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Zack Gallinger-Long

People Are Your Competitive Advantage

Published: May 5, 2020

During this time of adaptation and change, businesses need innovative, creative, indispensable human beings. Customer service representatives who care, managers who lead, and sales people who are dedicated to making human connections. We need forward-thinking people who are willing to step out with innovative ideas, think beyond historical roles, and affect change.

In his book, Lynchpin, author Seth Godin encourages readers to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to be the busiest worker and, instead, focus on delivering maximum value. So how do we, as team leaders, empower our people to produce their best work?

Focus on the Human

It may seem like a tortuous decision to turn away from a strategy that, earlier this year, captured our hearts but we must remember that we haven't lost the foundation upon which all great companies can rely; great people! The competitive advantage that will set companies apart in today's marketplace is human.

It starts with the passion and energy that employees bring to work every day and it results in unprecedented growth and innovation. The companies that pull ahead in the coming months will have individuals and teams who recognize opportunity where others perceive only risk and who move while others continually re-read the market. However, while it is prudent that we make intelligent investments with our time and resources, it is imperative that we take care of the person within each role first and foremost.

When people are well-rested, have reasonable workloads, and understand that their mental health is more important than any deliverable, they are better prepared to bring their best selves to work and deliver stellar results. As we all work to successfully negotiate multiple priorities in these ever-changing times, business leaders must continually focus on serving people as the priority and, by doing so, we can help our teams remain flexible and resilient in the midst of uncertainty.

Regardless of the industry, the teams that I've seen shine the brightest are often comprised of artists; people who are masters of their craft in their own right. On these teams, creative work is encouraged and rewarded, the culture is fueled by ongoing innovation, and everyone on the team is keenly aware that all people (whether employees or customers) crave genuine interactions, connection and respect. It is these teams that are more human, more remarkable and more agile; these are the teams that deliver the most value and become indispensable.

Allow for Autonomy

Today's systems move too fast for centralized control and the traditional corporate org chart is not a map to operational excellence. In order to remain agile as a company, our people need the freedom to decide how best to accomplish their own work.

In his book New Rules for the New Economy, author Kevin Kelly explains how GM saves $1.5 million per year by allowing robot arms to schedule their own work. Thanks to a network of brainlets there is no central control center that coordinates all the work. The schedule comes from a swarm of independent "brains" that perform different functions. For example, if a robot arm is currently painting red and a car that is slated to be painted red is coming down the assembly line, it says, "Let me do it," and it beckons the car to its paint station. As a result, the equipment requires less paint (due to less cleaning between cars), and keeps the line moving faster.

Now then, if we can trust a series of robot arms with brainlets to reason and select their next most valuable contribution, there should be no question as to the autonomy that human workers deserve when performing their tasks throughout the day. As they work together, people learn from one another, network, and interact until they ultimately become a more efficient unit.

Especially in a remote or hybrid work environment, we must allow our people to use their best judgement when it comes to determining how best to achieve a mission if we want to have organizations that can quickly adapt and maintain efficiency. Unwillingness to grant autonomy will only serve to suppress a team's potential, frustrate team-members, and stifle results.

Managers should communicate the mission (the what), the purpose of the desired outcome (the why), collaborate on the approach (the how) and then get out of the team's way.

Recognize Effort

A motivation firm known as "Make Their Day" surveyed over 1,200 people and found that over 70% said that the most meaningful form of recognition they received at work had no dollar value. In addition, 83% said that recognition for contributions was more fulfilling than rewards and gifts.

Most people prefer to work in an environment where they are challenged, where people grow, and where teams produce their best work because they value the quality of their work for its own sake.

Although we are in busy times (aren't we always) we must not neglect to make regular deposits in the emotional bank of the people we work with. Make the time to recognize your peers, teams and leaders for the hard work they are putting in. Remind them that you appreciate and value their contributions. It is, after all, the people who make a great company what it is. Let them know it!

It's not going to be easy but let's not get so caught up in doing the work that we lose sight of the workers. Our people will be the key. Our people will be the defining characteristic that enables us to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever. Our people will be the ones who will carry the company onward to new growth. Our people will be our competitive advantage and it is with this mindset firmly in place that we are ready for whatever lies ahead.

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