“Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer.
I think you build one with your employees first.”

—Angela Ahrendts

The first mission of a modern company should be to advance and enhance the lives of the people who work there. All other corporate value creation is derived from this central priority.

Companies that do this become “employee-centric.” They reach every goal and responsibility of a great corporation through the mastery of this first mission. Only on the wings of thriving employees can twenty-first-century companies soar.

I learned this by accident as the CEO of one of the oldest family businesses in America (Hancock Lumber, founded in 1848).

In 2010 I acquired a rare voice disorder (spasmodic dysphonia) that made speaking difficult. Suddenly I was forced to let others, eventually everyone, become our collective corporate voice. Over time, the more focus we put on strengthening the voices of our employees, the better we performed. This was the birth of our employee-centric mission. Help employees feel trusted, respected, valued, and heard—and everything else just happens. It’s magical, simple, and now tested. In the 10 years that followed we outperformed the previous 160.

So, what did we learn?
What are the rules of creating an employee-centric company,
and what changes occur when you become one?

First, the rules:

  1. The mission changes. The new mission is irresistible. Make the work experience highly meaningful for the people who do it. The old mission would have been about something like sales growth or shareholder value. Those are still important, but they are now wonderful outcomes of a higher calling.
  2. The top corporate metric changes. A new mission requires a new metric. Since enhancing the employee experiences is the new mission, measuring that experience as defined by the employees themselves becomes the new first-priority metric. We accomplish this through third-party engagement surveys. The national average for employee engagement is 34 percent. Ours is 88 percent.
  3. The purpose of listening changes. Listening, not talking, becomes the new management priority (thank you, voice disorder!). But for this to be effective, managers must adopt a new reason for doing the listening. Listening is for understanding, not judgment.
  4. A safe culture for people to say what they actually think is established. In a company driven by listening, it is essential to make it safe for people to speak with their authentic voice. In this approach, an employee perspective is not “right” or “wrong”; it’s simply valued and honored as it stands.
  5. Ego is transcended. It is here that business ceases to be a modern-day Roman Colosseum where “work warriors” prove their supremacy through conquest. Instead, the company becomes a place where adults gather to learn, share, create, experiment, find meaning, add value to the lives of others, and grow. In this model managers become facilitators, not gladiators.
  6. Sustain these rules for thirty-six months from the top of your organization all the way to the front line and back again, and you will become an employee-centric company.

When you become employee-centric, here’s what will be different:

  1. Everyone will be sharing the responsibilities of leadership.
  2. Ideas will be overflowing and acted upon in countless dynamic ways across your organization.
  3. Discipline and commitment to accuracy, best practices, and core operating systems will increase exponentially. People support what they help to create.
  4. The heavy lifting of running a company will become lighter for everyone.
  5. Most importantly, meaning—real, deep, authentic, human meaning—will have been injected into the very core of your corporate existence. What it means to be a business will have been reimagined. Advancing humanity is what your company does now.
  6. Corporate performance takes off as the outcome of a new, and higher, calling.
  7. In the process, winning is redefined. Winning isn’t winning unless everyone is advancing.

* * *

This all sounds irresistible and universally beneficial. So what would possibly prevent a corporate leadership team from pursuing this mission?

The answer is the same thing that has tripped up humans and their leaders for eons: ego, overreaching, the inertia of the status quo, and a lack of deep appreciation for the full potential of the individual human spirit.

Humanity advances one human at a time.  As a result, companies can learn to thrive by simply putting their focus on the human beings right in front of them—their employees.


“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines
of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

—Martin Luther King



Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.


This is the thirty-third post in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021. Kevin is dedicating these writings in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk. To invite others to join The Business of Shared Leadership and receive these posts, just pass this link along. The more who join, the deeper the energy field of engagement will become! Thank you!