We’ve never been a company who cared much about growth for growth’s sake. “People first” isn’t just a slogan for us; it has been fundamental to every decision we’ve made over the past 12 years (both decisions that had positive outcomes and decisions that didn’t work out so well). So when it comes to thinking about growth, I feel a deep tension between caring for the business and caring for people.
Since we work mainly with teams that would also define themselves as “people first” (whether or not they use that term), I’m well aware this isn’t just a tension I feel. It’s a tension most of us feel who care about impact, not just in the scope of our reach and the level of our profitability, but in the true impact our work has on all the people it touches. As our CFO Mark Brault says, “Business isn’t about money—it’s about people. It’s people who do the work. It’s people who buy the product.”
So what does it mean to be “people first”? It’s not just about prioritizing people above all else. In that case, the phrase is vague enough to become essentially meaningless. Which “people” are we talking about? Customers? Team members? Owners? Shareholders? Vendors? People who supply the many resources we need in order to do our work?
Or maybe it’s people who work in the same industry? Members of our local communities? People who share our values or our beliefs? People who live in the same country we do? People who live on the same planet?
Maybe we can know and understand all of these people and try to build a business that takes every one of their perspectives and needs into account, or maybe we decide that some of these people we are responsible for, and some we are not. Maybe we try to take care of the people we know and try to do as little harm as possible to the people we don’t know. But still, this gives us no clear direction.
For us at &yet, in the words of founder (and my business/life partner) Adam Avenir, “People first is about recognizing that every person involved in something is an individual with their own desires, wants, dreams, and limitations. We acknowledge that people are people, first.”
People are people, first.
People are not resources to be managed. They are not machines to be optimized. They are not even a “they” that can be summarily explained as a group. We, as people, are human beings, and we are individuals.
“Despite everything our inheritance may tell us, work is not and never has been the very center of the human universe; and the universe, with marvelous compassion, seems willing to take endless pains to remind us of the fact.” - David Whyte, The Heart Aroused
To be human is to be many things that business culture barely takes into account. We’re a strange, creaturely bundle of needs and desires, soul and mind and body. We may seek to divide ourselves into different parts to give ourselves boundaries between “work life” and “home life” or to allow ourselves to play a professional role that’s a departure from the roles we play within our family and community systems. But we always bring the full complexity of who we are to work, whether we acknowledge that or not.
When we take on the responsibility of leadership, it’s much safer to abstract the concept of “human being” into the less personal concept of “employee” because we do not then have to acknowledge the entire impact of our leadership on that person. We can accept responsibility for certain pieces of it that we agree are in the domain of “work” and deflect responsibility for the rest.
This may be an important separation for a leader’s mental/emotional health; it is not, necessarily, a bad thing. But if we want to get to the truth, the impact our leadership has on the people around us is not limited in scope. We can’t separate the “work” part of a person from the rest of their lives. The way we handle our leadership and the values we embody trickle down into the whole of a person’s life, even if we’re not aware or do not acknowledge this is happening.
“The soul’s needs in the workplace have long been ignored, partly because the path the soul takes to fill its destiny seems troublesomely unique to each person and refuses to be quantified in a way that satisfies our need to plan everything in advance.” - David Whyte, The Heart Aroused
Similarly, it’s much simpler and safer to deal with the concept of “people” as a group to be dealt with and managed, rather than as a collection of many complex individuals that we are (or are not) in relationship with.
While it’s useful to generalize the needs of a group of people (and is sometimes necessary), being people-first means prioritizing individual needs and desires over abstracted generalizations. It means taking the stance that “in the particular is contained the universal,” the result being that we pay very close attention to the particular needs of the particular people that we are particularly in relationship with.
In 2015, our team hosted &yetConf, a conference on the intersection of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics. During the event, we surprised attendees by loading them on a bus to take a tour of Hanford’s B Reactor, the site of the first large-scale nuclear reactor (the one that produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb the US dropped on Nagasaki during WWII). We wanted people to grapple with the contrast of the potential devastating human impact technology can have with the monumental technological achievements these scientists made, most of them with little knowledge about what it would be used for.
After we got back from the tour, we invited people to the stage to reflect on their experience. One of our friends and teammates Heather Young shared that we often talk about “people” as a collective group (she gestured in a wide circle around the room), but we less often talk about “people” as individuals (she pointed back and forth between one person and herself).
When viewed through this lens, every metric we measure becomes an opportunity to look closer and to appreciate the impact it’s possible to have with even a small number of people. Instead of seeing 500 (or 5,000, or 50,000) customers as a number that may be a lot to strive for or too little to do anything with, depending on what we’re used to, we might instead imagine the impact of having 500 people gathered in a room. Or 500 conversations over coffee, each with a fascinating person with their own goals, priorities, and experiences.
Each person holds a world of potential inside of them, and that potential cannot be overstated.
As C.S. Lewis puts it:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Visualizing the individual people who are impacted by our work isn’t just a mental exercise; it changes the way we think about our relationship with our employees, teammates, partners, and customers. It changes our narrative around what we’ve already accomplished, as well as the possibilities we’ve yet to tap into. It allows us to perceive limitless potential where we had previously perceived numbers that we strain to nudge toward progress.
When we care for one person, however, we’re not just impacting that person. We’re impacting the impact they have on everyone around them. Our individual potentials are woven in with those of the people who depend on us, and to the potentials of the people we depend on.
The language we use around business is interesting to me. So many of our metaphors have to do with war, viruses, or scientific laboratories. But growth is not about conquering. It is not about a hostile takeover of its host. Its results are not programmatically achievable.
Historically, our work-glorifying culture has rested both the praise for success and the blame for failure on the ability of its leaders to predict—and capitalize on—the future. Even if we wouldn’t go that far, we see our endeavors as experiments where we control at least most of the variables that determine the outcome. When the outcome is good, we take the credit. When the outcome is bad, we blame (and blame, and blame) ourselves.
But growth is less like a lab, and more like a garden.
Our role as leaders is to plant and nurture what is ours to tend, working with elements that are largely out of our control. Elements we’d rather do without, like flood and drought; or, more recently as I write this, pandemics and wildfires and systemic racism. But elements that help us flourish, too—elements we did nothing to earn. The sun, the rain, the soil.
A people-first approach to growth means acknowledging this. While at the same time knowing that even though so much is out of our control, we have great power in our ability to pay attention and to pour our resources into what needs nourishing.
So we tend to our gardens, whatever state they may be in, doing what we can to nurture an environment of safety, recovery, resilience, and yes, even growth. And that includes pulling the weeds that stifle healthy, sustainable growth — paying close attention to what’s cropping up, what needs more space, what we are watering and cultivating, what we are actively excising, who we are centering, and who is being marginalized.
It is the nature of things to either grow or decay. Growth is good, growth is healthy. Our role in guiding our organizations toward flourishing is not insignificant. But unbridled or rapid-paced growth can also have unintended consequences.
“The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.” - Wendell Berry, Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse
I’m an advocate for helping our local economies thrive. And at the same time, our company at &yet is fully remote. I appreciate the role of technology in expanding our ability to connect and serve each other, no matter where we live.
But while technology gives us the ability to connect on a surface level, it’s easy to lose our ability to understand in any particular way the people our work is impacting. As we grow, we gain more power to direct our own lives and influence the lives of others. If at the same time, we lose the ability to understand that impact, we are likely to do more harm than good, despite our best intentions.
The organizing principle for deciding on appropriate scale (as well as the pace in which we pursue growth) is directly related to our capacity for understanding and interdependence. Do we have the capacity to understand the lived experience of this set of people? Does our work have the ability to impact their experience? Does their participation have the ability to impact ours?
Keeping our work focused on local economies is a natural way of achieving this kind of symbiotic relationship, but it isn’t the only one. If we are mindful of “the point where our ambition outruns our empathy,” as Adam Avenir has described it, we can be intentional in how (and how fast) we grow. A people-first approach to growth begins with a definition of growth that’s aware of its limits.
"How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale." —adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy
Our entrepreneurial myths make much of having a big vision. Big visions are inspiring, grandiose. They give us hope. They make us feel like our work is meaningful.
But they also hold a destructive belief within them—that once we attain this vision, all will be well (and by the way, all is not well now). Our hard work and sacrifices will have been worth it (although now we are beset with stresses and anxiety and urgency on all sides). The problems we face today (so many problems!) will be far behind us.
Except, that’s not the way it works. There are always problems. In fact, a big vision brings bigger problems. And once we reach it (if we reach it), if attaining that vision is all we have been focusing on, life and work will likely feel like an amplified or hyperextended version of what exists today.
A people-first approach to growth, then, means focusing not only on the big vision, but on building our capacity for living out that vision, today.
People-first growth is fractal. As writer and activist adrienne maree brown describes in her book Emergent Strategy, “Small is good. Small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.” Fractal systems scale by reproducing what already exists. Like the leaves of a fern, each tiny piece is also a representation of the whole. We only sustainably get to the big vision by learning to inhabit that vision in small ways, right where we are.
To do this, we don’t get to live in a fantasy world where one day everything will be set right, if we only keep working hard at our goals. Instead, we get to work on making today a representation of the vision we hope to inhabit tomorrow.
Alignment is at the heart of people-first growth. We’ll talk about many different layers of alignment throughout this book, but central to the idea is that there is a constant tension between our needs and our desires (or as author Bill Plotkin describes it in Nature and the Human Soul, our physiological need for safety and our soul’s desire for authenticity). It is in the continual process of aligning this tension—for ourselves, our companies, our teammates, our partners, our customers, and our communities—that we will grow toward our big vision, sustainably.
This is a concept I covered from the perspective of an independent entrepreneur in my earlier book, Gather the People, but it also applies at scale. We must get very clear on what our practical needs are, and work toward getting those needs met in a way that also allows us to move toward what we ultimately want.
“What do I need? What do I want?”
“What do my teammates need? What do my teammates want?”
“What do our partners need? What do our partners want?”
“What do my customers need? What do my customers want?”
“What does this company need? What do we want to be possible because this company exists?”
I’m continually asking myself these questions, and deepening my understanding of the answers. The answers shift, as we are always shifting. The work of investing in a people-first approach to growth is to align these needs and desires into one harmonious dance. When we can do that, and we can do it interdependently, we create a better future for everyone involved.
My favorite people to learn from are poets and philosophers, artists and idealists and change advocates. But one of the pieces that’s missing for me when I look at the landscape of all of our ideals and possibility models is practice. How do we practice a new approach, each and every day? How do we solve the problems inherent in a patriarchal, capitalist, consumer culture without depending on the tenets of that culture?
I am almost reluctant to use those terms, because even though I support a more feminist, post-capitalist, community-oriented culture than currently exists, I’m not an expert in any of these ways of being. What I have deep experience in, though, is helping leaders discover practical solutions to the problem of growth. Solutions that are as unique as the individuals who seek them. Solutions that are in deep alignment with who we are and who we are becoming.
To that end, where do we begin? Where we always begin. With a person.
And right now, that person is you.