Don't Put Customers First, And Other Counterintuitive Business Commandments

Leadership psychologist Susan Battley turns some conventional business wisdom on its head.

Here we are with one month already ticked off our calendars. Perhaps your New Year's resolutions included new professional and business priorities. But have you considered the activities you should not be doing? I offer three contrarian commandments that challenge conventional wisdom and the unintended consequences of daily executive focus and decision-making.

Commandment 1. You will not put customers first.
This commandment may sound counterintuitive, even heretical. Plus I will not endear myself to those making a living offering customer service seminars. However, the unvarnished truth is organizations cannot excel by putting customers first.

Rather, you must put your employees first. Your people are the rocket fuel that powers your organization’s creativity and performance. Talented, motivated, and well-trained employees will make your customers feel like they come first. They will be customer-focused, which means being highly attuned to customer values and satisfaction, as well as to market trends and innovation.

Hire people who are a “whole person fit” for the job and the organization’s culture. Treat them as full partners. Build and nourish a culture of recognition and trust. Southwest Airlines Chairman Emeritus and former CEO Herb Kelleher sums up these points well: “If the employees come first, then they're happy. A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders.”

Commandment 2. You will not stay in the cloister.
I have found one of the most dangerous traps that executives and managers can fall into involves operating within a very circumscribed world. This “cloister” is variously called the executive floor, administration building, company headquarters, etc. You interact with the same people at the same meetings, conferences, and social functions week in and week out. You also get the same viewpoints, biases, and filtered information week in and week out. And, just as important, lots and lots of people who are critical to your department’s or organization’s success do not get to interact with you.

In my experience, middle managers and project directors—both of whom are key operational lynchpins—often have little access to senior management. This state of affairs is poor for morale, operational excellence, and accelerating development of next-generation leaders.

Break out of your cloister. Dedicate time on a regular basis to meet with new hires, front-line employees, and middle managers. Get out and lead by walking around and listening. Schedule a monthly breakfast or informal bag lunch. These activities are powerful ways to show you are paying attention. And you will be surprised at what you will learn.

Commandment 3. You will not launch new projects without adequate resources.
Remember the I Love Lucy episode at the chocolate factory? Lucy cannot keep up as the conveyor belt bearing the chocolates moves faster and faster. Instead, in frustration and desperation, she starts stuffing the candies into her mouth and apron pockets to make it look as if she is able to get the job done.

Your staff and subordinates are working at full throttle now. There is no slack. So, when you get set to launch a new project or initiative, implementation must translate into work effort. I call this reality “the invisible obvious” because so many decision-makers overlook, minimize or underestimate the impact of new projects on their people’s performance, morale, and loyalty. Too many initiatives yield subpar results or are dead on arrival simply because they were under-resourced right from the start.

In fact, leaders run the risk of losing their best talent under these circumstances because star performers will not tolerate I Love Lucy conveyer-belt conditions. If they cannot see a ready path to being successful, your best people will leave.

Take a disciplined, realistic approach to launching new projects. If something substantial is added to a person or team’s portfolio, either add sufficient resources or remove something of equivalent value and effort. Remember, when everything is important, nothing is important.

Heed these three commandments for greater productivity, profitability, and innovation in the coming year.

Susan Battley is founder and chief executive of Battley Performance Consulting, specializing in leader and boardroom effectiveness. She is a leadership psychologist, author and speaker, with doctorates in psychology (PsyD) and economic history (PhD). Follow her on Twitter @DrSusanBattley.

[Image: Flickr user Kazuya Minami]

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