Are We All Replaceable?

Recently I watched a video of the US leader of a Pharma client of ours, where he shared the best advice he was ever given. He mentioned “treating employees like customers,” and how it changed his approach to leading and managing his teams.

Like many, I’m sure, I’ve had the experience of being treated like a cog in a wheel in some jobs (not my current one!). And we’ve all heard, “Everyone is replaceable.” Sometimes we hear it from the same people who tell us, “Our employees are our most valuable resource.” So many companies focus on keeping their shareholders happy and their customers happy, and their employees may actually come in a distant third.

In a nod to the late 90s TV show Sex and the City, I couldn’t help but wonder: is everyone really replaceable? And if not, how should we treat our employees and colleagues?

Are we all replaceable?

The New York Times published an interview a few years ago with a successful businessman who started out working for his grandfather. When the grandpa wanted to teach his employees a lesson about being replaceable, he asked this man to bring him a bucket of water and put his hand in it. When he took his hand out, the grandfather said, “See that hole left in the water? That’s the hole you’ll leave when you leave here.”

It’s a pretty demoralizing lesson. In all my reading around this topic, I only found one example of “being replaceable” seeming like a good thing: an entrepreneur who wrote that being replaceable allowed potential buyers to see that the business he was selling wasn’t entirely dependent on his presence in it.

If we want to build a culture of belonging – one in which colleagues are engaged and feel valued – how should we treat our employees and colleagues?

What are the options?

One option, as mentioned by the wise Pharma leader above, is to treat employees like customers. His point was that people have many employment options. Your best employees, of course, have the most – and are perhaps the least replaceable. Taking an “employee-first” approach helps you retain the talent you already have, and inspires candidates and new hires to commit to your mission.

How do we treat employees like customers?

Companies spend a lot of time and money asking customers what they want and need. Why not do that with employees too?

To treat people like they aren’t replaceable, we first of all have to get to know them. What are your employees’ unique strengths? What energizes them? When are they at their best? And companies must support managers to do their best to engage, motivate, and inspire their staff.

Here’s a tip: according to one study of 360,000 people around the world, people quit their jobs not because of too much work, but because of too much uninspiring work. Most of us want work that helps us feel connected to a bigger mission or purpose.

To give an example from my own career, many years ago I was a retail buyer in charge of seasonal products for a national chain of stores. While the work was creative, I wasn’t inspired by promoting Halloween merchandise, even though I was quite good at it. Of course, I wanted to perform well for my employer, but the work wasn’t satisfying my need to do something of consequence and value. Helping employees see how their work connects to a larger purpose and allowing them the freedom to be creative and to problem-solve gives them a sense of accomplishment and engagement.

So what, and now what?

Treating employees like customers honors their individuality and contribution. It signals that you know they have options, and that you would prefer they opt to stay with you. It shows that you care about them as people, not just employees – which lets them bring their whole selves to work. Employees who are engaged produce better results. They take better care of the company’s customers, too, leading to more loyalty on the outside as well as on the inside.

Engaged employees who are connected to the company’s purpose will stick by you in tough times. And goodness knows, we’ve had some tough times in the last 18 months.

So now I’ve offered a few tips on how to treat your employees as customers – what tips do you have for our readers?

Get in touch