Leadership: does it start with ownership?

What constitutes leadership and makes a good leader?

Let me start by saying that I am no expert in ‘Leadership’.  Yes, I have read the theory – all kind of theory including ‘charisma’, ‘being decisive’, ‘situational leadership’, ‘leadership v management’, ‘servant leadership’ and so forth.  In my world most of it occurs as theory or put differently it occurs as ‘philosophers philosophising’.  I can think of ‘charismatic’ people who do not / did not make good leaders.  On the other hand I can think of humble souls with an indomitable will making a huge impact on the world like Gandhi.

Gerstner and Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

Reading (several years ago) Gerstner book ‘Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?’ I was struck by something which surfaced again for me this week.  Gerstner did not have to take the helm at IBM: seemed to be poisoned chalice and many of the natural candidates (and favourites) declined.  Everybody had written IBM off (a dinosaur) and so no person in his/her right mind wanted to take the risk.  Yet Gerstner was different – he eventually took that hot seat even though he had grave doubts about his ability to save that dinosaur and give it wings – make it into a powerful flying dragon.

One other aspect got my attention when it came to leadership.  There he was, Gerstner, doing his best to get to grips with the situation and he would ask the ‘leaders’, the VPs, the SVPs, the Country Managers to look into various aspects and get back to him.  Many did not get back to him.  When Gerstner met with them to ask for the answers to the questions he had set, many of them had no answer to the question.  Their answer was that they had handed the task over to one of their subordinates.  Gerstner got irritated because he expected these Tops to wrap their hands, minds, hearts around the ‘problem/task’ and get their ‘hands dirty’ doing the investigative work of searching / digging for the answers.

Perhaps the defining act of leadership is taking ownership

Which brings me to the question of this post.  Is the essential existential act that constitutes ‘leadership’ that of taking ownership?  Take ownership with your heart, your mind, your hands, your feet?

My experience is that ownership is necessary yet not sufficient pillar of being a leader.  A leader (and thus leadership) stands for a Possibility (a vision of the future) that inspires him/her to take 100% ownership for being a stand for that Possibility, for that future.  Yet it is more than that.  By standing for that Possibility, the Possibility gives powerful being (courage, boldness, risk taking…) to the leader.  Think of it as mutual relationship – like to sides of a coin.  The leader invents a Possibility (an invented future, in Gerstner’s case an IBM that survives and is stronger than ever, in Jobs case an Apple that goes back to its heart – making great products) that moves, touches and inspires him/her to the level of soul and that Possibility shapes the leaders being and doing right here and now – again and again for years.  Sometimes it takes many years to bring about that invented future.  Think about Gandhi how long did it take for him to get the British to leave and for the Indians to be free to rule themselves?  Think of Nelson Mandela, how many years did he spend in prison?  Sometimes you can live from your Possibility and generate your desired future in 15 months like Jean-Dominique Bauby did as set out here.

When I look around I do not notice Tops (people who are thought of and called leaders) being ‘leaders’.  In good times these Tops make sure that everyone knows that it is they who have come up with the vison, the strategy and shaped the organisation to deliver the great results.  And they insist on being handsomely rewarded – tens even hundreds of millions in compensation.  In ‘bad’ times what happens?  Just take a look at the News International phone hacking scandal: none of the Tops takes ownership.  Look at prisoner and torture abuse at Abu Ghraib: none of the Tops took ownership.  Look at the MPs expenses scandal in the UK?  None of the Tops took ownership.  Look at the financial crisis, the recession and the impact on millions of lives: none of the Tops took ownership – not the politicians, not the regulators, not the Csuite at the banks and associated insurance companies.

Now you might be wondering what has this got to do with the Customer.  Here is my question: which CEO has the level of commitment to customer-centricity, the customer experience, that Gerstner showed or Jobs showed or Mandela showed or Gandhi showed?  And if the CEO does not have that level of ownership then why should anyone else in the organisation care – care deeply – about the customer, the customer experience, the customer-centric organisation.

Final thought

Standing for a Possibility (a vision of the future) that is larger than yourself and your selfishness is a key pillar of leadership.  It is necessary and yet it is not sufficient.  I will tackle the other two pillars in another post – coming soon.

What is your lived experience of leadership?  Please do not share the theory: you can take my word on it when I write that I have read it all!  I am looking forward to you sharing your experience of leadership and learning from your sharing.  So please do share.

The one experience that lays bare the reality behind the customer talk

So how are organisations getting on with being customer-centric?

When your brush past all the evangelising, the talk and the spin you are confronted with one experience which tells you all that you need to know about the business world.  What is this one thing?  Well after 10+ years of evangelising and $bn of spend on customer systems and consulting services the fact is that you and I still sit up and notice when we have been treated well.   Do you sit up and notice that the sun rises every day? Why not?  Because it happens every day, we take it for granted, it becomes ordinary and falls into the background.  So the fact that you and I notice when we are treated well tells you that being treated well is a rare occurrence.  Which in turn tells you that the vast majority of organisations have not become customer-centric – not even close.

Yet there are exceptions and I want to acknowledge one of those exceptions.   James Watson’s wonderful  blog post got me thinking about the way that I have been treated by a young lady called Shelley Beaumont.  Some of you may have noticed that my blogging slowed down in March and April.  Well that was because I unexpectedly hurt my back and chose to focus on getting myself fit again.   Today, I am almost as good as I was before the problem started and the person who helped me get here is  Shelley Beaumont and she works for a company called HCML .  According to the website “HCML are the UK’s leading provider of professional rehabilitation case management and employment services to the insurance industry, solicitors and corporate clients. We are passionate about ensuring that everyone who requires rehabilitation in the UK has access to quality and effective services.”

Shelly from HCML  has done for me what Heather from Orbitz did for James Watson:  she has taken ownership of my problem!

Shelley has BSc (Hons) in physiotherapy and it shows.  She has also been my case manager – she  is the person that has been there for me at the end of the phone – listening to me and helping me to get the professional services that I have needed.    What makes Shelley stand out for me? Shelley has listened to me attentively and respectfully.  She has empathised with me – both the physical pain and the mental pain I have been going through and by doing that she has made me feel understood and validated.

When I think back over the last three months I am grateful to Shelley for:

  • Explaining the rules of the game and setting my expectations accurately right from the beginning;
  • Finding me a friendly and competent local physiotherapy and chiropractic clinic;
  • Doing all the paperwork (so that I did not have to do it) and arranging my first appointment with this local physio clinic;
  • Finding three back specialist who work in/around my local area and allowing me to choose which one I wish to use – the right amount of choice;
  • Completing ans sending over all the paperwork to authorise treatment and booking my appointment with my preferred back specialist;
  • Arranging an MRI scan for me so that I could get it done at my first visit and so reduce the number of visits to the hospital and the amount of time needed to get a full picture of the situation – Shelley had to go around the rules to make this happen at my request;
  • Regularly calling me to see how I have been getting on and in particular calling me after specific treatments to see how I wanted to move forward;
  • Always, I mean always, doing what she said she would do by the time she said she would do it;
  • Providing my with resources (website / online videos) to help me find and do the right exercises; and
  • Leaving me with feeling that in Shelley I have someone I can count on to make the right things happen (by me and her employer) not a person who is going to find excuses and put barriers in my way.

The lesson for companies who seek to be customer-centric

Hire people like Shelley.  Provide people like Shelley with the environment, tool and training that enables them to be great with customers.   Then ask them to enter into a specific kind of game: the game of providing great customer service by taking ownership of the customer’s problem.  Whilst this may sound expensive it is not.  What do I base that last statement on?  My experience.  By being proactive and getting me the right treatment when I needed it Shelley saved the insurance company many thousand of pounds in additional medical costs.  How?  By doing what she has done she has helped my back to recover naturally thus saving costly consultant visits and surgery from one or more back specialists.

A final word of thank you to Shelley and HCML

Thank you Shelley for being great with me.  And thank you HCML for employing someone as great as Shelley and allowing her to be magnificent.  Finally, HCML if I were you I would make sure that I treated Shelley well and kept her!  If I was in your line of business I would hire her without hesitation.

The core challenge facing the customer experience designer

From a customer point of view what matters is an ‘effective’ organisation – one that is good at anticipating and responding to the diversity of customers and their needs.  That means designing the organisation to be flexible, adaptable, versatile – this allows the organisation to absorb and effectively deal with the variety of demands that are placed on the organisation by customers.  This in turn requires the organisation to have ‘redundancy’ built into it.  That is a fancy way of saying that it needs extra resources (“fat”) to deal with and take advantages of unexpected difficulties and opportunities – to cater for the inherent unpredictability of the world.  Finally, making the parts work well together (integration) is a key requirement of effectiveness.  Think of a car it is only of value if all the components work well together.

Organisations are enmeshed in an ideology that values efficiency and structure that lends towards fragmentation.  The focus is on cutting out all the ‘fat’ so as to minimise operating costs and thus drive efficiency.   This way of thinking involves lots of efforts in up front forecasting and planning to predict and manage demand.  It also involves finding and standardising on the one best way of doing things and then striving to make customers, employees, suppliers and partners to use that one way.   This way of thinking encourages and insists that managers control the real world – at least their piece of it: to act on it so as to force it into the shape that was envisaged in the plan.

So customers want organisation to dance to their specific, individual, tunes.  Whereas organisations insist that customers fall into line – the line that reduces operating costs and thus maximises profitability.  That is how we come to the gaping hole between what customers want and what organisations deliver.

Sometimes the gaping hole gets smaller – at least for a while – when the organisation finds a way of being effective (customer perspective) by taking actions that improve efficiency.  Enter the category of self-service: ATMs, electronic banking, e-boarding card, well designed IVRs to do standard stuff like top up mobile phones come to mind.   At other times the gaping hole grows larger: sales assistants who know less about the products then the shopper, badly designed IVRs, waiting a long time to speak to a human being, call centre agents who are not in a position to help and so pass you on and then on again and so forth.

The fascinating thing about ‘social media’  is that it provides a great opportunity for organisations to be effective (from a customer perspective) whilst being firmly wedded to efficiency.  Yet, there is little movement in the direction of social media because there are a couple of things organisations are more wedded to than efficiency.  Secrecy, ownership and control – in every organisation lurks the dictator.  Again we have a divide: customers want organisations to be open, truthful, clear and collaborative.  Organisations are wedded to secrecy, spin, ambiguity, ownership and control.  And this divide explains why so few organisations have adopted social media to bring customers into the heart of the organisation.

So the challenge that falls to the customer experience designer is how to deliver the effectiveness, openness, transparency and participation that customers want whilst being embedded in an organisation that worships at the altar of efficiency, secrecy, ownership and control – sacrificing many customers in the process.  This is not an easy trick to pull off and it is why I have profound respect for all the people in organisations battling to improve the customer experience!