Investing in human capital or in new technology? Is it the same?

Investing in human capital or in new technology? Is it the same?

By Jo Hawkins Donovan, for SBT’

Listening to the executives I coach, I’ve come to believe there is a continental divide among business organizations. That is between the companies that see investment in machinery or commodities the same as investment in human beings, and those that see a marked difference between commodities and human beings.
I have problems with the term "human capital." For that matter, I have problems with the term "human resources" – that’s how much of a stickler I am.
People at all levels of corporate life have said to me, "I’m just filling a slot. If I leave someone else will fill my slot and they won’t even notice the difference." This happens in multi-nationals and small local businesses.
So I’ve come to believe there are business owners who do, indeed, see no difference between, "We need to retool everything in our Third Avenue operation" and, "Let’s replace everyone in middle management throughout the US."
People who feel like they are "filling a slot" are not motivated to play at the top of their game. They don’t connect their work to any larger purpose in the organization. They don’t think it’s any big deal if they call in sick as long as the manager can find someone else to fill in. They are quite sure that their superiors have no idea of the strengths and talents they possess — or if they are married and have kids or not.
I’m not talking only about people at minimum wage jobs — senior managers and "up" have told me that they work in this kind of impersonal culture where they are treated like commodities.
A tremendous amount of research results would proclaim that this doesn’t work in the long run. If the leader sees the people as "pegs in a slot," I believe the organization’s clock of destruction is ticking. As Alfred Adler said, "It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is from among such individuals that all human failures spring."
I’ve referred in previous columns to Robin Sharma’s book, "Leadership Wisdom from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari." Sharma states — well, he actually proclaims — leaders must be liberators, not limiters of people’s highest talents.
He says that putting people first is the wisest leadership lesson you can ever learn.
Many other texts and research projects conclude that the bottom line is enhanced when people in the organization feel appreciated, feel noticed, known, treated with deep humanity. One simple outcome of this kind of leadership that always hits me is the public relations factor. If one of your employees is at a holiday party and is asked, "Well how is it for you, working over there at United?" What would she say?
Everyone who receives a paycheck from your company, from senior vice president to maintenance staff, knows at least a couple hundred people fairly well. Those people are going to hear either that your firm is one helluva great place to be Monday through Friday. Or they could hear the opposite:
"I’m always looking for a better job. They don’t respect any of us there, all they care is just do the job faster and don’t make any waves."
"I could tell ’em a lot of ways they could save money and make production smoother, I’ve got some great ideas, but they could care less what I think."
"I have a hard time just trying to feel good about myself."
I’ve spent some hours listening to what such people want. They don’t ask for anything unreasonable.
They want to be listened to – really listened to.
They want to feel that the leaders are interested in building them up – not driving them down.
They want to feel good, even great about themselves and know that they can produce good, even great results when they do feel that way.
They want to trust the leadership to keep their promises and speak their truth.
They want to feel that their superiors care if they just got some bad news from the doctor, or their kid won a full scholarship to Notre Dame.
They want to feel appreciated for their special talents, for creative thinking, for going the extra mile.
They want to know how their efforts connect to a big purpose, something they can get "juiced" about, something they can talk about to their family and friends, with pride.
They want to feel committed and noticed and safe.
Don’t you?

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay, and can be reached at 414-332-0300, or The firm’s Web site is Hawkins Donovan will respond to your questions in this column. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

Dec. 26, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Christine McMahon
Christine McMahon helps leaders develop strategies and improve speed of execution by developing leadership talent, creating alignment between business functions and improving communications and accountability up, down and across a business. She is co-founder of the Leadership Institute and is in partnership with the WMEP. For keynote presentations, executive coaching, sales and leadership training, she can be reached at:

No posts to display