A Simple Philosophy

By John Hollon

Dec. 3, 2004

I’m the type of manager who struggles every year with buying Christmas presents for my staff. It’s always the same problem: Do I get the same thing for everyone, making it easier on me, or do I try to find something special for each person, complicating my task but making the gift more meaningful?

    This has been on my mind because I just read something by Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. and co-author of Managing for Dummies, on the age-old tradition of companies giving employees turkeys at the holidays. When you give every employee a turkey, Nelson says, “you are rewarding presence, not performance. To many employees, the practice thus becomes a mere rite of survival: they made it through another year with the company.”

    Sometimes, just surviving another year is something to celebrate. That’s probably true for American Airlines and CEO Gerard Arpey, whom we feature in “Back From the Brink” in this issue. Not only is American, the world’s largest air carrier, struggling with record-high fuel prices and the terrible economics of the airline industry, but Arpey is still fighting to re-establish trust with the company’s large, unionized workforce–a trust that was nearly broken by shortsighted management decisions in the past.

    To his credit, Arpey seems to understand how important his workforce is. He talks about tapping into the “unique perspectives and insights” of his workers to better serve customers and rebuild the airline. Although American has many jaded employees who have heard a lot of this talk before, Arpey seems to be making it work. Not only is American slowly rebuilding itself, but the air carrier has managed to stay out of bankruptcy–no mean feat in this day and age.

    When I read what Arpey has to say, I’m struck by the feeling that it didn’t have to come to this. No matter what product or service a company may offer, its most important asset is its people. They are the one sustainable competitive difference that can give a company an advantage over another. Why did it take so long for American Airlines–and so many other businesses–to figure this out?

    Howard Schultz is one guy who figured it out a long time ago. In this book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, Starbucks’ chairman says, “I know, in my heart, if we treat people as a line item under expenses, we’re not living up to our goals and our values. Their passion is our number-one competitive advantage. Lose it, and we’ve lost the game.”

    Enlightened corporate leaders who embrace this philosophy have seen how the benefits of building on people as a competitive advantage pays huge dividends. It’s why Southwest Airlines continues to thrive while rivals like American struggle just to stay out of bankruptcy. And it’s why Schultz has been able to build Starbucks into a powerhouse by doing something that people would have laughed at 20 years ago–charging $3 to $5 for a cup of coffee.

    As I struggle with my own challenge of what to give the staff this year, I keep coming back to the words of Bob Nelson, who says, “If we know one thing from years of research about human behavior, it is this: You get what you reward. …Ironically, the best motivators have little if any cost, requiring only some time, thoughtfulness and commitment on the part of the employee’s manager.”

    You get what you give. It’s a simple philosophy and a good lesson for managers to remember this month, and all year long.

Workforce Management, December 2004, p. 12Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with