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There’s a lot of talk of leading by “putting people first” but what exactly does that mean and how do you actually go about doing that? Putting people first is a philosophy backed up by a set of actions which prioritizes the people of an organization above all else including shareholder value and profits, even if it means that leaders must make personal sacrifices.

We hear about this a lot but rarely do we see it.

There’s a a restaurant near where I live called “Ole’s Waffle Shop” which is owned by Ken and Vickie Monize that employs around 40 people. The owners of that restaurant wanted to retire next year and build their dream house on land they purchased in Santa Rosa. Then the pandemic hit and their sales plummeted by 85%. The owners could have just closed their doors and retired early, but they didn’t. Instead, they sold their property and put nearly $400,000 of their own money into paying their employees so that they could survive during this difficult time. When you walk into the restaurant portraits of the employees line the walls to remind everyone what it takes to run a family business.

This to me is putting people first. The owners of this small mom and pop restaurant believe that their job, their responsibility, and their privilege is to take care of the people who helped build the business, even if it means they have to sacrifice personally. If Ken and Vickie Monize are willing to do this then why aren’t the many billion dollar organizations out there who are putting their people on the chopping block? If a waffle shop can do this, then so can every other company…if they are willing to sacrifice.

How to put people first

In the context of most companies, there are 5 steps they can follow to put people first.

Step 1: Understand what it means to be a leader

You are the lighthouse that guides other people to success in a safe way, your job is to help make other people more successful, even more successful than you!

Step 2: Know your people

Your employees are not workers, they are human beings with fears, dreams, aspirations, families, and passions. Get to know them!

Step 3: Focus on employee experience

There are 3 environments your organization can shape which are culture, technology, and physical space. You have to invest in and optimize all three to create a place where employees WANT not NEED to show up to work each day.

Step 4: Measure human factors

At Barry-Wehmiller, the 12,000 person manufacturing company, they don’t measure “head count” they measure “heart count,” to remind themselves that they are in the business of taking care of people. Whether you are looking at diversity and inclusion or overall happiness of your people, human factors are important to consider.

Step 5: Focus on purpose and meaning

We all want to feel like we are making a difference and are contributing towards building something great. Purpose and meaning are two different yet crucial aspects that make us who we are as human beings.

I’ll leave you with this quote from one of the co-owners of the waffle shop.

“You can’t just say goodbye and good luck to somebody that has worked very hard everyday to help you build a business. You just can’t say goodbye to that. You just can’t stay good luck. I hope you do well,” Ken Monize said. “It’s not in our vocabulary — we won’t do it.”

Lead on!