For far too long, C-suite executives have taken a business-first approach to transforming their brand (or more often than not, their bottom lines). They have operated with shareholders as the primary — and in many cases, exclusive — audience, with little regard for the significant change that can come about from first turning inward.

But what if we’ve gotten it all wrong? What if we took a people-first approach to business transformation, starting from the people within and working our way up and out? That is, investing the time and resources (and more time) in identifying the current behaviors, habits and value systems in place within the organization in order to pinpoint the challenges, barriers and most importantly – the purpose we aim to activate – all with a focus on people.

Reinvention. Disruption. Innovation. These are all are popular terms used to describe how organizations are evolving to accommodate changing operating environments, stakeholder expectations and more, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when it comes to recognizing the key ingredients to achieving business transformation, many of us are stuck wearing blinders and resting on our laurels of “what’s worked in the past” – putting profit before people.

In reality, it shouldn’t be an “either-or” situation, it’s a “both” situation. An organization’s people have a significant impact on the bottom line, and leaders who recognize the role their employees can play in achieving business transformation tend to be the ones who ultimately do so most successfully. As more and more companies employ Movement Thinking as a core tenant of their people solutions, it’s become clear just how integral people are to fortifying an organization’s capacity to be future-ready.

People-first Starts With Purpose

Especially in the age of remote work, it’s more than just creating an effective work environment for employees. Leaders must ask themselves, “What can we do to help our people adapt and become more resilient – now, and in the future?” and “How can we keep them motivated and inspired?” It’s about building a great holistic people experience – which improves employee retention, increases productivity and encourages collaboration between teams. It’s setting core values and defining purpose. It’s balancing individual needs with opportunity to scale. It’s recognizing motivational drivers – from benefits and fair pay to autonomy and opportunities for professional development.

A people-first business approach emphasizes workforce empowerment to drive growth. It requires shifting attention from bottom-line tactics to longer-term people solutions, productivity, and most of all, purpose. Creating authentic connections with employees and reminding them how their individual contributions are helping to achieve the broader vision of the company builds a collective sense of belonging. At the end of the day, purpose is what strengthens people’s loyalty and resilience and what drives engagement, motivation and, ultimately, productivity.

For most of us, purpose is built, not found. It’s something we must actively pursue and create. Good leaders uphold a firm commitment to laying a foundation and cultivating a work culture that consciously drives purpose, and in turn, moves the needle. In fact, connecting employees’ work to the greater purpose of the business is one of the largest drivers of employee engagement and motivation.

Such is the underlying principle behind the Movement Inside approach. Organizations can employ Movement Thinking to help define their purpose, and can subsequently create activations or “movements” to engage and galvanize employees around that unifying purpose. The data suggests that when engagement goes up, so does productivity and profitability.

Walmart, for example, used Movement Thinking to re-consider the way they communicated internally and shift to a people-first approach. Ultimately, they pioneered an associates-centric experience that allowed their 1.5 million employees to rally around a shared purpose while activating them at grassroots levels to participate.

The Proof Is In The Pudding

Particularly in times of crisis, leadership tends to go on the defensive, worrying more about the impact the crisis will have on their business, when in fact they should be thinking about how to guide their employees through such turbulent times. Companies with strong cultures and an organizational ethos underpinned by human-centric work design can see employee performance increase by as much as 54%, according to Forbes. What’s more, employers who have a highly engaged workforce experience 23% greater profitability than those whose workforce is disengaged, Gallup research found.

There’s a reason “people experience” has become one of the buzziest terms in business, as demonstrated by the rapid increase in companies hiring for people experience jobs. More and more, we’re seeing that people are the real catalysts of successful business transformation.

Leaders who are able to look at their workforce and recognize that, and then act upon it by prioritizing people over profit, will ultimately see greater financial returns than others who don’t.

A New Vision

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that adaptability and new ways of thinking must become our strategic mindset inside any organization. That extends to our ways of working, as well. Too often leaders rely on past practices to solve present challenges – but that comes with the risk of remaining stagnant, or even worse – falling behind.

In order to compete in today’s marketplace, leaders must embrace the notion that people are the most valuable asset and greatest opportunity for growth within an organization. Those at the forefront of successful business transformation all share a common understanding: The power of marrying purpose and profit – and always staying true to a people-first approach.