In Pursuit of Impact: Choosing Zebras Over Unicorns
A $7.8 trillion opportunity
Eighty-five percent of employees worldwide are disengaged. A 7.8 trillion-dollar problem, estimates Gallup, equal to 11% of the global GDP. What’s worse: despite an annual $100 billion invested in the US alone to improve the situation – from free massages to elaborate software solutions – the needle for employee engagement has barely moved.
It’s no surprise that building a human-centric organization as a possible remedy has become a hot topic. Promising 32% higher revenues, 2x faster delivery of outcomes, increased customer satisfaction and employee retention*, businesses large and small are trying to transform their cultures to become more human centric. Unfortunately, building a human-centric organization sounds easier than it is. Turns out that there’s one leadership shift necessary – one fundamental change that can determine whether an organization is able to put people first, or not.
IBM research states: “An ideal human-centric organization aligns everything it does to the needs it fulfills for the people it serves.” Defining ‘the fulfillment of human needs’ as its success criteria, human-centric leaders place humans – employees, customers, and community members – front and center of organizational values and decision-making. Not profits or shareholder value.
To build a human-centric organization, leaders need to shift their primary focus from earnings and financial results to fulfilling stakeholder’s needs. Not just as an action item in their strategic plan, but because they fundamentally believe that by putting people first, their organization will succeed financially.
This profound shift in focus asks of managers across an organization to have the conviction that at the center of any organization are its people; human beings rather than human doings, each one seeking to express their unique talents, fulfilling their hopes, and dreams.
Patagonia is a good example for the requirements and also the positive impact this shift can have on an organization: in placing their purpose “to save our home planet” rather than profits at the center of its focus, everything at Patagonia revolves around that purpose. While other companies place purpose on the back burner when financial performance is in question or tough decisions need to be made, Patagonia stays true to its north star. Processes, investment decisions, even Patagonia’s legal setup are designed in line with its purpose: from encouraging people to back political candidates advocating for the environment to donating Patagonia’s entire Black Friday sales to organizations with an environmental cause.
To build a human-centric organization, leaders need to shift their primary focus from earnings and financial results to fulfilling stakeholder’s needs.
This consciousness shift – from profit to purpose in Patagonia’s case, and from profit to people when building a human-centric organization – can be a challenging step. Especially challenging, because our brain – in its programming to seek out danger to ensure our survival – urges us to refocus on profits and margins instead of people when situations become challenging. To make a human-centric organization stick requires a conscious effort for managers in an organization to make this shift.
Aside from moving the human in the center of our organizational focus, we’re confronted with another question. If the success criteria of a human-centric organization are to fulfill our employee’s, customer’s, or the community’s needs, how can we find out what their needs are? Furthermore, how is it possible we fulfill those needs in a systematic way, so that leaders can still dedicate time to building the organization – or maybe even have more time to do so because their people are happy and engaged? We’ve researched hundreds of organizations across the globe, worked with business leaders and human behavior and neuroscience experts to answer these questions.
We discovered that inspiring and human-centric organizations fulfill four basic human needs that allow their people to thrive: self-expression, connection, contribution, and growth. When these are met, people don’t want to leave an organization. They can be themselves, belong, make a difference, and grow individually and financially. We asked countless of professionals over a period of 12 years. Not one said they’d want to quit that kind of a workplace.
The graphic provides a model for bringing this into your organization and to systematically build a human-centric culture. In order to accomplish that, leaders need to ensure that all four areas in the circle are balanced:
1. Individual Leadership for Self-Expression through personal development and self-awareness practices that help individuals understand their values, drivers, and purpose, and align their work with what truly matters to them.
2. Team leadership for Connection through practices that build trust, help navigate conflicts, foster accountability and improve communication in order to create a culture of collaboration and inclusion.
3. Organizational Leadership for Contribution through a systematic approach to create a purpose-driven culture within the organization, assisting leaders and individuals in understanding how their values and purpose contributes to the purpose of the organization.
4. Business Leadership for Growth through conscious business practices driven by social responsibility, sustainability and values-based decisions; providing people with financial security and a pathway for growth.
Consider Buurtzorg, the self-managed home-care organization in The Netherlands. The company has grown to 11,000 employees, outperforming its competitors in growth, care quality, and customer and employee satisfaction. Buutzorg’s secret lies in providing an environment where its people can thrive (self-expression), where they can genuinely connect with other team members (connection), where they feel inspired to provide the best care for their patients (contribution), and where they play a key role in their growth (safety/growth). Buurtzorg is “self-managed”. With only 10% of the overhead of comparable organizations, CEO Jos de Blok has created an environment where he’s not focused on creating strategy, annual plans, and meeting company goals, but to create a place where Buurtzorg employees can thrive – and in turn provide a service to their patients that no other home-care organization matches. By focusing on people, the organization succeeds in every way.
Building a human-centric organization is compelling – and it’s hard. If you ask any leader about the hardest part of their job, they’d likely include ‘people management’. Even for the best, emotionally intelligent, empathic leaders – it’s still a hard job.
Everyone joneses for the good parts of a human-centric culture, but there is a price to pay. The price manifests in difficult moments: when growth is sluggish, when shareholders demand restructuring, when organizations must reinvent themselves. These are times when leaders need to stick to human-centric values they established; when they need to consider all five areas from above circle when making decisions. Human centricity requires courage to make the right decision that serve the organization long-term, even at the risk of losing short-term.
But do we have a choice? With employees disengaged, businesses challenged to rethink or die, and our environment degrading, we don’t. Sooner rather than later, we need to take a stand and ask ourselves one question, which will allow us to unlock the benefits of a human-centric culture: can we trust that our organization will thrive when we replace our focus on financial results and “getting things done” as the measuring stick fulfilling our people’s deeper values and needs?
The Mezzanine Fund
June 29 - 12:00 PM EST
Founder, Impact Investment Exchange (IIX)
June 15 - 12:00 PM EST
Nicole Middleton Holloway, Lisa Renstrom, Kate Simpson, Stuart Valentine
July 20 - 12:00 PM EST
News & Events
Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates about new Magazine content and upcoming webinars, deep dives, and events.
Become a Premium Member to access the full library of webinars and deep dives, exclusive membership portal, member directory, message board, and curated live chats.