Just as great French pastry starts with flour, butter, and milk, great businesses start with three essential foundational ingredients: 1) respect, 2) profits and 3) growth. Many business leaders take profits and growth as the only de rigueur ingredients for business greatness. Few fully appreciate the power of respect and its influence on the durability of a culture. Yet, it is this last that underpins the durability of an enterprise.
Without the right people, a business is doomed to mediocrity. A great business attracts great people – and then keeps them by empowering them to do their best rather than preventing them from doing their worst.
The essence of respect is empowerment. Great businesses extend respect – to employees, customers, suppliers, creditors, investors. Respect shows itself in trusting people with responsibility, making them accountable for results, and giving credit for success.
At a fundamental level, all of us feel respected when we've become a trusted member of a winning team, when we're listened to, and when we have a role that makes a difference – and are rewarded for our contributions. This requires that leaders recognize that today's knowledge workers are "volunteers" with lots of options and a natural preference for meaning. Providing meaningful work is, thus, a measure of respect — one that can't be faked, one that's not a single-season phenomenon.
For managers bewildered by millennials and what makes them tick, it takes little more than the realization that they want to be engaged in something meaningful, to have a path to relevance, to be refreshed, taught, shown respect.
Meaning can come from many sources at work, but the two most satisfying and reliable derive from: (1) giving people a chance to learn and to grow personally, and (2) providing associations in which people genuinely like and respect their leaders and develop bonds with one's teammates.
Getting the RESPECT ingredient right starts at the top. Leaders must embody the values of the enterprise — where the business spends its time, its money, and its mental and spiritual energy. The hardest part of demonstrating respect is a commitment not just to get the right people on the bus, but also gracefully to help some off the bus at the next stop. Businesses that build up "deadwood" out of fear of removing unproductive employees can never achieve sustainable greatness.
In the world of greatness, heart matters. How people feel about their jobs, their associates, their leaders matters in building an enduring business that is as dynamic as the markets within which it operates.
Just as with a toddler learning to walk, great business leaders know that there will be stumbles with newly empowered employees. But without the stumbles that lead to walking confidently, the prize of running a sub-four-minute mile cannot be won. Thus, great businesses find a way to learn from failures, to make them a prelude to success, to attempt the next peak. As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has written, great businesses "disrupt" themselves. But this can mean an occasional "losing season" on the way to the Hall of Fame.
Leaders still have to figure out when to grow, how to redeploy assets, when to cut losses, and — hardest of all — when to make personnel changes. The matrix of skills required of them — foresight, courage, humility, transparency, caring — are all essential; but they are rooted in the respect of taking a chance on empowering people as a necessary starting point for enduring greatness.
Commentary by Joel Peterson, chairman of JetBlue and a longtime consulting professor at the Stanford Business School. He is also author of the new book "The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds That Make a Business Great." Follow him on Twitter @JoelCPeterson.
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