Power to the People

If you are my age (47, since you ask) you will remember when television in the UK was limited and linear.

We had only two channels in my house in rural Shetland until the late 70s and if you wanted to watch something you had to be there. We didn’t even have a credible remote control or a video recorder – never mind the ability to pause, rewind, store, or download a programme of your choice at any time of day or on any continent.

Like almost everything else, today it’s different. The way we watch, the way we shop, listen to music, book holidays, bank, buy cars, order groceries, read books – it’s all geared to making things easier for us, more streamlined and better able to flex into our daily lives.

And today’s viewer certainly wouldn’t put up with the restrictions we had trying to watch TV in the 1970s.

As consumers we are arguably more in control, more powerful and more demanding than ever. We switch energy providers, change banks and even topple governments with the sort of regularity that could make your head spin.

So why, when it comes to our employment, are we still in the dark ages?

Sure, sure we don’t send kids down mines (although, that’s probably because we just don’t have any) and a combination of trades unionism and good management have made workplaces much healthier and broadly happier than in the days of Dickens, but has anything dramatically changed over the past 50 years?

Working life is an area where, as individuals, we don’t really have any control over what happens to us at all. What times and where we work, the equipment we use, how much holiday we are allowed to take and when, how much we are paid and even the benefits provided are all part of a rigidly controlled, hierarchical structure of command that places The Business first.

Of course The Business should be a fundamental concern but we must never forget that it is ALWAYS The People who make The Business possible in the first place.

So, isn’t it time to put people first?

I’m a little confused about why, as employees, we are so meek about demanding or even expecting a little more from our work. And I am stunned that this people first strategy is not ‘baked in’ to every MBA programme and enshrined in every good leadership book.

There are, of course, some good exceptions and perhaps Netflix is one of the most prominent. I have lauded their philosophy before simply because it places people at the heart of what they do, reinforcing the nine cultural values that help to make Netflix the agile and dynamic company it is.

If you haven’t already, read their weighty presentation on Netflix Culture, stressing freedom and responsibility. Here you will find a company that has swept aside the 9-5, abandoned a cap on holidays, ditched a rigid travel and expenses policy – all in favour of a much more simplistic, trust-based  philosophy of people first.

Their approach chimes with what Dan Pink has written in his much-praised book Drive. (And here is speaking at the RSA). You get more from your people – and more for the business – if you give them greater freedom and responsibility, provide a clear sense of purpose and help them to develop in ways they want.

Companies – and leaders – who realise the potential for this People First model will, I am certain, very swiftly reap great rewards. They will have happier, more productive and loyal staff, a more robust and agile business better able to deal with the rapidly changing marketplace and, significantly, a much healthier bottom line to boot.

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