People are not your biggest asset

You read the headline right. And it’s true.

In his book “Good to Great” Jim Collins presents the research that bears this out.   I re-read it the other day, and his work still holds up.  He says clearly: “PEOPLE are not your biggest asset.  The RIGHT people are your biggest asset.”

That one word makes a big difference.

Who are the right people?

They are problem solvers — they know the details and the history of our legacy processes and applications.  They keep our operations running. If they are a little rough around the edges -– if they don’t always communicate or do things like handle office politics well -– it’s a small price to pay.

Or they are the keeners.  Anytime there is a problem they hop to it, dive in and are totally committed to solving the issue.  Business areas love them.

They the loyal ones, the ones who are always on board, always willing to stand by you even when the going gets tough. These are the “keepers.”

But are the best people always the right people?

It’s easy to forget; those with excellent technical skills or who know an application inside out are solving legacy problems.   As long as your future looks exactly like your past, maybe these are the good people – for you.    But are they right for new and future challenges?

Likewise, “keeners” have a great attitude, but have you ever thought that some of them are great at problem solving but never get around to fixing the root causes of problems.

We all love loyalty.  But are your loyal people testing you and challenging you?

To be truly the right people there are requirements for technical skill, attitude and even loyalty.  But are these really the next generation skills?  Not entirely.  We need more.

Tomorrow’s technology challenges aren’t necessarily technical.  When data warehouses were being built, technical skills were essential.  But today is the secret of big data really technical?   Aren’t analytical skills more valuable?   What’s the use of big data if we don’t get big insights?

Another example.   We’ve been driving towards an increasing knowledge of the business for years. In dealing in an everything “as a service” world, where business needs change faster than we can possibly document them, we need business acumen.

But the right people are more than the sum of knowledge and skills.

They also know how to listen, and how to push back.  They challenge us.  Ultimately we trust them not because they are so loyal to us or even to the company – if that’s still possible.  We trust them because they are committed to a shared goal and sense of purpose.

For years we’ve struggled with how to manage and motivate employees.  Did that ever really work?  Today the right people don’t have to be managed or even motivated.

Pie in the sky?  Idealistic?  Not a chance.  I used to have an imaginary sign above my desk.  It said, “Do I look like a people person?”  This is not idealism.  It’s what I’ve learned over the 35 years I’ve been doing this.

What changed me?  I was fortunate enough to have worked in what could only be called a truly egalitarian company in my mid-career.   This company got the idea of the right people. I was equally fortunate to have had a great boss and mentor who helped me.  Why?  It scared the hell out of me.  Our people spoke their minds without any sense of hierarchy.  It became clear very early that you couldn’t maintain a leadership position without the support of your “staff”.  This firm took 360 degree reviews seriously.  It took forever to hire someone –  they had to be right.  It scared me and frustrated me, coming from a more command and control environment.  It also taught me a valuable and humbling lesson.

If we don’t have the right people, it might be because we aren’t the right person.

All of us have to adapt – not just mouthing the words, but reflecting what we say in our actions and in our beliefs.

The right people have built in BS detectors.  The right people don’t need and don’t want to be managed or even motivated – but they will accept being led.  There is a big difference between managing and leading.  You have to earn the right to lead.

The third wave of technology is only in its infancy.  I doubt that many of us can even imagine it in its fullness.   Our business – the business of information technology is changing in ways that we can’t even imagine.   So is what we expect and need from people.  So are the attitudes of the work force.

We have to change as well.  The first step is realizing it’s necessary.  Not everyone does.

There will always be those who are in denial.   A recent Gartner survey found that 23 per cent of CIOs said their company would never go to the cloud.  Of course, a recent Fox news poll found that 19 per cent of people were not absolutely certain that Elvis is really dead.

There will always be those who think that nothing is really new.  They’ll tell you that cloud is just a return to days of a central mainframe.   If you think the computers of today are like Babbage’s “differential machine” because they both solve problems with binary processing, then nothing is new.

The right people aren’t in denial.  They aren’t struggling to assure themselves of sameness or to find certainty.  The right people are willing to step out into uncertainty.

If there is one aspect of our modern world that is certain it’s uncertainty.

Once again, I’ve been fortunate to have at least a glimpse of the future of continuous uncertainty and transformational change.   In digital publishing, the tsunami happened years ago and it’s not letting up.

I was at a symposium a few weeks ago where people were asking who considered themselves a truly digital company.  I put up my hand – and only then realized just how far we had come.  I’m not pretending we are fully there, but we are as close as anyone is.  For one thing, we got out of print long ago.  It’s no big deal now, but when our president, Fawn Annan, announced that we were abandoning print, you could have heard a pin drop.  We did this long before it became common wisdom or financial necessity.  It was bold and by no means certain.  It was scary.

As it turned out that we were just scratching the surface.   Over the past few years, everything right down to our basic business model has changed dramatically.   Every one of those changes has been one where the answers and even the timing were uncertain.  Transformation comes with no guarantees. Fortunately, we’ve had the organizational courage to not only make the changes but to make them work.

I think one big reason that we have been able to stay ahead of the curve and implement changes is that we have the right people.  Not just in leadership –  but across the spectrum    As Jim Collin’s said, “When you don’t know where the bus is going, make sure you have the right people on the bus.  First who, then what.”

When you don’t understand where you are going, the right people are your biggest asset.

It’s easier said than done.   As I pointed out earlier, it’s easy to confuse best and right.  In the past I’ve fooled myself and I’ve paid for those mistakes.  I’ve held onto people with technical skills to avoid the pain of losing them.  Yet somehow, when they did leave we survived.  I’ve encouraged the keeners who always had time to pounce on problems, who always earned kudos, but who were too “up to their ass in alligators to drain the swamp.”  As a result, I’ve fought a lot more alligators than I had to.

It might have worked in another era.  Twenty years ago, things were moving fast, but somehow there was time to recover. In this truly digital world, the future is coming like a runaway train.  And it will transform us.  Before long, cloud will be ubiquitous, mobility just another fact of life and big data will reach its true promise  And that’s just the start.

The hard fact of life in this new era is that we simply don’t have the time to relearn old lessons.  Nor will we have enough resources.  We’ll never have the all the time we need so we better focus on the right things.  We’ll never have enough resources, so we better have the right ones.  We can’t afford to keep fighting alligators.

The good news?  It is possible to survive and maybe even thrive in the midst of all this if you continually work to ensure that you have the right people.   We have never stopped asking ourselves the tough questions.  Do we have the right people?  Are we investing in getting and keeping the right people?

We ask this question regularly.  A few days ago, we reviewed it again.  As we went from person to person in the organization, I was truly amazed at the answer.   Time after time we heard ourselves say – these are the right people.

I’ve been part of great teams before, but nothing like this.  It hasn’t been easy.  We’ve had to take tough decisions to protect our biggest assets at a time when we need them the most.  If you are lucky enough to have one of those moments – when you can look around know that you are surrounded by the right people – take a moment and enjoy it.  But you can only a moment.  The right people know it’s a continuing journey.  And that’s okay with them.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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