It’s Time To Debunk The Myth That People Are Your Greatest Asset

Leaders have trumpeted this worn-out buzzword phrase for decades now. And every time it’s repeated, it allows leaders to ignore working on the one thing that truly is their greatest asset, or in most cases, their greatest liability.

We never say people are our greatest asset-to them, to ourselves, or to the business world in general. We have the best people you can find, not because we use worn-out buzzword phrases, but because our beliefs lay the foundation for attracting and retaining great people.


Gallup agrees, “people aren’t your greatest asset”. But they mistakenly declare it is managers, as if managers aren’t people. And then they make this surprisingly inaccurate statement, “Every company has world-class managers” who help people “grow to maximum potential”. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

There are hundreds of very large corporations and thousands of small ones that have run for up to 60 years with thousands of self-managed Stakeholders and not a single manager in the place. So no, not every company has managers. And the data shows that in fact, managers are almost certainly your worst liability, not your greatest asset. Companies without managers do better by every metric.

Harvard Business Review also says, “people are not your greatest asset”, but then declares that “empowering your people” is that greatest asset. But just like the Gallup perspective, this is classic top-down, hierarchical thinking that demeans people by assuming that empowerment is granted by the lords and barons above.

Leaders can’t empower people. People are already naturally empowered by their own desire to contribute, and they arrive ready to do something significant. All we can do is suffocate their natural empowerment by acting like control freaks.

Your greatest assets are neither your managers, nor your gracious generosity in doling out some empowerment. The greatest asset (or liability) of any company, by far, is the business beliefs of the company as a whole.

You don’t empower people, and you don’t create culture. You simply live out what you believe, and that IS your culture. And those beliefs determine who you hire, how you treat them, and whether they ever engage in building a great company, not for you, but with you.
Everything comes from our beliefs-everything.

What do you believe? That determines whether people are valuable or not to you. All of these are self-fulfilling prophecies:

Business—Do you believe businesses exist to win (Microsoft), or to add value to the world around them by developing the best products and services (Apple)?

Leadership—Do you believe people need to be managed (making decisions for others), or led (given vision and allowed to make their own decisions as to how to get the result)?

People-Do you believe people are stupid and lazy like Frederick Taylor, who laid the foundation for all modern management, or do you believe people are smart and motivated and can be self-managed?

Work-Do you believe work exists to make money, or to Make Meaning?

Success-Do you believe success is defined by market share and revenues first and foremost (Microsoft, GM, Wal-Mart, most airlines), or transformational impact through great products and services (Apple, GoPro, GE Aviation, 3M. Davita, many others)?

If you believe people are smart and motivated, you will build a company and systems around encouraging and requiring that people live up to that, and you will have brilliant people. If you believe you as the leader, are more smart and motivated (a backhanded way to say they are more stupid or lazy), you will build a company and systems that encourage and require people to live down to your lowest expectations of them.

Companies need to stop hiding behind, “People are our greatest asset”, and then hiring people to fix their “culture”. Leaders need to start facing up to the real issue-the need to deal with their own belief systems about people, business, leadership, work and success. That’s harder work, but much more transformational and lasting.

What do you believe? Are people smart and motivated? If you believe they are, then you can stop beating the drum and reassuring yourself that people are your greatest asset.

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