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Mars CEO: Your People Are Your Biggest Asset—Show Them You Mean It

Credit - Getty Images—Westend61/Gary Waters

“Why should I work for you? And what good are you doing for society?”

When I graduated from university in 1992, I wouldn’t have dared to ask such questions at an interview, I was just happy to get a job! But today it is usually one of the first things we hear from people at the start of their careers. The new generations are putting these challenges to employers and voting with their feet. Expectations of an employer have changed and that is not limited to the young.

It doesn’t mean business should naively follow the latest fad or NGO call, but if we are to continue to grow and thrive in the coming years, our ability to secure the brightest minds will depend on how compelling our answers are to these most fundamental questions. Without the right people, a business will at best under-perform or at worst fail. And we need businesses to perform so we can continue to invest in people and the planet.

Getting there will not always be a straight line. Leaders must be willing to constantly listen with head and heart, learn and engage outside their own four walls and lead by example. The oft-repeated phrase “people are our most important asset” needs to be a strategic choice not a throw-away line in a presentation.

There are a few key elements to make this happen: Providing a culture in which everyone can be themselves and thrive, continuously investing in skills and development and, critically, showing how business can both do well and do good. Importantly, showing that purpose and profit are not enemies but mutually reinforcing.

Why should I stay?

People traditionally joined companies like Mars because of the career opportunities offered by a global leader and the chance to work for some of the world’s most well-known brands.

All of that is still true, but they now increasingly join—and stay—because of how aligned the corporate values and principles are to their own beliefs. And they want to know how they will personally be making a difference. This is a welcome shift.

It’s more about creating communities than hierarchies and empowering people to innovate, act and grow in service of common goals. It’s why at Mars we call our people Associates, not employees, as we believe the relationship is of a higher order. They seem to respond—on average Associates in our consumer brands businesses stay at Mars for eight years, double the U.S. industry average.

To unlock our people’s potential we also need to embrace great line management at every level in the organization, and we must prioritize training, development and capability building budgets—often the first to get cut or paused when economic headwinds emerge. We need to upskill to be ahead of the curve, not to play catch up—and that’s why we invested more than $60 million last year alone in learning and training programs. I personally benefited from a myriad of on-the-job training, learning across cultures and personal development that helped me become a better person, and therefore, a better leader.

Show me, don’t tell me

Lastly, if we are to build trust and energize the best talent, every business—Mars included—needs to show that it is focussed on delivering results, not just making commitments. This is critical for every aspect of performance, including on the environment.

Take climate change. We must make a real difference now, not just talk about how we will get to Net Zero by 2050. Our Net Zero Roadmap effectively open sources the strategies that are right now helping us to decouple growth from emissions. When you talk about where you are heading and why, people need to know that this is an intrinsic truth, not just a slogan on a wall.

And you need to empower your people to go and find how to make it happen. This is no mean feat and it’s why we have built it into how we reward leaders, how we acquire businesses and how we ultimately measure success. Only businesses that deliver financially can invest heavily in their people and become truly sustainable.

We know that progress will come with plenty of bumps in the road. I believe, however, that talent, consumers and the public are asking the right questions of us. With the right answers in place, we have a unique opportunity to empower and motivate our people to become an engine for responsible growth and societal good.

We mustn’t waste it.

Contact us at letters@time.com.