Ask the OD Partners: Are People Truly an Organisation's Greatest Assets?

Reflections and thoughts by Dr. Lily Cheng
Founder and Chief Catalyst

How do we know if people are truly an organisation’s greatest assets? I suggest it's two sides of the same coin. On one side, people in organisations who are employees, must be aligned with the organisational purpose. On the other side, people in organisations who are leaders, must be committed to accentuate individuals’ strengths and teams’ collective performance at work. What do I mean?

People who are called leaders

Using the metaphor of a bus to describe an organisation, Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, proposed that great companies start not with “where,” but with “who.”  Leaders need to know how to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. But having the right people on the bus is not enough — they have to be on the right seats.  

As leaders, if people board your bus because of where you’re going, they'll be disappointed. We need to be ready to change directions because we’re now operating in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

I used to think that leaders must not change where they’re going, but today, it’s a brutal fact that we must be ready to navigate changes in our environment so that we can continue to achieve our organisation’s core purpose of existence. By having the right people, you don’t need to worry about motivating them amidst these changes. They’re self-motivated and self-driven to stay relevant in the organisation, and are a part of the grander vision of what the organisation is pursuing.  

Even if your organisation is heading in the right direction and has a great vision, but the wrong people on the bus, it won’t achieve greatness, as found in research by Collins in 2001. Just as first “who” then “where” differentiates great companies from good ones, does it also hold true that “who” must come before “what”?

After several deliberations for me personally and working with 1,000+ leaders, I believe it’s not the people, but the RIGHT people who are an organisation’s greatest assets.  

Individuals who are called employees

A litmus test to know if our employees are the right people, is to see if they are willing to ensure that the organisation is not at a standstill. The right people are willing to put in A+ efforts to deliver A+ performance in their organisations. They are trustworthy to deliver what is needed to move the organisation from a standstill towards its core purpose of existence in even the most challenging environments. They are committed to finding the best answers and refuse to dwell in the mud and rut of a lack of breakthrough. 

If you are the right person for your organisation, your pursuit will not simply be winning a debate, but will be marked by relentlessly finding the best solutions. If you are the right person, you’ll want to be on the right seat so that together with other right people, you’ll collectively navigate the VUCA environments to find what your organisation can be best at in the world, what economic denominator best drives your economic engine, and what everyone in your organisation is deeply passionate about.

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If you are the right person, you travel with the bus no matter how hard, how challenging, how complex or how unclear the changing environment is. For you have a stake in seeing that your organisation is moving from good to great, and you're not willing to see your organisation at a standstill.

In the next issue, I’ll discuss how we get the right people on the RIGHT SEATS.

Personal reflections:
Write down the key insights from this article that you can personally take away.

For leaders:
What is the one big idea for you in your situation that you can do to make your organisation a GREAT one? Do you have wrong people on the bus? If so, what is stopping you from getting them off the bus?  How can you face the brutal fact and take actions to ensure that the wrong people are given real feedback with authenticity, respect, and sensitivity?

For employees:
Are you the right person for the organisation? If you aren’t, then maybe you want to get off the bus so that you can be the right person on another bus. If you do not know whether you are the right person  or not, just ask yourself this question: Are you willing to put in your A+ efforts no matter what changing environments your organisation faces? Have you become more negative than positive since you first started your journey with the organisation?

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