How do you create a people-centric culture?

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Business exists to serve the client. While we all expect to make a living from what we do, it only works if clients get enough value to pay for that service.

So should you prioritise your people over the client?

Investing in your people and creating a people-centred culture is how you serve the client best.

When people are free to do their best work, when they have the technical and personal skills and when leaders remove any obstacles that waste time and energy, more effort can be devoted to getting it right for clients.

Yes, you can put in a tonne of process and ‘best practice’ but people simply get bogged down in paperwork.

Besides, process disconnects people from their true purpose, their intuition and their expertise. It all becomes about following procedure rather than doing what’s best for the customer.

A people-centred culture is one where leaders create an environment where people can do their best work.

Does training and development create a people-centred culture?

Investing in the training and development of your people is part of the picture. As Richard Branson said “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well-enough so they don’t want to”.

Obviously you want people with the technical ability to do the job. But development is more than that. Increasingly companies are investing in the personal development of their people.

They are giving them critical thinking skills, and coaching skills, and building their self-awareness. They are helping teams work better together, resolve conflict more quickly and have more honest conversations.

These are skills that some find easier to develop than others. But without them employees are severely limited.

It might seem like the return on investment of personal development courses for your people is hard to quantify. But you simply have to calculate the cost of losing a great employee because she couldn’t tolerate one member of the team, or the cost of losing a client because two teams in your firm can’t get along to see that giving people personal development pays off.

calculate the cost of losing a great employee because she couldn’t tolerate one member of the see that giving people personal development pays off.

Creating a people-centred culture outside of the classroom

Formal development is important but it’s what happens outside of the classroom that really counts.

As a leader, your job is to look at what stops people doing their best work.

From technology to too much process, your job is to remove constraints. Sometimes what stops people doing their best work is lack of skill in which case training and formal development will help. But sometimes the organisation itself gets in the way.

Is business a family?

We used to hear a lot about creating a ‘home from home’ environment at work. That never sat very well with me. For many people work is work. Home is home. They don’t want company barbeques and after-work drinks and an office bake-off. They’ve got real friends and family for that.

They don’t want company barbeques and after-work drinks and an office bake-off. They’ve got real friends and family for that.

At the same time, when you feel you can be yourself at work and that you don’t have to play a part or pretzel yourself in order to fit in you feel more valued. You can certainly add more value.

Getting the balance right is unique to your firm and to the individuals in it. Ask what people want. What would enable them to feel they fit in, that they are valued, and that there is a trusting and respectful environment where they can do their best?

Leaders create the culture

When there’s a mismatch between what people learn about listening, coaching, self-awareness and confidence inside the workshop and norms of behavior outside the workshop you’ve just wasted your money.

It’s the leaders in the business who create the culture. They should be first to get training and development. And before they expect anyone else in the firm to change, they need to demonstrate they’ve changed.

I’ve spoken to too many middle managers and junior staff over the years who’ve complained that they are expected to speak up, take the initiative and put customers first but when they try they are thwarted by the prevailing behavior of those at the top of the business.

It’s the leaders in the business who create the culture. They should be first to get training and development. 

These people need to see that their own leaders are on a journey of change too and that everyone is learning, trying something new and stepping outside their comfort zone.

Even if you consider yourself a people-person, you will have blind spots and areas of growth. And for the rest of us, with two or three decades of experience it’s easy to get stuck in our ways. We need to be constantly questioning whether what worked yesterday works today and how we can be the leaders our people need us to be.

A relentless task

Unlike replacing a computer system or redesigning the office space, creating a people-centred culture is never-ending. It requires leaders to really listen to their people and to be in service of their people.

As you address some of the most pressing needs you uncover another layer of obstacles. When you resolve a tension in one part of the firm you create a new tension somewhere else. You can certainly feel, at times, that there’s no way to make everyone happy. And you’d be right.

But if you don’t prioritise your people then they won’t prioritise their work with you. They won’t feel particularly loyal, they won’t talk highly of you when they are out in the world, they won’t go the extra mile and they’ll be constantly looking for another job where they will be properly valued.

It’s your best people you lose when you don’t put people first.

Blaire Palmer was a judge on the brand new for this year Investing in people category at the Accounting Excellence awards. 

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author, podcaster and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is also a judge in the new Investing in People category of the 2019 Accounting Excellence Awards. You can talk to Blaire about her leadership coaching or find out more about her work at


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