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Sharon Fountain

The Bottom Line
by Sharon Fountain

I was born into an entrepreneurial family. My memory is filled with positive and negative episodes of our business in its last few years.

    Even as a child, I understood that companies must change -
    or die!

Today, as a behavioral scientist and entrepreneur who has enjoyed great success as a business consultant to

  • Fortune 500 companies
  • small businesses
  • and Federal agencies

I have learned many lessons about what makes organizations thrive. And although I cannot use my leaning to rewrite the past and save my family's business, I call upon this experience to keep organizations alive and kicking today!

My great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant who founded a furniture store in the midwest around the turn of the century.  It was a successful business which grew from one store to four. He made a lot of money, and enjoyed being a person whose name was widely known.  He sponsored radio programs employing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans for a time, socialized with celebrities, and Pat and Dizzy Dean were his good friends -- and my godparents.  He was one of the people Colonel Parker approached while seeking financial backing for the rock-and-roll newcomer, Elvis Presley.

    In spite of this great success, by the time I was a teenager the business had closed its doors. Why? He trusted only himself and could not let go of control. As business conditions demanded change, he clung to the "old ways" -- he could not adapt.  He did not know how to set the vision, articulate the values, hire capable people whom he could trust, set them up for success, and let them fly. He didn't understand the bottom line!

The "Bottom Line" is People

The most successful businesses in the United States and abroad are those whose Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) recognize the importance of their people. These CEOs understand that the diligence, dedication, and desire of their people is what leads their companies to reap the greatest profits from the marketplace.

    Profits are directly linked to organizational effectiveness. Organizational effectiveness is directly linked to individual competence.  CEOs who capitalize on this link between people and profits know that empowered people make money for their companies.

Powerful, competent people are willing to make decisions and take risks. We take responsibility for our results and understand our contribution to the "whole." We recognize and affirm others' achievements and self- esteem. We become more competent ourselves while aiding others' development. We value the knowledge that "wins" are greater through collective effort.  We help our companies shift as business conditions demand. We help our companies succeed.

Here is a summary of six basic principles, or pathways to success my experience has taught me -- points I would gladly share with my great-grandfather if he were alive today, as I share them with you.

Six Pathways to Success

1. Growth demands change.

    Growth does demand change, but that doesn't make it easy.  When we encounter personal change, we often experience it first as loss --  a divorce, our child moves from home, graduates or marries, a loved-one dies.  We allow ourselves to grieve. Things will never be the same again.  Even if the change is positive we still need time to adjust.

    Similarly, organizational change is often experienced by those in the company as loss. CEOs and top managers adjust to changes in the marketplace more quickly and easily than employees, and can be frustrated as they try to lead the way.

    Adjusting to profound change requires a period of grieving --    a letting go of what was and a moving toward what will be. People often get stuck in the murky middle ground.  It takes time to make this shift. Employees benefit by having a sanctioned period of time to feel the loss of what they once knew as they move on to the new reality. The best leaders of today provide this time. In the end, they lead their employees and companies through the process more quickly and easily than leaders who merely say "This is the way things will be from now on." This ability to quickly transform the organization to meet new conditions is one of the greatest barometers of success in the marketplace today.

2. To get more power, give some away.

    Empowering others leads to increased power and control for ourselves.  The more we surround ourselves with people who are capable of making good decisions, taking risks and being accountable, the more we can achieve. Power is not a scarce resource.

    In my great-grandfather's day power was closely held and guarded by a select few.  His employees, while mostly loyal, were afraid to take risks or make mistakes for fear of the personal consequences.  Some were initially willing to share ideas and make suggestions.  But after a while, many stopped trying and moved into rebellious compliance: "Okay, I'll do what you tell me -- no more, no less. And when it fails, I'll be safe because that's what you told me to do."

    In visionary companies, leaders recognize the importance of developing individuals and teams which are capable of and willing to take initiative, invest energy in finding solutions and take personal responsibility for successes and mistakes.

3. High self-esteem means freedom to achieve.

    Theorist Ken Blanchard once said when people do good work, they feel good about themselves.  Similarly, when people feel good about themselves, their ability to achieve soars.

    Self-esteem (BEing) is closely linked to self-confidence (DOing). With high self-esteem we are free to operate from Win/Win, confident that results are not a reflection of self-worth but of achievement. Win/Win as a process allows us to focus on the task at hand, instead of on power, control or turf.

    The best leaders of today understand that the way people are treated affects how they perform.  When treated with respect as individuals they carry their good personal feelings into their work efforts, often accomplishing things not previously believed possible. When problems and challenges arise they focus on the issues.  They are able to separate how they feel about difficult situations from actions they can take.  High self-esteem frees people to take risks, use their potential, and be stake-holders in results, while staying "whole" in the process.

4. Feedback nurtures competence.

    Knowing how we're doing is essential to achievement. Professional and amateur athletes videotape and critique their performance regularly. They sit down with their coaches to plan strategies for improvement as a part of their normal routine.  Leaders and employees alike can respond to the challenge of change by learning to ask for and give consistent, appropriate feedback. When feedback is missing or inappropriate, results suffer.  As my colleague, Charles Seashore once said, "When I don't know which track the train is coming in on, my behavior on the platform gets a little weird." When people know how to evaluate and strengthen their results everybody wins.

    Many of us hesitate to offer or ask for feedback -- we don't want to evaluate or be evaluated in a damaging way.  Asking for feedback is a powerful act!  When we know how to ask for and offer it appropriately, feedback is a golden key unlocking competence and potential. It is not helpful to frame questions in absolute terms (i.e., What did we do right? or What did we do wrong?). These questions invite judgmental, evaluative responses. Instead, focus attention on results and future strategy by asking: What works?; What doesn't work!; What do we need more of? Less of?;  What helps? What hinders!;  Answers to questions framed in this way develop competence and focus on goals, results and strategies for constructive change.

5. People need recognition.

    Picture the Olympic Games with no media coverage.  The athletes would still compete, but few would be there to share in the excitement of their achievements. How much sweeter is the taste of success when shared with others! It provides a moment for a person or team to bask in the sunbeam of accomplishment.  Rare is the person who does not need recognition to bolster his/her confidence and give health and new life to his/her spirit.  That recognition will be absorbed, internalized and used again and again to light the way to even greater success.

    Studies conducted on the subject of motivation usually cite recognition as one of the greatest motivational tools available.

      One of the most common reasons given for people wishing to leave their current job is insufficient or nonexistent recognition, the belief that no one acknowledges their work unless they make a mistake.

    What people need, above all else, is recognition of their efforts on behalf of the company. This recognition can be concrete or intrinsic. The specific type doesn't matter as much as its result --  inspiring, or reminding a person of his or her achievements and motivating them for future achievements. Think about the cost of losing key people. Recruiting, hiring and training new employees costs American businesses billions of dollars each year.  If I were to come to your company next week, what would your employees tell me about the recognition they receive!

6. Teams are stronger than individuals.

    Imagine a football team using only its quarterback, or an orchestra with only its first violinist. While the solo performance is an exciting aspect of life, think of how limited our lives would be without the contributions of others. None of us can accomplish grand goals by ourselves. We need the assistance of numerous people along the way -- those who share their ideas and contribute their effort.

    Entrepreneurs have many strengths which serve us well. We achieve much by virtue of our own energy, stamina and drive. These same strengths can trigger the downfall of our companies if we lose sight of the fact that we can achieve far, far more when we capitalize on and develop the great potential of teams.

    A team does not just happen. It is something which must be developed, requiring clear direction and support from the top. Just as athletic teams need their coaches, so developing organizational teams need their champions to initiate and support the team building process with energy and vision.

    Team building is an ongoing process, not something that can be accomplished in one day. It demands a commitment of time, effort and resources. Think of it as preventive maintenance. Airplanes require constant preventive maintenance to assure they will consistently arrive at their destination with passengers and cargo intact.  Similarly, a high performing team needs ongoing preventive maintenance. Without enlightened and intentional maintenance, teams can find themselves in a crash and burn trajectory.  Relationships can sour, and irreparable damage can occur.  And of course productivity declines despite frantic attempts to revive it!  It's the old story of too little, too late.  My great-grandfather lived out his life in the midst of that story, but he didn't understand the story, didn't get the message, and wouldn't have responded to it even if he had gotten it.  He thought the bottom line was profits, not people!

It Starts at the Top

When I walk into a company where people are not considered important, I can feel it ... it's palpable. What I can see and feel is individuals who are worn out --  people who are moving toward mediocrity because their ideas have been ignored so often --  people who are just putting in time on the job and, worst of all -- people who feel that their energy and ideas don't matter.

But when I walk into a people oriented company I can feel it in the air. I can almost touch it in the atmosphere. The air sings with it. I know that the top person knows about and is following these pathways to success. The more positive the organization the more positioned they are to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

It starts at the top, but THE BOTTOM LINE is always people.


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Sharon Fountain is a speaker, seminar leader, consultant and author.
  She can be reached at
 301-421-0118 or


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Sharon Fountain, Performance Development Corporation