Through his own business experience John Jones highlights the importance of remaining people-focused in an age of technology.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of my ‘disruptive’ ideas when founding our company may only have disrupted the good sense thrashed out by many who’d gone before; but at least one founding concept has served us extremely well. It sprang from my slightly rebellious attitude towards the ‘tech first’ culture, so common in software and IT.
Specifically, I was irked that people often seemed expected to serve the rise of tech, rather than tech being thoughtfully applied as per client needs and aspirations. I was adamant that even in a tech company the focus should be on understanding and meeting the very human needs of real people.
Later, as we took on staff and contractors, the same kind of thinking carried through, and over seven years later I can now look back and see how this approach has translated to positive results. Here’s a summary of these reflections across five business aspects.
Selling: We never push. The focus is on listening, getting to know the people and organisation, then offering them the most fitting feedback or solution we can. If the best choice isn’t us then we roll with that. This whole approach is based on respecting the other person’s intelligence and, even though it may seem idealistic, we have found the trust developed is a key factor in succeeding almost entirely through word of mouth. For comprehensive ‘sales training’ that’s in line with this approach, I rate Jill Konrath.
Service delivery: We deliver frighteningly complex digital projects that are subject to all kinds of unforeseen issues, yet the vast majority of the time everyone’s kept happy. Most of this goodwill stems from having an emotive investment in their vision; clients know we have absolute commitment to seeing things through no matter what. Sure, proactive communications, ‘owning’ issues, a friendly attitude, and hard work to meet clients’ needs are all valuable attributes; but developing great working relationships centred on genuine reciprocal partnership is the magic sauce.
Conflict: Despite best efforts there will always be the odd moment when conflict arises and, when that happens, the vital people-focused element is ‘neutrality’. It’s not uncommon for companies to be defensive, so when someone takes the time to really listen and get to the bottom of things, the whole atmosphere usually smooths out.
Of course, neutrality means the company has to be willing to endure pain if responsibility lies within. On the other hand, we don’t believe the client is always right either; the aim is simply to get a clear understanding and move forward in mutual understanding.
Working with staff: The operative word here is ‘with’. Sometimes organisations have this strong push for staff to be on board with the company’s amazing vision and, while that’s nice, I believe the complete opposite is most important. In other words, if we take time to understand staff’s own vision for each of their lives, then we can work with them to shape a role where, if they put the effort in, they’ll be making tracks towards their own life goals, as well as those of the business. Our staff turnover has been next to nothing, so there must be something to this.
Atmosphere: Both client experience and staff engagement are dramatically affected by this slightly ambiguous ingredient. A lot comes down to leadership; even just the attributes of being positive and encouraging go a long way. But there’s more to be tuned into; for instance, people are sensitive to stress factors such as noise and lack of personal space. People also have a complex set of individual health and relational needs, and meeting or not meeting those needs impacts on individual attitudes, which ultimately affects the collective atmosphere. It’s also incredibly important that organisational decisions affecting people are worked through with care, to maintain mutual understanding and trust, otherwise a negative ‘us and them’ mentality can quickly develop.
The word that perhaps best captures the whole gamut of these considerations is ‘empathy’ – taking the time to reflect from other’s perspectives and appreciate the emotive impact of actions, communications and working environment.
This fly-by summary, though far from comprehensive, highlights how broadly encompassing the importance of being people focused is. A more academic term is the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI); something that’s come to the fore of business leadership in recent years.
Dr Iain McCormick of the Executive Coaching Centre elaborates:
“The ability to understand and manage emotions in business in critical. Professionals need to be able to communicate a wide range of feelings in a constructive way to be successful. Emotional intelligence helps us to better understand ourselves and so relate better to customers, suppliers and stakeholders. Deeper understanding leads to stronger, more enduring relationships and so to greater profitability.”
Fortunately, many attitudes are moving forward – though at the same time there are subcultures headed in a starkly opposite direction. For example, there’s a common Silicon Valley style attitude of paying top dollar to attract talent then working them to near-death in a ‘dragon’s den’ atmosphere that embodies about as much EI as you’d find in your lawnmower. Recent press on how awful it is working at Amazon is just the latest of such revelations, and I’ve personally heard some outrageous tales even from within New Zealand. In contrast, Google’s staff are walking rave reviews.
Perhaps ultimately it comes down to what we believe business is about. Is it only about the shareholders or also about the other stakeholders and the wider community?
If anything, I believe this question is only made more poignant by the tech explosion, especially the nascent rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). When computers have replaced much of what humans do now, what will our value be?
Surely EI and empathy will remain our most irreplaceable qualities, and businesses embodying them will stand out. In the big picture, people focused businesses contribute not only to our national GDP, but also to that alternative measure coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972 – Gross National Happiness (GNH).