Strategic Planning Series

Will you reset your people agenda to focus on customers?

John Oommen
John's Profile

A company’s people agenda dictates how it delivers value to customers. An effective strategic plan will frame an approach to dovetail the company’s people to behaviors customers consider valuable.

Imagine scrolling through your LinkedIn feed. What people-related information do you see?

“We are hiring!”

“My company and colleagues are the best.”

“We are the best company to work for!”

How many “best companies” can there be? Life is a zero-sum game. If everyone is doing so well, who is not doing well? Someone must be. All the good news is great. But we know there is more to the story when the lights and cameras are off.

There is a lot of talk about “war for talent”, “great resignation”, and “people leave their bosses, not the company”. Does it not feel like watching political campaigning? The messages are a little too conveniently repetitive.

As an unrelated comparison, the term BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) was a popular framing of developing nations that were slated to become the next economic powerhouses. Since these four countries account for 40% of the global population, I would hope that their economic prospects reflect a larger share of global GDP in the future. But over a decade since its proponents popularized the term, the reality hasn't played out as they hoped.

What was all the BRIC talk intended for? It influenced Foreign Direct Investment into those four countries to support the investment choices of those who moved first and popularized the term BRIC. Beyond that, the term had little practical meaning. These four countries have different historic, geopolitical, and economic factors in play and are taking divergent paths.

Catchphrases often market hidden incentives. The reality is far more complex and nuanced. Let’s take a step back and consider this. Why is every company hiring as though the world will run out of people? Why do companies feel compelled to have the same people focused messages? People haven’t changed significantly in a decade. Technology hasn’t developed enough to change our fundamental nature.

There is an undercurrent of low interest rates and excess funding amounts sloshing around that encourages scale. But we will save this for our next strategic planning theme. Let's now consider two statistics.

First, according to US Census data, the number of people employed in the Employment Services industry, which includes all hiring and staffing activities, grew by an astonishing 51% between 2010 and 2017. During the same period, we have had so many more outlets to communicate through. Putting these together, should the volume of noise about “people changing jobs” surprise us? No!

Another change in our ecosystem is a proliferation of “leadership coaches”, whose count has increased by 33% in the last 5 years alone. I am not opposed to popular conversations around servant leadership. But the proof has to show up in labor productivity, which hasn't happened yet. Regardless of leadership style, it will remain true that every effective kitchen has a head chef, a sous chef, station chefs, and kitchen porters. No good kitchen only has head chefs.  

During this strategic planning cycle, I encourage you to separate the inbound noise about people themes and marketing conversations around people from a real and tangible people-agenda that serves your company’s stakeholders. This is our second 2022 strategic planning theme.

1: What behaviors do customers expect?

Our company exists to create value for customers. Otherwise, we are in the business of taking money from customers to deliver less value than they pay for. Like everything else in a company, our people agenda must start with customers. The first guiding question to frame the people agenda is:

What are the behavioral traits that customers expect our company to demonstrate?

If there is an angle from which a customer base is held hostage to low value creation, our company likely operates in a monopoly or an oligopoly. It is only a matter of time before the ground shifts to correct this dynamic. The behavioral traits that customers desire aren’t up to employees to opine on or the executives to dictate. Objective information must instead be gathered from optimal customers and the root-cause analyzed.

2: What must our modus operandi be?

Next, the customer-desired behavioral traits must be translated into the fabric of our company. Our internal operations must balance external stakeholders' desires. All that servant leadership talk cannot just be about what we expect from our managers and executives. Each of us can practice it every day. An obvious place to practice is with customers.

How can the customer-desired behavioral traits be translated to organizational guardrails to operate by?

These are our well-operationalized core values. Core values are meant to be actionable, just like the Ten Commandments for Christians and Jews or the Five Pillars for Muslims. I recommend using those combined fifteen statements as references for actionable core value design and operationalization because they have proven to be highly effective over two millennia. Sourcing toothless ideas from popular themes or peers is not a path to market leadership. Through planning, every company must ensure core values translate to customer outcomes.

3: What are employee behaviors that align with operationalized core values?

Operationalized core values need to be lived day-to-day by the CEO, executives, supervisors, and employees.

From a forward-looking decision-making perspective, the Black Swan event of COVID-19 is behind us. It is time to fully transition to a post-event world. Lockdowns may come back… there might be another variant… Regardless, there is enough information to choose a realistic company-level approach to create optimal customer value.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the choices companies have to make around where and when employees work and how they work. Virtual methods to communicate and manage workers have been improving. A significant share of employees in the workforce are now millennials and Gen-z, who have a different upbringing than previous generations.

These factors have put many companies on the defense as to how they frame an effective execution approach. Conforming messages hoping to increase employee satisfaction, while desperately adding bodies to fill seats, can feel like a necessity to deploy available investment or counter investment-fueled actions from competitors.

I suggest a different approach. Purposefully choose your own people agenda without feeling the need to fit a mold set by social media or culture proponents. Companies with value-creating offerings and effective operations tend to have satisfactory environments and low turnover. If that isn’t the case, all the polishing usually adds up to short-term survival that distracts from the underlying issues.

For instance, where employees work from is a tactical choice that companies are still struggling with. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan released commitments that employees will be in the office at least some days of the week. C3.ai's CEO committed that people who don’t want to be in the office need not work there. Many others have chosen to embrace a completely remote operating model; some even well before COVID. There are no right or wrong answers.

On one end, health concerns continue to circulate. On the other end, there are reports of employees stacking multiple freelance opportunities at the same time because tracking work isn’t effective enough yet. I personally know multiple individuals who accepted two jobs simultaneously to “feel it out”. Most employees say that they are more productive at home. That may be true for some, but there is no evidence yet to support this claim. Ask yourself:

What are the day-to-day employee behaviors spanning time, location, frequency, and approach that allow the company to live by the operationalized core values and demonstrate the behavioral traits customers expect?

4: What is the optimal and sustainable scale?

Lastly, a bigger company isn’t always better.

We share this planet with 8 billion people. With technology access, shared languages, and converging working styles, every company has widening access to more of the global population. There are millions all around the world looking for opportunity for a better life and to showcase their talents. Any notion of shortage of labor is intended to create a demand shock and a perception of supply constraint. If we drill a few layers into the income source of labor shortage claimants, we will notice that it involves employee transition activities or selling sensationalism.

Every person we poach from somewhere else is now our ethical responsibility. Employees relocate or change their lives to join a company with high hopes. If we were that person, would we prefer that such a big change in our life is built on a solid foundation, or built on sand?

Additionally, throwing people at problems doesn’t work. It just creates confusion and lack of accountability. This summer, I started playing 6v6 volleyball games. But over several weeks, we realized we played much better in 4-person teams holding our skill constant. Most of us were dozing off and not expecting the ball to come to us when there were five others on the field to pick up our slack. Staffing follows a similar accountability problem when there is not enough well-defined work to go around. So, the scale question for our people agenda is:

What is the optimal scale of employees that we can effectively deploy to avoid diminishing returns?

After the chaos of the last 18 months, every company needs to reset its people agenda; the four steps above would be a strong foundation to start with. These choices aren’t about whether employees go to the office or which software platform is best. It's about who works at the company and how they work to create value for customers.