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January 15, 2024 | 12 Mins Read

6 Pillars of a People-First Strategy that Delivers Results

January 15, 2024 | 12 Mins Read

6 Pillars of a People-First Strategy that Delivers Results


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

I am a huge advocate of the move toward a leadership style and company culture that honors the fact that they can’t accomplish their ultimate goals without their people and makes effort to truly respect, reward, and empower their teams. As such, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Caroline Häggström Marklund, Managing Director and VP Customer Services Nordic at Vattenfall, at the October Live Tour event in Stockholm.

From the moment I first spoke with Caroline, I knew her statements of prioritizing a people-first culture had real authenticity and action behind them. With the correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction becoming clearer, we’ve fallen trap to many leaders and organizations who make empty claims of being “people-first” without an ounce of effort to back those claims up.

Vattenfall Customer Service is an example, however, of a company getting it right and its accolades don’t lie. Vattenfall won the Swedish Union's HBTQI award for most inclusive workplace, best service in the energy sector, and has earned its Great Place to Work certification. Lucky for our Live Tour attendees, they got to hear firsthand from Caroline what has elicited these awards and, more importantly, the right to claim people-first and mean it.

Reflecting back on our conversation, I see six key themes that stand out as foundational to what makes this work well rather than fall flat.

#1: Understanding & Accepting the Need

The companies making false claims are the ones who see employee engagement, satisfaction, and a people-first culture as buzzwords they “have to” care about; not as an opportunity to think and do differently that can pay dividends.

The reality is, due to the impact of the pandemic, generational ideals, talent shortages, and much more, a people-first approach is simply what’s needed today. I truly believe that companies who fail to embrace this reality will fall behind their competitors that do in short order.

“First of all, I think it's about common decency: Treat people well overall and in general, in business and in society. I think that's just what you do,” says Caroline. “But we've been through decades of automation and lean processes, and the tasks that are in our hands now are way more complex than what they used to be. In order to sort that out, people need to feel enabled and engaged. Also, when work is more and more relationship focused – relationships with customers, with the clients, within the organization, with colleagues and all of that – no matter what AI, our job will always be to sort of maintain relationships. If you're going to maneuver that world, I think you need to be given a lot of trust and freedom. It would be weird of me as a leader to say that I know exactly what all of the 400 people here in this organization need to do, because I don't. But I need to trust them that they know what to do if I tell them what the final goal is. I think a more complex environment, a more harsh overall climate in the world is leaning us towards this.”

In our complex and dynamic world, a prescriptive approach doesn’t lend itself to the agility needed and it stifles the creativity employees bring to problem-solving, brainstorming, and innovating. Like I said, the time for a new way has arrived – it’s just a matter of accepting it.

#2: Authenticity & Top-Down Support

One of the big points of caution that Caroline shared is to never, ever say you want to be people first – or, even worse, claim that you are – without being willing to do the work.

“It's about authenticity in a way, I think. That goes for, I mean, whatever culture you want to build. Sometimes I think that we don't realize that even if we don't sort of state what culture we want to have, we are still creating a culture just by acting in a certain way,” explains Caroline. “A people-first approach, to me, it's all about trust, and the people in my extended team and my closest team, they need to trust that I will put them first when the shit hits the fan and even before that. Therefore, it's about relationship, it's about trust.”

What happens when companies make the claim of focusing on or being people-first without any of the actions that make that claim a reality? They damage whatever trust they already had from their employees, and they lose respect, negatively impacting employee morale, company culture and often performance.

“If I want to earn people's trust, I have to be what I say I am, because if I'm not, it's hollow. If I state that I want to drive a people first culture and then act differently, then this is not going to have any power; rather the opposite,” warns Caroline. “In my view, it's like say that you want to do it and don't do it, it's the worst thing that you can do if you want to create something like that.”

While authenticity in the objective is critical, so too is top-down support – because an individual leader can believe in this approach wholeheartedly but struggle to take actions aligned with that belief if it isn’t shared by top-level executives.

#3: Trust the Payoff Will Come

Caroline stressed to me that there was one myth she wanted to be sure to address in our session, and that’s that a people-first strategy is soft or “fluffy,” not a path to achieving concrete, bottom-line impact. This simply hasn’t been her experience.

“Especially in customer service, it is all about relationships. If your people aren't comfortable or safe in their environment, how are they going to be able to have an open dialogue with a customer and do what is needed to do?” asks Caroline. “So, we started the journey of people and then performance because I am a firm believer, and now I also have clear evidence, that if you as a leader focus on enabling your people, setting them up for success, then the performance will follow. You need to measure it obviously, but you don't have to be ‘there’ if you're ‘here.’ Include and trust in people; it will come much easier.”

At the core, the belief is to stop prioritizing profit over people and trust that if we focus in the right ways on our people, the performance and profit will follow. Trusting this belief is something that more and more companies are beginning to do.

Caroline shared a story that illustrates how Vattenfall really built the momentum with this in her session. If you’d like to listen to the full story, you can find it on our podcast – but to summarize, early on in this initiative there was a problem with performance tied to staffing that needed resolved. Caroline took the steps she felt would resolve the issue, and it did not. The teams looked at her questioning what she’d do next, and she stated simply that she didn’t know – she needed them to tell her what they needed to succeed. This was a point where they realized her intent was genuine and that she wanted their input. They weighed in, she delivered what they needed, and the measurable results spoke for themselves in this approach being effective. Moreover, this was a turning point for building the trust that is necessary for the people-first model to work.

This piece can be tough for a lot of leaders who are pressured to make numbers and hit short-term goals. That’s understandable and something that needs to be navigated, but the example Caroline shared of what happens when you trust the process paints a clear picture of what’s possible.

If you missed our podcast with Venkata Reddy Mukku, Vice President Worldwide Service & Support Organization at Bruker Nano Surfaces & Metrology, it’s another conversation that deep dives into not only his believe in a people-first strategy, but details on how he executes and what the benefits have been.

#4: Create – and Enforce – a No Assholes Policy

This next one might raise some eyebrows, but it has to be said – to make good on a people-first strategy, you must create – and enact – a no-assholes policy. To be honest, this is one area where I feel a lot of organizations with initially good intentions fall short.

The excuses start to feel like reasons, and next thing you know it’s – oh, we can’t get rid of them, they are a top performer. Yes, they are causing some issues with morale but they’re so-and-so’s hire, so we’re sort of stuck. Yikes, they aren’t effective but it’s a really delicate issue.

No. Just, no. For this to work, really work, you have to eliminate the toxicity that exists among the ranks – and that means all the way from frontline to top levels. As Caroline mentions, this is not only not easy, but it also requires executive support.

“At first I needed to do a little bit of a structural change and move leaders that stood for the former culture basically. It was also clear that they were not willing or able to be authentic in the new world or however you want to put it. That was one thing. It was important in order to really establish this culture of people first, I wanted to make it really clear that harassment or any kind of demeaning behavior to others is absolutely unacceptable,” explains Caroline. “We needed to move away from if you were a brilliant mind that created a lot of business, but in the process of doing so, you belittled others or stepped on others or were even mean to others, you were still sort of like a high performer. In my world, that doesn't add up. A high performer is a role model as well as delivering business value.”

This initial wave of change gave way to the formal no-asshole policy. “That's when I introduced the no asshole policy. If you're an asshole, you will not be promoted. If you act in that way, you will not be seen as a high performer. You need to be both. That was quite effective I think, but you need to then act on it,” she urges. “To stand behind what you say, then you need to have, when someone brings up that they have been harassed or have been in an incident or something, you need to dive into it quickly and deal with all the things that come your way then and not try to move past it. This was not easy. I mean it was a lot of discussion also in my management team when we did performance evaluation like, ‘But he's so great and then he does all of this.’ It was a shift. It was not easy.”

Not easy, but we all know sometimes the most important changes are the hardest ones.

#5: Confident, Vulnerable & Humble Leadership

Putting in place a people-first strategy or culture isn’t possible without not only authentic but adept leadership. And the leadership skills that work well in a people-first world are often different than those that worked well in a command-and-control type environment. So, what’s important?

What I took from Caroline’s retelling of her efforts at Vattenfall is that she’s confident but humble. She believes in the approach, she believes in her ability to lead well in a people-first environment, but she’s aware that she doesn’t have – or need to have – all the answers and must welcome and embrace the input of her teams. “My ambition is to have a people-first culture, but that doesn't mean that I will always make the right choice, right? I'm only human and I can make mistakes and I can communicate things in a way that doesn't make sense and absolutely doesn't feel people-first. Therefore, it is really important to me that people talk to me when they feel that. We want to get to a full-on people first culture, but I don't claim to be perfect and there will be mistakes along the way.”

She also stresses the importance of being genuine: “Don’t try to be something that you aren't because you will never be able to fake it in people's mind. Self-leadership and self-knowledge are super critical. If you want to lead a people first culture, you need to make sure to know what kind of culture you are actually driving or developing just by being who you are. If it is what you want it to be, then that's fine. If it's not the culture that you want, then you probably need to change your behavior first. Ownership of your own behavior I think is important.”

I don’t see this as being about abandoning what feels sincere, but rather finding out how to be you while also being willing to grow as a leader, evolve, and adapt your strengths to what works well in today’s world.

You do have to reconcile that it’s really tough to be people-first without getting personal. “I want to know my organization and I don't want to know it by PowerPoints. I want to be able to greet people and recognize them. It's getting more and more difficult the more we get, but at least meet the people in their onboarding and talk a little bit and get a connection to lower the bar for people to come to me if there's something going on that I would need to know. Getting to know people, show that you actually care.”

Building the relationships that make this approach work demands leaders to be a bit vulnerable. “You can't build a relationship based on facts, you need to build it on feelings,” says Caroline. “That doesn't mean that you have to be emotional in a sense that you're crying or raising your voice or whatever, not that kind of emotion, but just be aware that there are feelings all around. I don't think that's soft. It can be uncomfortable because you have to show who you are as well and what you are thinking or feeling about things, but you can never build a culture if you don't show who you are. That's been a journey for me personally as well.”

#6: Reflect & Course Correct

As Caroline pointed out above when owning that she won’t always get things right, the goal in becoming truly people-first isn’t perfection, it’s intent and progress. This means that reflecting often on the state of things and being constantly willing to course-correct is imperative.

“The feedback culture, the feedback loop is so critical for us to move past obstacles that come our way and for me to learn and be better. It's not just about the organization developing and growing, I need to develop and grow as well,” says Caroline. “If you're not humble or willing to receive feedback, you will not get it. If you never get feedback, I think that's a red flag.”

As you reflect and course correct, Caroline suggests coming back to your core values. “If you wonder what kind of culture you are driving at the moment, go back to your core values. What are the things that are really important to you, that have basically always been important? You were taught this when you were a kid or by a role model at school or whatever. That is a process to get close to your core values,” she explains. “If you don't really know or you aren't really sure, which is pretty common, then reflect over the things that makes you really, really mad. When something ticks you off to the end that you get really mad or frustrated about it, then you've probably met someone or something that shows the opposite of what your core value actually is. You can turn that around and do some self-reflection. I think that is a good start in self-leadership and then driving culture.”

Caroline’s point about reflecting on what makes you mad reminded me of talking with Cait Donovan of the Fried Podcast when she was a guest – she talks about how there’s power in resentment, because it’s telling you something so important. This example of self-reflection shows, again, how leadership is evolving and the thinking that lends itself to really progressing a people-first strategy.

In addition to an individual leader maintaining an open feedback loop with their teams, it can be really helpful to combine that with a company-wide assessment of employee engagement, satisfaction, and feedback to make sure that a people-first approach isn’t being adopted in just one area of the business but across the board.