“The way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchases based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do.”

This philosophy – treat your people well so they can treat your customers well – has been at the core of many successful businesses of the last half-century, including Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, Home Depot, and Wegman’s.

The problem is I’ve yet to encounter a company or organization who doesn’t list their people as their most important resource. Yet, like me, you’ve more than likely worked for a company which said they valued people but never bothered to inform their people.

When There is One Story at the Top, and Another at the Bottom

I once met with a founder of an organization who described his employees as family. He talked about the meal they shared once a week, the collaboration they shared and the fun they had with one another. It sounded like a great place to work.

But I watched five young leaders, with excellent skills and dynamic personalities, leave that organization in a few short years. When I heard their side of the story, it turned out there were collaboration and shared meals, but not a lot of fun. The organization may have valued people to a point, but it valued the leader’s ego more. He was demanding and lacking self-awareness. His feedback was harsh and demoralizing, creating a toxic work environment.

As in many places, there was one story told from the top and another experienced on the bottom.

In organizations like that one, employees walk by motivational posters on a wall, which extol the organization’s commitment to their people, wondering what those words actually mean. We’ve all learned that words on a poster are cheap, but consistently embodying them is much harder to do.

And it’s not just hard to do when you’re small. It’s increasingly difficult as a company succeeds and expands.

The Trickle-Down Effect

You may have noticed I intentionally withheld the attribution of that introductory quote. You know who authored those words about front-line associates being the key to the company’s success?

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart.

Those words came from his autobiography, Made in America, published in 1992. In the book, Walton outlined the vision which drove his leadership at Wal-Mart and why he believed the company had succeeded.

Wal-Mart polarizes people. Regardless of your opinion of the company, though, I doubt they were your first guess before I revealed the secret author. Most people don’t think of Wal-Mart embodying the kind of philosophy Walton articulated.

So, how did Wal-Mart move from the vision outlined in that opening quote to where they are today?

In his 2011 book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek described his explanation. He believes Wal-Mart lost it “why,” leading to 73 class-action lawsuits related to wage violation. According to Sinek, the company shifted from a “why” which valued front-line employees to a “why” which valued low-prices, regardless of the “cost.”

In 2017, the New York Times published an article, outlining a report from a worker-advocacy group who found Wal-Mart “routinely refuses to accept doctors’ notes, penalizes workers who need to take care of a sick family member and otherwise punishes employees for lawful absences.”

I don’t have a Wal-Mart ax to grind; I stopped in there to pick up a couple of items last week. But, after reading about these struggles, I looked at the employee’s faces in a new way.

And I came back to my office, where I lead my organization, with a fresh perspective as well.

Any leader can say that their people matter. Any HR department can list their purpose as caring for the people who serve the organization. But, truly valuing people is a high calling and the higher you go, and more you succeed, the harder it gets.

Cultivating a Consistent Narrative

Leaders need to go looking for the truth — even when the truth makes us uncomfortable.

So, what can a leader do to ensure the same story told at the top is told at the bottom?

Create a Mechanism for Feedback Without Penalty

Whether this means a 360 feedback system, company-wide survey, or aggregation of performance reviews, leaders need to go looking for the truth — even when the truth makes us uncomfortable.

Ensure that What Makes People Feel Valued is Most Important

I meet leaders all the time who are shocked by the gap between what they think matters to their people and what actually matters. Often, it’s a small adjustment or an inexpensive investment which makes all the difference. Gary Chapman revolutionized relationships with his love language paradigm. He helped millions understand that people give and receive love in different ways. Wise people learn how the people around them receive love and adjust as a result. It’s not about how we value people – it’s how they experience value.

Shift your Approach to Valuing People

While I was engaged, a friend told me an old joke about a wife who asked her husband after many years of marriage if he loved her. The husband replied, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day and I’ll let you know if that changes.” Apparently for that guy, saying it once was enough.

But anyone who is (or has been) married knows differently. Valuing people isn’t a destination; it’s a never-ending pursuit. In the same way that we cannot simply tell our spouse we love them just once, we need to value people consistently and continually.

If Sam Walton was correct all those years ago, the future success of our organizations depends on the way we people on the front lines.

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash
Cultivating a consistent narrative is a leadership challenge. How do we ensure that the story told from the top is what is experienced at the bottom?