The only words printed more times than "Our people are our greatest asset" are the ones on matchbooks that say "Close Cover Before Striking."

Words are cheap, and your people know it. If you value your people as a critical asset, then you need to demonstrate that sentiment and not merely talk it up. Ask yourself the following four questions to make sure you're really walking the walk.

1. What am I investing of real value?
The most obvious way to demonstrate your support of employees is through uncommonly good benefits. At one point, I could afford a 250 percent 401(k) match, an on-site daycare and even a separate infant-care facility. That cost a lot, but I can tell you my investment was returned in the form of employee retention and productivity.

Is your business going through a period of tight cash? In that case, any boss can demonstrate his or her sentiments by an investment of time. Even in years where my after-tax take-home pay was north of $100 million, I met every Friday with all new employees. One could easily argue that doing so was not the highest and best use of my time and that I should have played a snappy "welcome" video every Friday instead. But I beg to differ. When the highest-paid person spends time with the newest, lowest-level employees, it sends the message that the new employee is respected.

2. Do my tough decisions always break in one direction?
How often do you make the tough calls that benefit your staff? Think of it as another opportunity to prove your people are your greatest asset. For instance, you could have a product made cheaper overseas, but that would mean closing a plant. You do, in fact, have choices. In the 1980s the Swatch Company was able to manufacture an absolute commodity--fashion watches--while using high-wage Swiss labor and still turn a profit.

At great expense, I once hired a highly credentialed man to be president of my company. Shortly thereafter he "uncovered" a shocking deficiency in my senior staff: None of them had MBAs! Not one. Surely I could see that a wholesale house-cleaning was in order, he said.

I cleaned house all right--by firing him. That staff was what got us to No. 1 in our industry, and I owed them more than to be let go because they lacked a pretty pedigree.

3. Am I congruent?
Here's a great way to make sure your efforts and money are wasted: Take one bold action and then return to business as usual.

Just as actions count more than words, it's multiple, congruent actions that count the most. By congruent, I mean that employees will see right through the boss whose bold moves appear to indicate teamwork and respect but whose daily demeanor says something entirely different.

My employees nodded politely when I talked about the importance of treating our customers with dignity and respect, but they sat up and took notice when my best friend and drinking buddy broke one of those rules--and I promptly fired him.

4. Do I ask, act and acknowledge?
Yes, your job is to lead. It's a tough task but one that does not require that you go it alone. Do you solicit opinions regularly from all levels of your staff? What are they hearing from customers and suppliers? What do they know about the competition? How might you improve the company? Because the executive suite does not have a monopoly on fresh information, you'd be smart to extend your ears through your staff.

Here's where it gets difficult: Many managers think surveys are worthless because employees don't see the big picture. Most employees think surveys are a waste of time because the feedback provided is rarely acted upon. The solution is the three As:

  • Ask: In other words, do the survey;
  • Act: Take prompt action on survey items that are actionable; and
  • Acknowledge: In situations where employees make unworkable or conflicting suggestions, honor them by explaining why you can't implement those. That's a crucial step if you want to encourage meaningful communication.

By the way, don't judge success by the absence of employee complaints. No matter the economic climate or how successful your company has been, when you survey employees, you will always get an earful. The key measure is the magnitude of those comments. Unhealthy companies receive vitriolic comments that deal with favoritism, harsh treatment of employees or customers, and so on. Jump all over those issues the moment you get a whiff of them, or they can quickly get out of control.

Healthy companies often have the same number of comments, but the feedback will relate to the lack of choice of lunch entrees in the cafeteria, limited investment options in the 401(k), and that nasty pothole out front.

Most of us spend the lion's share of our productive waking hours at work. It's therefore fitting that our actions demonstrate the value we place on our people. It's hard to beat the positive ripple effects of after-hours conversations that begin with "You won't believe what they did at work today.."