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Who is more important, the customer or the boss?

Who is more important, the customer or the boss?
Published: October 2, 2014
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“I’ll kidnap a thousand children before I let this company die”
Henry J. Waternoose III from the Disney movie Monsters Inc.

One thing we hear too much and too often, is employees bad mouthing the company they work for.

Sometimes it’s at length and in vivid detail; a tidal wave of negativity. What fills us with even more dismay is hearing senior leaders talk like this, often focusing their critical perspectives on “their” people - the ones that they are supposed to be leading.  When challenged and asked why they aren’t tackling the issues they complain of, they're often quick to blame the “organisational culture”, which they regard as immutable and immune to change.

When employees are similarly challenged - when asked why they aren’t taking action to solve the problems they lament - the most common response is that they are afraid of the consequences of trying.

Fear Limits Action

Fear might come in all sorts of shapes and sizes - fear of speaking up, fear of disagreeing with a senior leader or boss, fear of being singled out as a trouble maker -  all are common reasons to keep heads down.

Constantly observing that things are wrong but feeling powerless to do anything about it is at best a route to cynicism and at worst a fast track to despondency and depression.

A Deadly Combination

Combine the frustration of senior leaders at not being able to change the organisation’s culture with a climate of fear that discourages action in the first place and you have an all too familiar dance.

The dancers spin full pelt but the routine is poorly co-ordinated and the performance is unimpressive. Success, fulfillment, sense of achievement, legacy…those things which many of us desire from our relationship with their organisation have long exited stage left.

The Customer Experience

How do customers experience companies that are trapped in this negative dance? Poor customer service? Probably. As a customer of many of the companies I have consulted with over the years my experience is summed up simply as ‘the customer isn’t important’ - or at least is not as important as other things.

A few years ago I was at a corporate dinner where the global leadership team of a company were coming together to celebrate a successful year of trading. It was an exuberant occasion. Several senior people gave speeches in anticipation of a final address by the founder and CEO. The majority of speakers lavished praise on the CEO, applauding his skills in leading the company, others acclaimed the loyalty of customers and some celebrated their relationships with suppliers. Finally, one younger member of the senior team stood up to introduce the CEO ahead of the final address. In his remarks, he shared his view that, in terms of their importance to the company, customers came a poor third. He said that the investors were more important. But, he went on, more important than customers or investors was the founder and CEO, who he then welcomed to the podium. There was a moment - a skipped heartbeat - when the audience didn’t know how to react. The CEO then stood up, laughed and hugged his younger colleague and the audience applauded and stood - in relief. Customers came third. Everyone agreed. The climate of fear was palpable and I shuddered at experiencing an organisational culture stuck in a self-serving view of the world.

Core Group Theory

In 2003 Art Kleiner wrote a book called ‘Who Really Matters?’ Art argues that every decision in an organisation is propelled by the desire of organisational members to satisfy not the customer or consumer, but the perceived wants and needs of the leaders of the organisation – the core group. The core group are usually made up of the most senior members of the organisation but can also include individuals throughout the hierarchy who have disproportionate influence or power.

One of the key points emerging from the research that supports the arguments in the book was the idea that employees were serving the core group’s perceived needs – the needs as they saw them – rather than the real needs of the core group.  In other words, actions were often taken on assumptions of what the core group would think or believe rather than anything else.

Core group theory provides a plausible explanation as to why senior leaders can be victims of the organisational cultures that they are responsible for leading.  It is because the wants and needs of individual senior leaders remain ambiguous, vague and ever-changing making it impossible for employees to understand how to serve them effectively. The results are familiar:

  • Employees fear taking any action in case it proves to be unpopular (or worse) with the core group

  • Leaders criticize their teams for lack of initiative and drive

The all too familiar dance chaotically continues.

The Answer

Part of the answer to breaking the cycle of fear and cultural stagnation is to shift the focus of the company outwards to customers, to the wider world and the role of the company within it.

Putting the customer first must be much more than a simple marketing slogan (with all its inauthenticity) and become the focus of both the senior team (the core group) and everybody else. One of the features of a company locked into the dance we have been describing is that there is an enormous amount of politics, sub-agendas, guerilla activity and general misalignment of resources, skills and energy.

Aligning a company’s energy, talent and skills behind an ethic to “serve customers well” can transform a self-serving, cynical and demoralized culture into a dynamic organisation making a real difference in the world.

Getting that alignment is the work of leadership and we have learned a lot about how to develop leaders who can build good companies, companies worth working for.

Henry J. Waternoose III, in the wonderful animated movie Monsters Inc. was prepared to kidnap children in order to ensure that his company survived. How many of us have sat silent when we have seen our company do things that it shouldn’t have done when instead we should have spoken out?  Fear of the power of the core group stops us. Driving out fear is all of our responsibility and customers will help lead the way.

Grahame Broadbelt is Impact's Global Head of Communication and R&D.