Which Comes First, the People or the Business?

If you were starting a new company, would you start first with the people or the business? Most, I imagine, would opt for the latter. They would find a gap in the market to fill and then define the competencies needed to fill the gap. So what happens when your company becomes a member of the elite Fortune 1000 and you are looking for new growth opportunities? Do you start first with the people or the business?

Remember, your employee ranks have now grown to the thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands. The tendency for most organizations is to look first at their people and the assets they already have and then to assess what business opportunities match. After all, they figure it will be a monumental effort to change behaviors and thinking of such a large group.

I would argue, however, that companies should first assess the business and then determine how to get the people they need to grow in these new or emerging markets. From experience I can tell you your business will naturally gravitate to the new opportunities and your leadership team will become frustrated with "the culture," "those entitled employees," your "inability to move quickly or act with a sense of urgency."

Years ago I worked for such a company. We knew the culture was poor because our turnover was high and employee engagement was low. We wanted to be able to attract new blood, to bring in fresh thinking and create a more positive culture. Unfortunately, we didn't have tools in place to really understand our customers and the market. Instead, it was an internal effort to understand where the culture was and what it should be. We did surveys and focus groups. We even engaged an advertising agency to help us with messaging and to talk to prospective employees.

After much time and effort, we were unable to come to any position that would differentiate us in the market and allow us to be more competitive. In hindsight, I believe if we had looked at the market opportunities first, we would have taken a much different path. We might have acquired companies that gave us the people and culture we desired. We might have sold off mature parts of the business. We certainly would have managed the change for our current employees to bring them along.

Would we have lost employees along the way? Sure. Our problem, though, wasn't losing employees; it was losing our best employees and keeping those who needed a safe haven. I've worked for many years to help companies engage employees so they can execute better and deliver on their brand promise.

Of all the approaches I've seen companies take, an outside-in view is hands down the best.

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