NEW: Mark Robilliard

Using ‘asset’ language when referring to employees doesn’t help, even if they are a business’s ‘greatest’ asset.

Are you a Level 5 leader?

I believe that in this week of somewhat hollow political statements and blatant pork-barrelling, it is time we start to challenge the irrationality of economic rationalism and its peculiar language, particularly when applied to people. Using economic terminology to describe people is at best the worst type of cynical business metaphor.

In one of our recent Colour Accounting based workshops, the question was asked, as it often is: “Why are the employees not shown as an asset in the balance sheet?” The ensuing discussion often becomes quite interesting around value, treating people as possessions, leadership and so on.

There is no doubt that it has become very trendy to describe the employees of the organisation in “asset” language. Much of what happens in an organisation is described and measured in financial terms and it seems sensible to use asset language when referring to the employees. It seems to have a much harder edge, and more corporate and board-level appeal than simply “human resources” or “personnel”.

Indeed, many businesses publicly profess that their employees are their greatest asset or such similar sentiment. Sometimes the employees (people) are even referred to with an economic label such as “human capital”, “intellectual capital”, or other similarly edgy business descriptors.

Remember that words are very powerful things. They can, and often do, carry a linguistic payload far greater than their simple dictionary definition.

So let’s be very clear here. What exactly is an asset?

It is something of value to the organisation, something that will be used to provide benefits into the future. Sounds good so far.

It is also something that is bought, and sold, Something that wears out, breaks, becomes superceded or obsolete, requires regular maintenance, is owned or controlled, can be moved, re-located, unplugged, re-plugged, sold for scrap – you get the idea. If you refer to your people as “assets” what is the real message behind this for the heart and soul of your business? What would you like the message to be?

Your people are never your assets. They are in fact your very business. Each employee, each sub-contractor, even a supplier, adds some part of themself into the overall psyche that is your business. Your employees compare what is said (internally and externally) with what is done to them (and the people around them; colleagues, subcontractors, customers, suppliers etc) and they quickly form their own conclusions on you and your business.

All the research that I’ve ever read clearly shows that employees do not want to be classified as assets or treated as possessions; metaphorically or otherwise! They do want to believe that what they are doing is worthwhile and they do want to feel part of something bigger than themselves or their job. But how?

Some random thoughts from my experience:

  1. Longer-term, companies that concentrate on people and “community” (as well as results) seem to fare better than companies driven by products and profit alone.
  2. Better companies rely on so-called level-five leadership – a paradoxical blend of fierce will and personal humility. Leaders who are happy to allow their people to take credit for successes (see “Good to Great” by Jim Collins or similar books).
  3. The greatest companies are the ones where core values are “lived-out” and role-modelled from the leadership, rather than being corporate slogans.

A business that actually values its employees as evidenced by its actions while actively building a culture of people and “community” won’t need to tell its employees to service their customers well. The employees will want to do this naturally.


Mark Robilliard and business partners Peter Frampton and Carmen Mettler started a journey to find a new way for anyone to ‘get accounting’ and use it in their job and life to create value. Accounting Comes Alive was born and now provides workshops all over the world using their unique and friendly Colour Accounting™ learning system that really does work, for everyone.


To read more Mark Robilliard blogs, click here.



Craig Duckmanton writes: Yes… and of course while the human capital is regarded as “our” greatest asset, that is because often it is the most disposable. Very few assets can be liquidated as quickly… “Smith and your three mates over there ….what are you doing Monday??”

I have seen little evidence of “greatest asset” being applied in the long term sense. A decision one day can be changed by regional and global management the next with little concern for “human capital” apart from it’s disposability.

A good example is the company that worked on turning over (eradicating and replacing) the lowest 20% of staff performers annually to maintain a highly effective “human capital”.



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