What It Means To Put People-First (Case Study)

I’ve been speaking and writing a lot about a seemingly counter-intuitive concept: putting employees ahead of customers and profits is the surest path to exceptional customer service and financial success. It’s also the most fundamental (and most frequently missed) pre-requisite to building a pipeline of leadership and talent within an organization. But what does that look like… for real?

Putting employees first is the surest path to exceptional customer service and financial success. Click To Tweet

What is People-First?

Executives who scoff at the idea of putting employees first probably think that it means lavishing employees with perks and benefits like on-site massage, gym memberships, beanbag lounge chairs and free food. That’s not employee-first. That’s an attempt to buy your employees’ commitment. And it never works. Employees want great leadership, and when they don’t think they can get it, they’ll take whatever other compensation they can get.

People-first is not a set of activities, it’s a philosophy that permeates every aspect of corporate culture. Truly people-first companies are rare, which is why I’m happy to highlight those that are, or are working towards it. One such company is Christenson Communities/AdvantAGE Assist, which builds and manages retirement communities. Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Lyn Krutzfeldt, CEO, and Stacey Schaffer, Director of Human Resources.

People-first is not a set of activities, it’s a philosophy that permeates every aspect of corporate culture. Click To Tweet

Purpose and Values – The Foundation of Culture

I found it interesting that the first thing they began talking about was not their employee benefits or recognition programs, it was their mission and values. They understand that purpose and values are the bedrock of culture and the catalyst of change. That being said, Christenson Communities/AdvantAGE Assist has a killer employee recognition program too! It’s an annual event they call their VIP Party. Here’s how it works.

Every year, employees are nominated for three awards:

  1. Living the Values – employees who consistently demonstrate the company values
  2. Leading the Difference – recognizing top managers
  3. Rising Star – employees with the most leadership potential

Each award has a slightly different, but transparent, criteria and nomination process. Finalists receive a golden ticket to the VIP Party. The VIP Party is very exclusive; only the finalists, executive team, government officials, community partners and past award winners are invited. It’s held in a theater setting with all the pomp and circumstance of a celebrity awards ceremony. Everyone gets the red carpet treatment, and receives a champagne reception, delicious tapas and SWAG bags. Winners of the Core Values Awards receive an extra five vacation days. The Rising Star and Leading The Difference winners also receive an extra five vacation days and a $1,000 travel voucher, but that’s just a token. The real prize is hearing the executive team share how the nominees live the company values and other ways they qualify for the award. The celebration doesn’t end at the VIP party. Once the nominees return to work, they are recognized and celebrated onsite by their coworkers. Christenson Communities/AdvantAGE Assist does recognition right!

Creating A People-First Culture

Recognizing people for living the values is essential, but only one part of being people-first. Christenson Communities/AdvantAGE Assist reinforces the people-first culture by doing the following:

  1. Every meeting begins with a story about how someone recently lived a value.
  2. Town Halls. Every year Lyn leads a town hall meeting to give employees an opportunity to have a face-to face chat with the CEO.
  3. They Take Training Seriously. Employee Orientation is 5 days. Day One of the Corporate Orientation is a program they created called “Bee The Difference,” which is all about the relationship between their corporate values and great customer service. Day Two drills down into their service standards and standard operating procedures. Days Three – 5 are job selective training.
  4. Special Assignments. Two examples. a) Bee The Difference training was rolled out by a group of seven “rising stars” to every employee. A consulting group trained the rising stars on how to effectively deliver and facilitate such an impactful initiative. b) When Lyn goes on a business trip, she asks herself who could benefit from the experience, and brings them with her.
  5. Employee Engagement. The National Research Council of Canada’s employee engagement survey average is 67%. Christenson Communities scored 97%. But that doesn’t mean they’re complacent. Every year Lyn shares their engagement scores in their town hall meeting and discusses how they can do better next year.

People-First Philosophy

Truly great companies don’t simply have a talent management strategy, their corporate strategy actually revolves around supporting their talent. It’s a philosophy, not a set of activities designed to buy employee’s commitment. And the philosophy is this:

  • The purpose of business is not to make money, it’s to fulfill its purpose.
  • Employees are not simply an input into the business, they are the business.
  • Employees are not problems, they’re problem solvers.
  • Engaged employees develop and deliver creative, innovative products and services that engage customers.
  • Engaged customers provide the fuel for businesses to improve the world.

Find your organization’s true purpose. Articulate it. Put people first. The rest will fall into place.


For more information on this topic, check out our Leading Talent Development Workshop.


  1. Aurea Lucas on August 24, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Hi Michael,
    I enjoyed reading your article especially the People first Philosophy. If and only if all serving organization/s shared this value and is putting this into practice, the system will not go wrong. I will be sharing this concept to new immigrants coming to our office. Hopefully, if they get employment or did volunteer they will have this as a guide in their daily activities. Its worth reading and sharing. Thank you so much!

    • Michael Timms on September 1, 2017 at 9:09 am

      HI Aurea – thanks so much for your comments. Yes, the system would work beautifully if everyone bought into it. But as you pointed out, this is a movement and sharing it is the key to changing the minds of the masses.

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