Q: After a decade of military service, I am familiar with the importance of intangibles like morale and personal growth. In fact, I am developing a consulting company that will focus on developing these intangibles while capitalising on the growing trend of corporate fitness. The biggest challenge I face is trying to effectively translate the intangible into the tangible in order to build a client base. How do you measure intangibles in your businesses? How might I help other companies to see that investing in their human capital will pay bottom-line dividends?
- Remy LeGuin
A: Success in business requires an understanding of all sorts of intangibles, especially the most enjoyable parts of work, like cooperating as a team and keeping morale high. Your goal of making businesses more profitable by helping employees to achieve their full potential is a great one, and could be very rewarding.
To move ahead, you have some research to do and choices to make.
Here’s some data that might help: A recent Gallup study found that worldwide, only 13 per cent of employees feel engaged at work.
The research also found that companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22 per cent higher profitability, 10 per cent higher customer ratings and 48 per cent fewer safety incidents.
How can companies increase engagement? An insightful New York Times article by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath included a survey of more than 12,000 employees that identified four drivers: physical (having the opportunity to recharge); emotional (feeling valued); mental (having the ability to work autonomously); and spiritual (feeling connected to a higher purpose).
At Virgin, we address all these areas.
We give our people real autonomy, and celebrate their achievements by identifying star contributors, highlighting brand ambassadors in our internal newsletters and hosting parties for individual employees. The newsletters and parties also provide context and information about why we do what we do, and what we’re accomplishing.
We encourage employees to take advantage of flexible work hours: They can opt for alternative schedules, to work from home, or to work from one of our other offices. We also foster physical activity through initiatives like discounted gym memberships and in Britain, by using tax incentives to encourage employees to bike to work.
We listen to feedback from our employees which we gather through conversations and satisfaction surveys. We also measure success by referrals, since there is no stronger endorsement than when an employee tells a friend or relative that a company is a great place to work.
How can you help other companies to see that investing in human capital will positively affect their bottom lines? First, it can be difficult to convince people of the effect of intangibles. Look at what other firms in your area of interest are doing. What solutions are they offering?
Then you’ll need to focus on how best to get your message across. One way might be to make it personal: When you pitch your idea to potential clients, offer to distribute an employee satisfaction survey - the client will usually be surprised by the results.
But don’t just tell them about data: A powerful pitch is always more effective than a detailed PowerPoint presentation.
If you have stories to share about how your work has resulted in great employee feedback and referrals, that’s one great way of turning intangibles into clear evidence. Your goal should be to address what your listeners really care about, rather than just the bottom line, and then back up that passion with a few hand-picked hard numbers.
You need to believe in your service and its potential to help the companies you’re pitching to. Don’t just look to capitalise on whatever management buzzwords are popular at the moment; your potential clients will sense how superficial your concern about the topic is.
Instead, focus on the areas you believe in, like improving morale and achieving personal growth, because that will help you to speak from the heart and win clients over.
Success in business is all about people. Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage. Remy, this is where you come in: to help make the magic happen. I hope you show them a trick or two. Good luck!
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.