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Why People Matter In Business

In business, people matter. Or at least they do until they aren’t the thing that matter the most any more, the leadership team is. That’s the first thing to fix. Can your leadership team engage in constructive conflict?

We’re often reminded that ‘great businesses are built with great people’. It’s true but sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially when you’ve got your head down pushing your business forward. Trying to make that much needed money.

I was fortunate enough recently to be at a talk by Tom Peters, and it reminded me again of the importance of people, and how leaders can enable others to feel engaged, happy and fulfilled.

Group of people against the sunset

If you don’t know who Tom is, he’s a fantastic author. He wrote the best-selling book In Search of Excellence, which Bloomsbury UK called the ‘Greatest Business Book Of All Time’. So, it’s good. Give it a read. In it, Tom, and his co-writer Robert H Waterman Jr, study some of America’s top businesses, looking at what makes them so successful. So, at this talk, Tom was reminiscing about the characteristics of the amazing companies he’s spent time with, revealing what they all have in common. I wanted to pass on some of the tips I learned:


All these successful businesses train their staff, or what Tom describes as their Sergeants. Imagine an army, he said. Any army can lose all the Generals and all the Colonels and all the Lieutenants, but if it lost the Sergeants it can’t go to war.

Person behind a stack of books

Tom advises you take 50% of your executive development budget and spend it on front line managers. It makes sense, because for a large proportion of those front line managers, especially in a start-up or scale-up organisations, this will be their first and maybe only management position. They may not have been taught how to coach people, they might have been at organisations where they had a bad manager so they picked up the bad habits and are doing it that way too, and then their team starts to think that’s the way to do it. There’s often no training on hiring, no training on the daily or weekly habits you need to be successful. Front line managers need to have those skills. People leave managers and join companies so let’s make sure we create amazing managers people want to work with.


    Tom found that, when looking at great companies, one of the things that stands out is how they treat their part-time staff. There might be legislative requirements around part-timers and how you have to treat them, but companies like Nordstroms for example treat their part-timers extremely well. They matter just as much as anyone else. What they realise is that everyone works together for the good of the company, whether they are there for 5 hours or 5 days a week. It’s a bit like going into a restaurant to look at what their toilets are like. How a company treats their part-timers gives you an insight into their business and values.


    Setting ‘Learning’ as a core business goal is another way companies can engage staff. Businesses often have ‘Respect’ and ‘Partnership’ as core values but actually, Tom thinks that ‘Learning’ is the fundamental one because it’s at the core of building respect, building partnerships and is vital to building a big business.

    Soft is hard and hard is soft

    If I suggested that 50% of your time should be unscheduled you’d probably say “half my time? What about all the stuff I need to get done?!” Yes, we all think we’re busy, but this one makes a big difference when it comes to staff engagement. Tom’s got this concept of MBWA (managing by walking around). It’s about using the soft skills, the interpersonal skills, and doing what’s right for the employees and customers. It’s this soft stuff that’s hard because it’s another one of those things that isn’t taught. You go to school and you learn stuff, you learn spreadsheets, you learn business, but business schools aren’t teaching leaders what the soft stuff is. Great companies have worked that out and are doing it, and are doing it well. Just walking around is one of the most important things a leader can do but it’s also the most fun.

    I know that from my own experience. There are days when you might be jet-lagged, or the kids have kept you up all night, or the dogs woke you up, whatever it might be, and you get to work and you are feeling a bit exhausted and on those days I just wouldn’t do any email. I would try to not do any meetings because I know I’m not going to be making much of an impact. Those are the days I would just go sit on the corner of someone’s desk and chat. Tell stories. Connect with people. Often you’d end up with a small group of people and you’d just start a conversation about something. You could end up addressing worries, myths about changes in the company, find out what people are really thinking. It’s doing away with that ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ — instead of being at the top of the pile, blissfully unaware of what the ‘Sergeants’ are really feeling, you get out amongst them to build relationships and connect. You’re hearing what’s actually going on that you might be totally unaware of.

    Neon thank you sign

    Tom has learnt that good leaders do just that, they say ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’. They don’t hide behind the corporate bol***ks in terms of apology. And they just say thank you. Tom mentioned the power of handwritten notes, and I absolutely know that myself. I’ve had employees in the past who’ve kept notes in their draws for years. It means something. I’d like to say I’m good at that, but I’m not good at saying thank you. Whenever I write a personal development plan on it goes! I need to say thank you more. I don’t know why it doesn’t come easily to me, it does to others, but I find I have to remember to do it. I don’t have a problem saying sorry, but thank you is hard!

    There’s so much we can do to engage employees, and create a successful team. Google has an interesting case study called Project Aristotle, which asks ‘what makes a team?’ They’ve got a lot of smart people at Google, happy at work, but not all of their teams were effective so this project looked at group dynamics, skill sets, emotional intelligence and personal traits to try to work out what it is that makes teams effect. They came up with these factors:

    Psychological safety — we’ve got to have a sense of trust inside our team. We’ve got to feel safe enough to admit a mistake, to be able to ask questions, offer new ideas and contribute. In many team meetings there’s often a quiet one, or a domineering one, and what Google found was that it was important to have equal airtime. Everyone on the team needed to feel like they could contribute.

    One tip to help build safety in a team is start every meeting by sharing good news. Something from every member of the team. Then have a team member ensure that everyone in the meeting has equal talk time. These two things will immediately improve all your meetings.

    Dependability — people making commitments and delivering on them. In amazing teams people say ‘I’ll do that’ and they do. It comes back to the 5 Dysfunctions Of A Team, which Patrick Lencioni sets out in his book of the same name. Are people making promises they can’t keep? And if they do, do the team hold them to account? Google found on effective teams people made promises to do things well and they did. There was a level of team accountability.

    Structure and clarity — people need goals. Challenging, obtainable, specific goals. Often these are OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Ask: what am I doing today? What is the most important thing I’m doing today? What contribution am I making to the team? How does that impact the week/month/quarter/yearly targets and purpose of the organisation.

    Meaning — a sense of purpose. Look outside the team and ask: why are we doing this? Is it important? Does it matter to somebody? Does it matter to our customers, to the world, are we making a meaningful difference in some way and what’s my personal piece of that? Is it about financial security, or perhaps about supporting the family? Self-expression? Having a purpose helps the team succeed. To me, this is in some ways like values. You can’t train a Blackpool beach donkey to win the Grand National. You have to start with the right stuff. Skills can be acquired but values are fixed.

    Impact — the results of one’s work. You’ve got to set objectives and then see if you meet them. And those results have to be impactful. That comes back to managers, communication, praise, some transparency around doing a great days work and did I know it was a great days work. Could I measure it? How did it fit in? And did I make someone else’s life better?

    I look at those and think, well, that’s obvious (and you may be thinking just the same!), but what Google and Tom have done is made it all really succinct. I believe that if you can adopt some rhythm and some clarity, and you have objectives, a set purpose, transparency and set roles for people to play, then I think you’ve got an effective team.

    What else makes an effective team? A-players. This is actually one area where I disagree with Tom Peters because he hates the term, A-player. I don’t. What it means to me isn’t the top people in the firm, as at GE, it means the top 10% of talent you can attract to a role for a given salary, in a given location. These are the only people you want in any role and the aim is to have all your team as A-players. Why would you try to build your team with anything less?

    I always ask “would you enthusiastically rehire your entire team?” If the answer isn’t an unequivocal yes, you don’t have a team of A-players.

    But the big ‘thing’ for me, the one that stands out, is around psychological safety. That feeling of confidence that everyone in the team can make a contribution and make a mistake. To feel part of something. It’s important. And it doesn’t cost a thing.

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    Written by Certified Scaling Up Coach DominicMonkhouse — founder of Monkhouse & Company. Found out more about his work here.

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