Why People are NOT your Greatest Asset

The Popular Lie

There are two problems with the popular statement, "People are our greatest asset."

1. People are NOT assets.
Not really. Balance sheet assets will include property, cash, stock, equipment, etc.
Unless you happen to be a slave-owner, you can't really own people's bodies; you can only rent their labour.

2. The value of people (and their potential) is easily overlooked.
Business meetings are typically focussed upon strategy, marketing, technology, finance and operations. What's going on with people is less likely to be on the agenda, particularly in distant boardrooms. When referred to as "headcount," they are counted as a cost. Removing some of them is often an expedient way to restore failing profits.

The Underlying Truth

People DO matter. Their brains and bodies can get stuff done and deliver value to the customers.

While deciding how many people are needed to do the work, what also matters is HOW they do what they do; their attitude within their activity.

And today, more than ever, it is about their ability to relate effectively. To each other, and to customers.

Where Value is Lost

Recently, I met with a Finance Director who believes that the CEO is making short-term decisions without considering the long-term impact on the people and the business. Whilst I could understand the FD's concerns, I was more interested in how he was expressing his frustrations. The language was all about the shortcomings of the CEO, and how the FD's own reputation might be compromised. I heard the words, "he" and "me" far more than "we."

As long as there are problems in how these two senior people relate, much of the potential of that business will never be fully realised. Until they recognise that their relationship can, and must, supercede their egos and personal agendas, they will not be able to bring the best out of each other, the wider team, or the business.

Where Magic Happens

Your greatest asset is NOT people. The real value emerges from what happens BETWEEN people. Wealth is generated by the quality of relationships within, and beyond, the business.

You can't build a strong wall with the best quality bricks but poor quality mortar. So why hire the most highly skilled individuals if they can't find a way to get along with each other?

A team of champions can lose to a champion team. This is as true in business as it is in sport.

What Every Great Leader Knows

Relating effectively depends on two things: trust and respect.

To master the skills of communication, influence and relationship building, there are three essential qualities required:


This is the opposite of certainty. Certainty shuts down productive dialogue and impedes learning.

It's been said that a mind is like a parachute - it only works when it's open. Curiosity is about being intensely interested in different ideas, insights and perspectives.

It's completely natural to make quick judgements about people and situations. In fact, we can't help it. The brain makes decisions before we are even conscious of them. That doesn't mean we can't question any initial judgement or assumption. Great leaders do.

There is a very simple way to develop your influence and wisdom. Have the willingness to go beyond your own perspective and seek to understand more about the other person and their perspective. You will gain two priceless things: valuable insights AND more of their trust and respect.

The attentive quality of your listening will be transformational for you, others, and the relationship between you.


This word literally means "to suffer with."

Most people suffer in some way. It may not be visible to us because they don't like to seem weak or vulnerable.

In lieu of them being open, it can help to simply to imagine possible sources of suffering in the life of another person. It could potentially be a personal health challenge, relationship breakdown, a child being bullied at school, a parent with dementia, a close friend or relative with terminal cancer, or financial challenges.

Remembering our own experience of suffering gives us a sense of humility and common humanity. It opens up our heart and we feel more connected to others.

As the famous quote from Ian Maclaren (but often attributed to Plato) says, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”


It is far easier to tell people what they want to hear. Sharing something that may challenge their preferred view of reality feels risky.

We may tell ourselves that we are protecting them from pain. Often, however, we are trying to protect ourselves. We are not sure how they'll react and so we play it safe.

We are afraid of making the relationship worse.

That is ironic. A deep, authentic and lasting relationship cannot be built upon lies and half-truths.

Real trust is built when we listen deeply to others and also share our current perspective, whilst recognising that it isn't ultimate truth.

No individual can see the whole picture, but between us, we have better vision. You can see things I can't, and vice versa. Sharing and hearing diverse points of view helps take us all a bit closer to truth.

Being honest without losing the trust and respect of another person is an art form. The best advice I ever heard on this is to "tell the truth with compassion." The risk is much diminished when people sense that we genuinely care about them, and are coming from a place of intrinsic equality.

If you're frustrated with another person, make a choice to view them and yourself with compassion (see above). Honesty with humility will achieve far more than anger and arrogance.

The Greatest Value Emerges from What is Most Intangible

People are important to organisational success, but ultimately it is what goes on between them that makes the difference.

In business and life, your greatest source of value is found in relationships. They are less tangible than people, and ultimately more powerful.

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