The three keywords of success: people, people and… people.

Oct 14, 2020 | written by:

One day, I read an old Chinese proverb that suggested that those who were worrying about next year should sow wheat, while those who were worrying about the next hundred years should educate people.

Like many popular proverbs, this one had a nugget of wisdom: in a world in constant change, where we cannot know for sure what will happen tomorrow, investing in people, rather than material resources, is the wisest thing we can do. This is because people can change things. Resources, on the other hand, cannot.

To better understand the importance of investing in people, let's leave Asia and move from China to Finland.

For a good part of the twentieth century Finland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an economy with little industrialisation, mainly dependent on agriculture. However today, Finland is one of the richest countries in the world, with the best education system in Europe and the highest quality of life.
So much so that in 2010, Newsweek magazine listed Finland as the best country in the world to live in. How was such a radical change possible over such a short time?

The answer is simple: they focused on people.
In an interview published in Monocle magazine, Juha Leppanen, director of the Demos think tank in Helsinki, said that the only solution for a country like theirs [Finland], remote and with a terrible climate, was to focus on people. Here lies the secret of Finland's economic development. They had nothing, and so they invested in their most important asset, people. These same people were then able to transform their country. The example of Finland shows that only people can drive change. Machines become obsolete. Money devalues. Buildings crumble into ruins. However, people can adapt and create value, even where none has existed before.

Now, let's move a few kilometres further south, from Finland to Italy. There's a very useful website I often consult, REDI. REDI is an acronym for the Regional Entrepreneurship and Development Index, drawn up by the London School of Economics and Political Science.
On the site it is possible to compare different regions of Europe based on fourteen variables: Competition, Cultural Support, Financing, High Growth, Internationalisation, Opportunity Perception, Opportunities for Start-ups, Process Innovation, Product Innovation, Risk Acceptance, Start-up Skills, Technology Absorption, Human Capital, and Networking.

If we compare the North-East of Italy with the metropolitan area of London in the UK, we immediately note how, for some of the variables, (e.g. finance or product innovation) there is not much difference, while if we look at Human Capital and Networking, Italy lags far behind.
I think this is the core of the economic problems in our country.

In Italy there is a shortage of talented people, not because they don't exist, but because they aren't encouraged and valued, and therefore leave the country. In the last ten years, the number of Italians moving abroad has tripled. Since 2018, there has been a 16.1% increase in the number of Italian citizens who have unsubscribed from the civil register because they have gone to live abroad.

Any reform and discussion on the issue of work and business in Italy should, in my opinion, start from this point: how can we value people?
How can we create an ecosystem that makes it possible for people to work at their best and realise their potential through work?
Innovation, both in a country and in a company, comes only from people. 

Staying with HR but moving from the public to the private sector, let's look at one of the most dynamic and innovative companies of the twentieth century, Virgin.
Started in 1972 as a record label, over forty years Virgin managed to reinvent itself continuously by entering (and sometimes exiting) a wide range of sectors and markets including: banking, beverages, airlines, rail transport, video games, consumer electronics, financial services, films, the internet and mobile phones, radio, books, car and motorcycle rental, tourism, sport, cosmetics, retail, and space travel.
When a reporter asked Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson to explain his success in three words, the British businessman, without thinking much, replied: "People, people, people". I think any entrepreneur would agree with him.

People are the most important asset in any company, both from a strategic point of view and from a competitive one. The more we move towards a future based on technology and automation, the more important it will be to invest in people. Our competitive advantage will depend on getting the people in our company involved. 

Much of the technology we have today is becoming a commodity; something that can be found on the market at increasingly low prices. We can create apps without knowing how to program, buy platforms for a few thousand euros, and use Software as a Service without having to invest too much.

Today, we are very concerned about the possible consequences of the spread of Artificial Intelligence.
What would happen if, one day, a machine could think like a human being?
It's a well-founded concern. However, my greatest fear is not that machines will start to think like humans, but that humans will start to think like machines, and then stop thinking altogether.

Our ability (as people) to solve problems, to make decisions in complicated and unpredictable situations, and to draw up development plans, has much more value than purely mechanical skills such as data processing. In the words of the American entrepreneur and computer scientist Marc Andreessen, both as people and as companies, we will have to decide which side we stand on: with people who tell computers what to do, or people who are told by computers what to do.
The people in our company will play a primary role in making this decision.

How can we build an ecosystem that not only attracts talent, but manages to keep it and nurture it?
There is obviously no universal answer.
The literature and the web are full of ideas and theories, some more accepted than others.
However, there is a common trait in every company that has managed to grow and innovate, thanks to their team: they make people feel important. They put people in a position where they can enhance their talent through their work.

Many years before founding Syco Entertainment, with which he conceived and produced television formats such as The X Factor and Got Talent, British entrepreneur Simon Cowell asked his father how to run a business and his father replied: "It's very simple. Everyone has a sign on their forehead that says, 'Make me feel important'." These few words contain a lot of wisdom about what it takes to work well with people. Make them feel important. Or, better still, make them feel they are an essential part of something important. Everyone needs to feel gratified and fulfilled.

It's what Freud called "the desire to be great" or the American philosopher Dewey called "the desire to be important".
Making someone feel important means having the courage and the ability to delegate. It means not just telling people what to do, but also telling them why they should do it. It means experimenting and empowering people to learn from their mistakes.

It means building a corporate culture.
And finally, it means talking to people, or knowing how to listen, and not just talk.

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