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HUMAN RESOURCES

Book Value: So You Say People Are Your Most Important Asset

According to some recent books, thinking of people as just another asset is a mistake. Plus: What Tim Keyes of Aim Technologies reads.
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How do you get the most from your workers?

  • Living Strategy, by Lynda Gratton (Financial Times/ Prentice Hall)
  • PeopleSmart, by Mel Silberman with Freda Hansburg (Berrett-Koehler)
  • Make It Happen!, by Ron Biagi and Tresa Eyres (It's the How Publishing Co.)
  • The Clarity Factor, by Ray DiZazzo (Sourcebooks)
  • Beyond Winning, by Robert H. Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet, and Andrew S. Tulumello (Belknap Press)

"I'll start my own business -- that way I'll have control over my life." Of all the lies we tell ourselves, that one is perhaps the most delusional. Once you start a company, the last thing you have is control. The reason for that is a paradox that comes with being a manager. You know intuitively that if you could just harness the ability your employees have, you could accomplish remarkable things. But it takes so much time to manage those employees that you question whether the whole idea of "working through others" is worth the trouble. You have to wonder if Sartre was describing management when he wrote "Hell is other people."

Literally scores of books that address this topic are coming to market now. The best two provide practical blueprints for getting the most out of your employees. Both, not surprisingly, are written by authors with extensive training in psychiatry.

Lynda Gratton, author of Living Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Business, starts by examining a premise that you probably espouse yourself: people are truly the most important part of your company. Gratton, an associate professor at the London Business School, argues that although managers might talk a good game, "for many people, the reality of life in an organization is that they do not feel they are treated as the most important asset, or that their knowledge is understood or used."

If that's so, she contends, the fault lies squarely on your (the manager's) shoulders. She argues that managers traditionally think of employees as just another asset, like capital or technology. Although that's understandable, she says, it's fundamentally wrong for three reasons.

The first is time. You can raise capital quickly. You can get a new technology-based product to market within months. But you can't change a person's beliefs so quickly. It takes years.

Second, Gratton says, employees are engaged in a search for meaning. They deeply want to understand how they fit in as individuals, how their specific jobs tie in to the organization's goals and objectives.

And if that were not vexing enough, there's a third thing employees desire, says Gratton. They want their sense of personal identity to mesh with the company's raison d'être. The question employees ask, at least implicitly, is whether the organization will "inspire us, engage our emotions..., and encourage ideas."

Ultimately, Gratton says, unless you take all three needs into account, you won't get a 100% commitment from your people.

Master that mind-set and you can move toward implementation of better employee practices. For help, pick up PeopleSmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence, by Mel Silberman with Freda Hansburg. Skip the self-diagnostic tests, which are basically worthless. And take the examples for what they are -- fabricated case studies that present extreme models. Instead, pay attention to the authors' discussion of how to communicate with the people who work for you. Silberman and Hansburg delineate eight components of personal interaction: understanding people, expressing yourself clearly, asserting your needs, exchanging feedback, influencing others, resolving conflict, being a team player, and shifting gears (being flexible).

The book is not a bad starting point if you're thinking about how you want to work with people. But it has two problems: there's no "how-to" component, and its discussions lack specifics.

For a more practical guide, consider this unlikely source: project-management texts. Your objective of improving your employees' performance is nothing more than a goal, much like increasing profits or bringing a new product to market. So why not treat it as you would any other project?

There are hundreds of project-management books out there, but you may want to start with Make It Happen! by consultants Ron Biagi and Tresa Eyres. This is basically Project Management for Dummies. (Note to IDG: you might want to add that title to your series.) The book is filled with tips, and key points are boxed out from the text. Still, Biagi and Eyres are particularly strong at communicating what too many managers fail to understand: if you aren't painfully clear about what you want the organization to accomplish, it's probably not going to happen.

That's where Ray DiZazzo, author of The Clarity Factor, can help. In the tradition of the One Minute Manager books, DiZazzo, a communications consultant, delivers his information in the form of a parable. This one involves Gloria, an accounting supervisor who is having problems with an employee, her husband, and her teenage son.

Yes, of course, better communication will save the day, but DiZazzo is not so simpleminded. He effectively reminds you that you need to focus your message, get your listener's attention, and listen well yourself if you want to have any hope of being heard.

A tight labor market and a workforce that has grown increasingly more demanding when it comes to personal fulfillment have made "my way or the highway" bosses all but obsolete. You still don't normally have to get total agreement from employees to proceed or make a decision, but today you generally need at least some buy-in. Getting that means it's important to hone your negotiating skills. One new release on the subject is Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes, by Robert H. Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet, and Andrew S. Tulumello. The authors frame the discussion well, but the book is aimed in large part at lawyers (and their clients), and translating that into the workplace isn't easy.

You might do better by referring to the 1981 classic work Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Penguin), who, like Mnookin, come out of Harvard's Program on Negotiation. There's a reason that their book continues to pop up on the business best-seller lists. There's an education to be had in the chapter titles alone: "Separate the People from the Problem," "Focus on Interests, Not Positions," and "Invent Options for Mutual Gain." The entire second half of the book is devoted to dealing with less-than-rational folks, a challenge many managers can relate to.

Paul B. Brown is editor-in-chief of DirectAdvice.com, an online planning company. He's written numerous business books, including the best-seller Customers for Life.


Executive Reader

Tim Keyes
President of Aim Technologies, an Austin marketing-consulting firm for sports franchises

Recent Fave
Net Worth, by John Hagel and Marc Singer. "We have a lot of our new employees read this," says Keyes. "It gets everyone thinking about what a consumer is worth to a company."

Business bible
Competitive Strategy, by Michael Porter. "It talks about the ways in which companies position themselves and how they have to adapt over time to survive," Keyes says. "It also talks about the competitive analysis of markets and industries in a way that reinforced what I learned later as a management consultant."

Favorite bio
Walt Disney, by Bob Thomas. "The book explains why Disney focused on customer service, and how he organized Disneyland and Disney World to be the ultimate consumer experience. For him, this extended from how his employees cleaned the streets to how they trained the people in the character costumes," says Keyes. --Mike Hofman


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2000

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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