Every day, somewhere in America, the chairman of a corporation stands in front of the stockholders, pounds his or her fist on the podium, and proclaims, “People are our most important asset!”
Meanwhile, back at the Human Resources office, a personnel jockey is shoving resumes through a key-word scanner like so many soup cans at the grocery checkout.
People are our most important asset.
Yah. Between a company’s public relations, investor relations, human resources, and marketing departments, American business has turned into a voice-mail menu system where your call is very important to us, and thank you for holding while we figure out what the hell to do with you.
Yah. You’re as important as the poor suckers who work for us and as important as the professional community from which we recruit… more suckers.
A reader drove this home for me the other day. Here’s the story of one “most important asset“:
Ford Motor Company ranks employees on a 4-tier scale which estimates how much management potential they have. I was a 4, the lowest. Essentially, an engineer forever. People almost never changed tiers… as though (imagine!) managers didn’t want to admit they might make a mistake in their initial rating of people.
Tier 1’s were “golden children” — they could screw up massively, but they still got promoted. Anyway, after finding out I was a 4, I wanted to move up the list, so I found Ford’s “Leadership Profile” web page — what they said they wanted in their employees as traits of future leaders. Things like:
- Thinking beyond your own job
- Thinking systemically
- Willing to take risks
- Trying to innovate
- Willing to challenge the status quo
So — naively — I started to do what was on the list. And I got majorly slammed for it. Here’s what happened.
I attended a meeting about how to interact with customers more effectively. We were told “The Equation.” Profit = Price – Cost.
OK, I buy that. But then we’re told that we cannot affect the price we charge. That’s determined solely by the market, so our only hope of increasing profits is to reduce costs. Now, I have no problems with reducing costs, that’s a good thing… but it becomes a game of diminishing returns eventually.
So at this meeting, in a huge room, with managers facilitating the discussion at each table, I chime in with, “Wait, we CAN affect the price we charge if we have products that are differentiated with respect to function, quality, speed of service, and just the ability to make those parts that our competition can’t handle. If we have differentiation, we can use that as leverage to charge more.”
The manager looks at me, and replies, “That’s just business theory. We’re talking about facts-on-the-ground.”
Me: “But that relegates us to the status of a commodity product across the board. Our customers will beat us against our competition until we have no profit margin left, having given it away trying to buy the business.”
The manager gives me a cold stare, clearly looking at my name tag. I shut up — and that afternoon, at home, I start updating my resume because, as I told a few close friends, “Get me outta this chickensh*t outfit!“
I can imagine the huge black mark next to my name in some file somewhere. I left Ford while I was still a 4. I’ve been gone for quite some time now. I think Ford has been, too.
Ford Motor Company posted $2.7 billion in losses in 2007, laid off 40,000 workers in the past three years, and has abandoned a long-standing goal of returning to profitability in 2009. The reader worked there a few years ago.
People are not the most important asset at companies like Ford. The assets these companies are trying to manage include conventional wisdom, complacency, excuses, fear, jargon, public relations blather, fear, advertising slogans, and fear. They oughta put this stuff in their job descriptions and in their job postings.
Meanwhile, like our friend the engineer, the 1’s who are tagged as 4’s because they dare to perform like valuable assets are looking for companies that know what to do with 1’s (other than shove their resumes through the key-word scanner). Any takers?