Are Your Employees A Means To Your End?

By Edward D. Hess,
Distinguished Executive in Residence and
Adjunct Professor of Management, Goizueta Graduate School of Business

Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia


Your true beliefs and attitudes about your employees will ultimately increase or decrease your probability of building a sustainable high performance business. Let me repeat, even more directly to get your attention, the amount of money you will make depends in large part on how you treat your employees.

Your first reaction will be “Well, I am fair“; “I do pay well“, “I pay market“, and “My benefits are market.” Money and benefits are not enough by themselves. Money will not buy loyalty or sustainable high performance. Employees want respect, dignity, to be listened to, to be treated as important, to be valued as someone with something to contribute and they want you to be fair, honest, and trustworthy. Lastly, employees want their work to be meaningful and to feel they are part of something special. Your first reaction may be “who needs this touchy-feeling stuff?” Or, “Those feelings are the province of family, friends, and church.” Think again!

You can read all the leadership, management, or motivational books you want, but unless you truly believe that your job as a leader is to serve your employees, you will not act accordingly or consistently.


Unfortunately, in the business world, the prevailing view is that employees are assets to be managed and controlled – assets which are disorganized, undisciplined, and lazy unless a good manager uses “tuff-luv” to bring order, discipline, and standards to bear. In this model, leaders must be strong, all-knowing role models for the followers. Command and control, charisma, strength and toughness are key components.

Results, numbers, and shareholder value are the key drivers. This leadership philosophy is rooted in history, philosophy, and underlies the historic command and control management theory which has dominated U.S. business since the days of the automobile assembly lines. I suggest that you can build a high performance organization with high standards and with GREAT results with a different model.


A different leadership model is growing which is based on values-based or servant leadership. This model states that if you treat employees with respect, dignity, and trust they in turn will give the same back to you and be excited about contributing in a meaningful way to the business. This model values employees as people worthy of dignity and respect; values and seeks their inputs; gives meaning to their work so they can be proud of what they do; and changes work from being simply a job that pays the rent to something more meaningful.

Think about this. When have you performed at the top of your game? What job experiences were fun, exciting, and meaningful? Under what conditions do you look forward to going to work??? I bet it is when you feel like you have impact; when you feel like you are contributing to something important to you; when you are with good teammates; when your contributions are valued by others and you are told so; when your input is sought, respected, and taken seriously; when you trust your boss; and when your efforts stand for and represent more than making money. Why do you think your employees feel differently than you feel?

Your challenge as a leader and business builder is to create those same feelings in all of your employees. And you cannot do this unless you have the right attitude and belief about your employees as people. THEY ARE NOT A MEANS TO YOUR END ($$$$); THEY ARE THE END RESULT.

Being hard-nosed business people you ask – well, who does it this “new way”? In my judgment, Synovus Financial Corporation, Chick-fil-A, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Charles Brewer did it at Mindspring and Horst Schulte did it at Ritz Carlton.

Let me quote from Jimmy Blanchard’s (Chairman of Synovus) Letter to Shareholders in the 1998 Annual Report:

“But we are striving every day to make our workplace better for our team members, to make sure they know somebody gives a darn about them. It’s the right thing to do. Our value chain begins with our people and our customers, and ends with value for you. Our shareholders‚Ķpeople respond when they know someone really cares about them and appreciate them. They just do.”

Does it work? Yes, for example, check out Synovus’ financial history yourself. Everybody from the CEO to the cleaning person wants to be appreciated and valued. On Sunday, March 14, an article in the New York Times said the great New York Yankee baseball manager Joe Torre almost quit because he did not feel appreciated by the owner. It is universal.

As I look back over my 33 years in the business world, my best bosses:

1) Cared about me as a person and acted accordingly;
2) Helped me grow, achieve, and be successful;
3) Said “Good job” and “Thank you” often; and
4) Removed bureaucratic or political obstacles from my path.

They were there to help me be all I could be. They served me – not vice versa.