It’s not about the numbers

Peter Docker|24/08/2014

[First published in ‘Human Resources’, HR Institute of New Zealand professional journal, August 2014 #nzhrconf]

This year we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the 1914-18 war – the Great War. It’s estimated that 17 million people perished during those four terrible years; hard to even conceive.

On the 25th April 1915, New Zealanders, together with Australians and other Allied troops, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey. During the eight-month campaign over 100,000 people died, including 2,721 New Zealanders.

One of those who perished was Trooper Clarence Hall of the Otago Mounted Rifles. He was the son of John and Elizabeth who lived at Riverside, Balclutha, New Zealand. Clarence was killed in action on Sunday 1st August 1915.

Notice how, as you’ve read this – starting from the millions of people down to the single individual Clarence and his parents John and Elizabeth – the impact of these figures has probably grown in significance. If you happen to live in Balclutha today, or have family there, it might have even more meaning for you.  As Joseph Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. The point of this is the more we remove ourselves from people – individuals – by talking in terms of just numbers, the less connected we feel.

What’s true in the extremes of war is true in business too. The larger companies grow, the bigger the numbers become. The bigger the numbers become, the more compelling it is to just focus on the numbers and not think about the real people behind the numbers.

This is completely understandable.

Running a business is a complex, often all-consuming task. Numbers are sometimes easier to handle than thinking about David, John or Emily. Even HR professionals can be drawn into the detached ‘corporate speak’ where it’s all about the numbers and less about the people. And yet the best companies, the best organisations operate like a good family where the connection between business and people remains clear. When that happens the meaning and purpose is sustained too.

This meaning is critical. For organisations to grow and thrive over the long term they need to stay connected to Why it is they do what they do. It’s not about profit – that’s a result. A Why is a higher purpose – something that goes beyond the individual.

I once asked a US angel investor, Mike, Why he did what he did. “That’s easy,” chipped in his companion, “Mike’s in it for the money.” Curious, I asked Mike why he wanted to collect small bits of green paper – dollars. It turns out that it wasn’t about the money at all. Mike got his thrill from being able to help bright young entrepreneurs with marvellous ideas to bring them to life. This is Why he did what he did. He didn’t need the green bits of paper – it’s what they enabled him to do.

Although I never met him I’m absolutely certain that Trooper Clarance Hall knew why he did what he did. It may have started off as a belief in defending his country. On the battlefield that translated into putting his life on the line for those who stood to the left of him and those who stood to the right of him. It was personal.

When we keep it personal, when we stay connected to what we believe, people can be inspired to accomplish remarkable things – be it in extreme circumstances or in daily business. It’s this connection that drives us. When we just make it about the numbers, it doesn’t inspire anybody – even those like Mike who might initially think that’s what it’s all about.

If you are an HR professional, you’re a people professional. You have an incredible opportunity to keep people connected to people – and not to just see other people as numbers to be juggled or manipulated like any other figures or statistic. You’re also perfectly placed to have people think about Why they do what they do – and champion the reason why that’s so important to the performance of any organisation and the sense of fulfillment people feel being a part of it.

Manage the numbers; lead the people. Keep it real. Go People Professionals.


Peter Docker

Speaker, Teacher, Navigator

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