As a kid growing up, one of the most important lessons I learned alongside the value of hard work was the concept of stewardship. I didn't know the word at the time, but I definitely knew my responsibilities to family and community, and I knew that if I failed to meet them, I would pay the price. I wasn't just taught; I knew that my self confidence, my happiness, my learning and growth were all tied to how I dealt with my stewardship.

What is stewardship and why does it matter?

If stewardship--in its most basic definition--is the responsible planning and management of resources, and if we understand the lesson of stewardship, then the real question is: for what resources are we as good people, good stewards, responsible? Is it our community resources, or those of our planet? Our forests and wildlife or our clean air? I'm in no way seeking to take away from individuals or groups seeking to address those issues--they are important, without question--but it's my feeling that we too easily look beyond what, or perhaps more importantly who, is right in front of us.

What are your motivators?

Organizations adopt similar causes to those listed above for multiple reasons. Some feel a responsibility to give back to society and the planet. But there's also the fact that stewardship itself has become a business asset. The knowledge that conspicuous stewardship is good marketing has led to everything from well-meaning (but often short-sighted or poorly executed) outreach efforts to blatant greenwashing (clean diesel, anyone?). It's become easy to view corporate service efforts with a cynical eye because we've all seen companies disguising bad habits or profit-driven motives behind feel-good campaigns.

The first step to being a good steward isn't choosing a worthy cause, it's knowing why you seek to serve. If profit is the goal, stewardship is just a means to an end. When stewardship itself is the goal, you're on the right track. The irony is that stewardship and profitability aren't opposing ideals; bottom-line motivations can benefit from responsible resource management.

What does stewardship mean to my company?

There are companies out there organizing exceptional initiatives--Patagonia's 1% for the Planet is a great example--but not everybody has the luxury or scale for such programs. Every company, however, can protect one valuable resource: its people. If you prioritize your stewardship on your own people first and build outward, you'll find the next steps of growth will happen like dominoes falling. You can have the most impact right within your organization, and if you take care of your employees, they'll not only take care of you, they'll become stewards in their own right. It's a fact that employees who feel valued and supported also feel more emotionally invested in the company in return. That means they'll work harder, work smarter, remain loyal, and even recruit on your behalf.

Work environment

Support your employees, and they'll support you. But support comes from more than just a good benefits package. Support comes from a positive work environment, where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, talent grows thanks to great mentoring, and recognition comes from the heart, not just the pocketbook. Environment is also a mindset of understanding your workforce. For example, ping-pong tables and open seating are likely to have less impact on a young parent's engagement than, say, a workplace that encourages regular hours, embraces work/life balance, and provides the option to work remotely when his or her kids come down with the flu.

Company values

Let's assume you aren't framing the Seven Deadly Sins to hang on the wall in your boardroom as company touchstones. More likely, you have some ambitious and honorable words written in fancy font in a brand guide somewhere under "Company Values." Now is the time to ask if you really live those values. If people come to work for you because you promote certain beliefs, you can be sure that those beliefs are as important to them as they are to your company. If you aren't truly practicing what you preach, you're opening the door to disenchantment, disengagement, and high turnover.

Acknowledgment

A part of positive culture that deserves its own section, acknowledgment is critical if you want to show your people you care about them. Along with that, it's important to show you value your people in the right way for the right reasons. Good work isn't the only thing worth rewarding; upholding company values and achieving personal goals are just as worthy of sincere praise, and if that praise gets delivered in front of an audience the recipient respects, it can have a lasting positive effect on everyone who witnesses it. Again, it all comes down to feeling valued and respected as an individual, not simply quantified as a cog in the machine or a servant to the bottom line.

Compensation

You don't have to pay better than anyone else in your industry to be a good steward of your workforce. A fair wage is more than a dollar figure; it implies fair compensation for the time and effort invested. Ask too much of employees, and any salary will be too little. The best approach is to do as much as you can with what you have and to be open and honest about compensation from the start. If you keep things transparent from the beginning, you're far less likely to experience departures due to expectations not being met.

Benefits

It's easy to assume that traditional benefits--healthcare, 401k, PTO--are the best way to care for your employees. Likewise, it's easy to think that unique, alternative benefits are the best way to show you're different and "in touch," i.e., more invested in your people. But the truth is, benefits are only beneficial if they fulfill a need, and the first step toward being a steward of your employees is getting to know them at every level in your organization. By finding out what matters most in their lives, you're painting a picture of how your company can best support their goals.

What can you expect?

The problem with the current trend of corporate responsibility is that it expects public recognition in return, and that's not what the lesson of stewardship is about. Expecting praise, publicity, or an uptick in inbound leads is to go against everything stewardship has to teach you. The truth is, when you put your people first, and you make caring for them the top priority, you will see rewards. Whether or not public acclaim and spiking sales result, you'll have happier employees, more loyal employees, harder working employees, and employees who pull together to help you break records in bullish years and fight the bear in lean ones. And what you'll learn, as I have, is that the positive effect on your bottom line is just a welcome side effect of the real rewards of serving people before the almighty dollar. It's a genuine connection, the knowledge of an investment that flows both ways, and one that gives you a sense of purpose you won't find in any earnings statement.

Published on: Nov 2, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.