Build the people…

You’ve probably heard the saying “Build the people, and the people will build the business” (if you hadn’t hear that before, I’d like to take credit for it :-)).

I was reflecting today on the people I’ve had a chance to work with in companies I have run. There’s a consistent thread of people-building that took place across every brand. It’s interesting to look back on the collective as well as the individuals and see where they are today. It has been a real a-ha moment for me. I realize now that being an entrepreneur (and building companies) is much more than business models and funding sourced; jobs created and/or retained. Being an entrepreneur is (potentially) about building a legacy of success.

I say “potentially” because for a majority of entrepreneurs, “people building” isn’t even on the radar. Either they don’t feel qualified or flat out don’t care. The reality is, people building doesn’t happen in 80% of businesses. (Yet the C-suite wonders why the company is stagnant in areas like growth, innovation and corporate culture).

The next 15% of companies are engaged in people building, but it’s a human resources effort (not a CEO effort). There’s a BIG, BIG difference between those two efforts. When people building is a human resources effort, it ends up being me-too stuff. Me-too books, seminars, consultants and in-house programs. There’s much more that can be said about this, but that’s a rabbit trail someone else can chase.

In 5% of companies, people building is a CEO-driven initiative. It isn’t a perk or checkmark on the “how to build a great corporate culture” checklist. It is the ethos of the brand. it is who the CEO really is – someone passionate about seeing people become better (and more successful).

You know why only 5% of companies are true people-builders? The answer is counter-intuitive.

If you actually succeed in building people, you’ll eventually lose them. They’ll outgrow you (and your company). That’s the whole point of building people. You’re not building them to make you more money, you’re building them for the purpose of their personal success.

As I reflect on a tech startup I was recruited to run in 1999, I realize now we were all about building people. The two graphic designers we had on staff now run a multi-million dollar a year credit education company they started up while working for us. Our top biz dev guy (and his wife) are now top money earners in a direct sales company (they probably cleared a million dollars in total compensation last year year). A teenager we hired to answer phones and do tech support is now CEO of his father-in-law’s water purification company. The guy we hired and trained to be our media buyer was a law school dropout/ambulance EMT when we met him. Today he is VP of Marketing for one of the top insurance quote websites in the world. The list goes on and on – and it crosses all the companies I’ve had the opportunity to build.

Here’s the point.

If you truly want the best for people, you’ll create an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship in your company. You’ll encourage fresh ideas and breakthrough thought. You’ll give people opportunities to take risks, fail and grow in the process. You’ll hand them the keys to the car and walk back in the house (rather than get in the passenger seat). In the process of authentically doing those things, you’ll build a breakthrough company.

You know what got me thinking and reflecting on this topic?

Just today, our lead engineer got featured in TechCrunch. He took some of his downtime over the holidays and on his own entrepreneurial muscle did something really incredible. He did that because he felt comfortable (and encouraged) to do it. As I look across our current (and growing) staff, I see the same people-building trend emerging – and I’m excited about it.

Build the people – let them be entrepreneurial – and your business will grow as a result.


  1. Scott on January 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Well said Joe “If you truly want the best for people, you’ll create an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship in your company.” So few people, myself included, truly get this.

  2. Joe on January 4, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    It’s the control freak in all of us Scott. Hard to let go of the steering wheel. I’ve had to catch myself doing the death grip a few times in 2011 – especially when we were in startup mode. 🙂

  3. Eric Plantenberg on January 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    I love this article Joe! Our CFO (of 8 years) just left our company to run a “pet project” that he started 18 months ago. It’s going gang-busters and he’s over the moon happy to go run it. He said that leaving Freedom Personal Development is “bitter sweet.” For me… it’s all sweet. He made a HUGE contribution with us for years. I can only hope that everyone on our team makes such a great contribution and then leaves to go do something else they love.

    Thanks for writing this article – i hope more CEO’s and department heads have the wonderful experience of their top people leaving them.

  4. Justin Beauchane on January 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you Joe and Eric. Its a great experience training people with this in mind! I’ve truly learned a lot from both of you to add to my experience as a trainer.

  5. Joe on January 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm


    You’re building a fantastic legacy!

    Rock on

  6. Roger Seip on January 6, 2012 at 1:57 am

    Joe, this rules. I never thought about the CEO vs. HR thing, but it’s totally true. Huge difference. Thanks!

  7. Wade Schlichenmayer on January 6, 2012 at 5:04 am

    I really enjoyed this Joe and congratulations to your CFO Eric! I find that employees that grow personally are going to leave a company to pursue their own dreams whether they are encouraged to or not. It is the choice of the employer to choose to support this or be suprised when an employee outgrows them.

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