification).

To enable that growth to happen, companies need to bring in more people. Businesses typically rely on different external engagement efforts to recruit new talent, but it’s actually internal engagement that leads to the best new hires. How’s that?

Most businesses appreciate the value of recommendations in the hiring process, as having first-hand information about a candidate increases the chances of making the right hiring call. But recommendations go both ways, as potential hires also rely on their friends’ experience of working for a company when considering whether that company would be a good fit for them. People who are happy, who actually believe that their wellbeing is a company priority, will act as conduits for quality new hires, thus enabling the company to take on more business opportunities and grow.

Inspiring loyalty in times of crisis

When a business is hit by a crisis, one of the priorities for leaders is to prevent the loss of key talent and preserve existing clients. Succeeding at that means having more chances of recovering and starting to grow again. While financial considerations are central to employees’ decisions as well, a culture that prioritizes their wellbeing can go a long way in helping them stay engaged during challenging times. 

First, they’re more likely to have a sense of loyalty and desire to give back. If the company consistently tends to employee wellbeing, even when their performance fluctuates (which will inevitably happen to every employee), then they may decide to return the favor and support it when times get hard. Then, there are practical considerations. If employees rush to leave the company, they won’t easily find an alternative that’s equivalent to the one that is people-centered. If one also believes that recovery is actually possible, investing in that recovery by staying is a very common choice. 

Overall, employee loyalty and resilience inspired by a people-centered company culture may have a protective effect during times of crisis and project an image of stability both inwardly and outwardly, as well as create a solid base for recovery once the crisis passes.

How you do anything is how you do everything

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that how a company interacts with its own people never goes unnoticed by their (potential) clients. Actually, many clients will make their decision on whether to work with a company or not based on that. They will set their expectations regarding how you’ll do your work and interact with them based on how you run your internal operations. From a client perspective, if a company is not people-centered it probably does not know how to be client-centered either. 

Additionally, clients expect better services and/or products from vendors that invest in their own people and prefer them as their partners. It’s an indication that the vendor has a detailed and thorough approach to raising the quality of their business offering and that their sales pitch is not just a sales pitch, but a reflection of reality.

After considering these arguments, does “People First” still sound like some slick corporate mantra, there to hide true (read: profit) motives? It shouldn’t, primarily because it’s clearly not designed to present the said motive as irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The profit goal is always there; the point of pursuing that goal in a people-conscious manner is to allow the company and its employees to have more than one purpose  and to tie those different purposes together so that they support each other. If a company sets its priorities in the right order – if it starts with people first – there will be little pressure, if any, to ever choose between them. Here at Maestral, we know that from experience.

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