Building Success by Putting People Before Profits

There is a lot of competition out there. Making a business stand out is often a frustrating and mysterious undertaking. But Mike Novakoski, President and CEO at Elzinga & Volkers Inc. (E&V) and author of “Become Unmistakable: Start The Journey From Commodity to Oddity,” has some words of advice: Put people before profits.

In his book, Novakoski describes the changes that occurred within E&V once the company supplemented a traditional left-brain management approach with right-brain behaviors. He recently spoke with YPO about how and why the company made the choice to lead from the heart.

What led to your belief that the company needed to take a more people-oriented approach? 

I use the analogy of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” In the opening scenes, Dorothy is living in a black-and-white, Dust Bowl world of Kansas, USA, longing for a happier life “over the rainbow.” Later, when the twister hits and sweeps her farmhouse off to land in Munchkinland, she departs the black-and-white portion of the movie and, as she opens the door, steps into the brightly colored, Technicolor world of happy people who are delighted to see her. I think a lot of companies create an environment that is like those opening scenes.

Yet I believed employees would thrive if their work was more like what Dorothy experienced in Oz: friends, joy, adventure. At the end of the movie, she is genuinely emotional as she prepares to leave. I would like to think that E&V employees might feel the same way when they exit our company after a long career: Sorry to leave because their life has been enriched with the experience and sense of shared purpose. So, that goal initiated our journey, and remains its essence.

In the book, you make distinctions between left-brain/right-brain, head/heart, numbers/people. Is it a matter of making a choice or encompassing both?

It’s both. Most of us are wired to bring our left brain to the office, but we cannot forget we’re working with human beings. We have to learn how to access that right brain; it involves trust and vulnerability and suggests we be being willing to take off the armor so others can follow suit. Of course, we can’t abandon our left brain — we need it at board meetings, for financial discussions or when addressing productivity metrics — but we also need to sincerely think and care about how people feel, not just how to manage them.

This perspective has been a great employee recruitment and retention tool for us and we have found that joyful employees are more productive. They regularly access the “discretionary effort” that our competition can’t get out of its people. As a result of our right-brain-justified approach, the positive impact on our bottom line more than satisfies our left brain’s interest.

E&V describes itself as “unmistakable.” What does that mean to you and the company?

We were having trouble describing ourselves to others, conveying that we are an oddity, not a commodity. So, we landed on the phrase “unmistakably different.” Our brand is to approach everything we do in a way that is unlike what others do. If someone hears a story about a contracting company that did something unique and special, we want people to immediately say, “Oh, that must be E&V. Nobody else does that.”

You like to hire people who are “hungry, humble and smart.” Why those attributes? 

Hungry people are driven, have lots of energy, look for ongoing educational opportunities and volunteer for projects. All employers want people like that. We also like to hire people who are humble because we find them to be the best teammates. They don’t feel the need to take credit or assign blame. And we apply smart to emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, relationship management and social awareness. We had been working on hiring for those attributes for three or four years but didn’t have the right terms for them. Then I read Patrick Lencioni’s, “The Ideal Team Player” and there they were.

What is the uMap you use internally? 

I attended an Innovation Management Certification program, in which I had to prepare a thesis project that addressed the question: Based on what you have learned in this program, what can you do that is dramatically different in the way you conduct business? I felt we were not doing a good job in conveying our business plans visually and connecting them to employees at all levels and I was also looking for a way to blend the uniqueness of each employee into the same document to get to know and care for our employees better.

So, I developed uMapping™, which is a graphical, right-brain-initiated document printed on a 11-inch x 17-inch piece of paper that each employee creates for himself or herself, providing a mix of company and personal information in up to 20 different boxes. About half of the information is left-brain in origin, covering things like company goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) in which the employee is involved; the “right brain half” covers the employee as an individual. He or she will create a unique commitment statement, set family and personal goals, identify mentors, etc.

The uMap addresses some very serious business topics, but it is also a means to get to know each other in unique ways. All employees are required to share things about themselves to create trust and vulnerability, similar to what forum does for YPOers. We may task employees with developing a graphic depicting their personal brand/icon and describing why it represents them. We may ask what their superpowers are at home and at work. We may request a favorite quote. Everyone gets to know each other better and it helps us put together effective teams. We have received so much interest in it, we will be making software available publicly later this year through our consulting company, Become Unmistakable LLC.

What advice would you give fellow YPO members who want to shift their company to more of a right-brain approach? 

First, I want to acknowledge how much I have gotten from my YPO membership. When I joined, I was quite introverted, but I knew that in my newly acquired leadership position I had to put myself out there and jump into the leadership community. Through my involvement, I have seen how enriching membership is, in a full-circle way — for the business, for my family, for me personally.

As for advice, I would recommend that YPOers use the tools and concepts of the forum within their companies to build trust and vulnerability. But, take it slowly. It has to be done in digestible chunks. Reveal parts of yourself, but start small, then gradually increase what you share. Have patience. Remember, time takes time.

YPO is the global leadership community of more than 29,000 chief executives in 130 countries who are driven by the belief that the world needs better leaders. Each of our members have achieved significant leadership success at a young age. Combined, they lead businesses and organizations contributing USD9 trillion in annual revenue. YPO members become better leaders and better people through peer learning and exceptional experiences in an inclusive community of open sharing and trust.