It’s the people, stupid!

By | November 19, 2012
Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The phrase ‘it’s the people stupid!’ came to mind recently.  Watching the recent US elections I was reminded of Bill Clinton’s famous phrase that supposedly helped him win the election in 1992.

The key question for businesses across the world is how are businesses going to grow and develop as (we hope) global economies continue to grow and develop?  I am certain it will come down to the skills and capabilities of the people in those businesses and the companies that succeed will be the ones that support those people seriously.

At Bradford University School of Management we sponsor the “Outstanding Employer” category in the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards and one of the gratifying things is that it allows us to spend time with such excellent businesses.  Everyone entering is an excellent example of how to get people management right.

These winners and finalists showed us some key principles that as a human resource management researcher I know are critical for ensuring long term success – and all revolve around that old adage, ‘people are our greatest asset’.

1. Grow from within

Properly supported, your existing staff are the bedrock of future growth.  Plusnet, purveyors of ‘good honest broadband’ and the winners of this year’s award have experienced significant growth and see staff across the company as key to this. As it has grown, most supervisory and managerial roles in the company have been filled from within and colleagues are motivated by the opportunities this creates.

2. Exceed expectations

Courtesy of Limehouse

Courtesy of Limehouse

Limehouse, who produce corporate communications, did not make our shortlist this year (though Nick Howard won the young entrepreneur award), nonetheless stood out for their ‘big company’ feel.  It’s a business with just ten employees but presents itself and sets its expectations for colleagues as though it were a much bigger business and gain they see this as a key driver of their success.

Likewise Gordon’s, who did make the shortlist, sets out to be radically different from other law firms and their explicit focus on meritocracy and communication is evidently seen as more than might be expected by their staff.

3. Investment pays off.

Plusnet’s growth has come from within but that’s gone hand in hand with development for those people to ensure they have the skills and capabilities needed for the company’s future. Gordon’s  has invested in apprenticeships to bring new talent into their business outside their traditional roots, and Elmwood – a Leeds based design and branding agency, previous winners of this award and again shortlisted this year – have training focused on helping managers ‘be a better boss’.

We saw lots of other great examples too, the consensus amongst these outstanding employers is clear – we have to support our staff in doing their jobs as effectively as possible and that will help make us successful as a whole.  In times of change this is more important than ever.

4. Make it fun


Making a workplace fun is doubly important when times are hard. Elmwood stood out in this regard with programmes like ‘Knights of the Elm’ (which recognises employee achievements and is voted on by colleagues) acting as a focus for colleagues.

Plusnet have a games room and a canteen (with free lunches) in which staff can congregate and relax in their downtime. Great employers also seem to have a strong social side to their workplaces – and support this for the ties it creates rather than seeing it as a distraction from operations.

5. Meaningful relationships

All these businesses and the many other excellent businesses we saw but I have not had space to mention, also shared one other characteristic in common. There was a genuine and lasting commitment to meaningful relationships at work. That’s not dating or marriages, but meaningful employee relations.

Group of diverse business colleagues enjoying successIt is clear that really outstanding employers work in partnerships at all levels, with employees, with unions, with all the stakeholders in the employment process. By working collaboratively we can create real benefits for all involved.

This is the key principle informing our new MSc in Employee Relations: a better understanding of the employment relationship comes from getting stakeholders together and sharing perspectives across the workplace. This part-time programme has been designed and developed in consultation with the new Employee Relations Institute and its stakeholders in business and unions to be an opportunity for participants to engage in meaningful debate and impact on effective employee relations in their own workplaces.

None of this is difficult, nor is it exactly radical. It comes down to valuing people and showing them that value in authentic ways. I’m sure these are not the only practices we could highlight – what others have you seen that really bring out the best in employees?

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


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