The decision to cultivate a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. Because it is not a project, you will never be done. You will always improve and refine the way you implement your people-first culture. If you’re thinking about embarking on this journey, I hope you’ll find this post helpful.

Phase One – Articulate your vision

First, let’s recognize that there is not one correct definition of what it means to be a “people-first” culture; therefore, each organization must define what it means for that organization. If you don’t start there, how will you and your employees know what you’re building toward? Second, let’s recognize that having a people-first culture is not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. A culture can become more and more people-first over time.

Here are some questions that will help you decide what “people-first” means to your organization:

  1. Who are the people you’re thinking about? Employees? Customers? Suppliers? Job applicants? Community members? All of these groups?
  2. For each of the groups you care to include in your thinking, what would their experience with your organization be like? What would be happening and not happening? For instance, what would it be like to be an employee? Or what would it be like to be a customer?
  3. If your culture were becoming more and more of a people-first culture (as you visualize it in your business), how would you know it? What benefits do you expect to see? How will you measure or assess your progress?
  4. Are there some areas in which our organization already takes a people-first approach? What are they? What are the benefits for your organization? What has enabled the people-first approach in those areas? What can you learn from those successes about how to expand this to other areas?

Answering those questions is not easy, and, therefore, might take some time. But if you’re thinking about becoming a more people-first culture, the time invested here will pay dividends for years to come. If you do not invest the time required for phase one, you are unlikely to succeed.

Phase Two – Identify areas of focus and action steps

  1. Once you’ve articulated your people-first vision, ask, “What are one or two areas of low-hanging fruit, areas in which we can create some quick progress?” Then create action plans for each identified area.
  2. Benchmark other organizations to discover people-first practices you can bring into your culture.

Phase Three – Institutionalize people-first

  1. Include people-first as the most important element in your management performance evaluations and compensation reviews (otherwise, it’s not… um, first).
  2. Collect and share stories about successes and high points related to your people-first strategy.
  3. Recognize and reward all employees who contribute to making continuous progress on the people-first initiative.
  4. Over time (possibly a lot of time), review all policies, procedures and practices to ensure they exemplify your people-first culture. You don’t have to eat this elephant in one bite. Just continue to make steady progress.
  5. Implement a selection process that helps you identify candidates who are a natural fit for your people-first culture.
  6. Part company with employees who are not a fit for your new culture, most particularly leaders and managers who do not fit.

The amount of time it takes to make substantial progress will vary greatly depending on a company’s size, the state of its current culture and other factors. The journey will be different for every organization. As I said at the beginning of this post, cultivating a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. It’s a fundamental stance, based on your value system. If you make this part of your “true north,” I believe you will make your organization healthier and healthier over time.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with building a people-first culture.

Larry Sternberg


 Larry Sternberg is the co-author of  Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), a handbook for hitting the sweet spot of middle management. He also serves as the Talent Plus Fellow, performing duties as an oft-requested speaker and consultant.

SCROLL TO TOP