Posted: January 01, 2010

State of the state: Human Side of Going Green

Employees and customers are part of the sustainability equation

Mike Taylor

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The term "sustainability" conjures images of wind farms and energy-saving light bulbs and paperless offices. But sustainable business isn't merely about "going green." Employees and the values held by customers are as much a part of the sustainability equation.

As Bruce Hutton put it, it's also about "creating shareholder value, an environment that enriches employees, and social responsibility."

Hutton, dean emeritus at the University of Denver Daniels College of business, was one of the speakers Nov. 4 at a forum summarizing results from 30 CEOs and business leaders surveyed by Lee Hecht Harrison. The global talent management company hosted the forum on the survey subject, "Building Competitively Sustainable Organizations: Achieving and Maintaining Triple Bottom Line Results."

The triple bottom line refers to people, profit and planet. The early November breakfast event at DU Daniels College of Business focused on the people aspect. As with other elements of sustainability, the human-resources aspect is evolving.

"We in education, as in business, are between stories," DU's Hutton told the gathering. "We're all part of writing this story."

One of the panelists, Saunders Construction Co. President and CEO John Beeble, shared concerns of how his company has sought to maintain an enriching work environment amid a recession that has forced layoffs.

"Two years ago, we couldn't find people," Beeble said. "Now it's reversed. We're letting people go."

When it comes to evaluating which employees should stay and which should go, Beeble said, "My caution is guarding against measuring ‘A people' vs. ‘B people' too much, making it too much of a science. I put passion over skills. I want people in the organization who care. People skills are extraordinarily important. I put that above technical knowledge; you can teach that."

Another panelist, Colleen Abdoulah, chair and CEO of Wide Open West (WOW!), an Internet, cable and phone service provider, described her 1,300-employee firm that's won 10 JD Power & Associates awards as a "small Comcast, the David of David and Goliath."

"Our competitors can afford to make million-dollar mistakes," she said. "We cannot. We can't just ‘build it and they will come.' We can't afford that." Thus, people devoted to customer service are paramount.

The third panelist, Curt Coffman, principal partner of the Coffman Organization and author of the business bestseller, "First Break All the Rules," said he's irritated when he hears of companies that rely on an economic downturn and bleak job outlook as a de facto retention tool.

"I've heard people say, ‘Thank goodness for the recession - it's enabled us to keep our retention up," Coffman said. Or, along the same lines, he decried firms that respond to employee workplace frustrations in this economic climate by saying, "They should just be happy they have a job."

On the other hand, Coffman said companies shouldn't need a recession to be prompted to sharpen and refine their employee base.

"Jack Welch said 10 percent need to be shown the door," Coffman said, referring to the former General Electric CEO. "I think it's closer to 19 percent. It's sad that it takes a recession to deal with that 19 percent."

The occasion for the breakfast - to unveil results of a survey of 30 Colorado CEOs and senior leaders - was an effort by Lee Hecht Harrison to better understand how business leaders view the key components of sustainability and success in their organizations.

On the manner in which some companies deal with - or misuse - surveys in general, Coffman provided some humor to the breakfast. Too often, he said, a company's surveys are designed to show problems that can easily be fixed.

"Our customer survey is in!" Coffman said, tongue-in-cheek. "There are going to be some changes around here!

"To the survey."

For more information about Lee Hecht Harrison or the CEO survey, visit www.LHH.com.

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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