How leadership is essential to a successful service improvement programme

In my last post I talked about the importance of having a core ideology and referenced a number of companies that had successfully embedded a core purpose and values. A defining characteristic of most of these companies was the influence of a stronger leader. These are people who are able to create what Collins and Porras (in ‘Built to last’) describe as a ‘cult-like culture’ – a common understanding of the behaviours required for success that all employees buy into.Donald Duck

The mouse that cleans

Walt Disney offers a fine example of such leadership. Before creating Disneyland the eponymous founder toured county fairs, circuses, carnivals, and national parks to carry out research. One of the things he was most struck by was how litter could destroy the ambience of an attraction. Disneyland was remarkably clean right from the start. And before long, that cleanliness became a permanent and important characteristic. Disney himself spent many days in the park demonstrating hands-on involvement picking up litter. By demonstrating that this menial task was not beneath the man in charge he set an example that is followed to this day. All Disney ‘cast members’ are required to pick up trash whenever they see it.

Walking the talk

Disney was demonstrating a first rule of leadership – “management by walking around”. He did not issue dictats from an ivory tower; he lead by example. This is something that is increasingly difficult for leaders of large companies to achieve and, accordingly, even more vital. Walking the talk means:

  • getting out and about meeting staff. Not in some clinical, choreographed, photo-opportunistic way; but standing alongside them, experiencing their world, their concerns, their successes.
  • reinforcing the core ideology of the company – constantly (1). This means a steady flow of communication in words that all employees can understand (not ghost written by a professional copywriter) and letting staff share in the highs and lows.
  • reinforcing the core ideology of the company – constantly (2)… the behaviours that the leader exhibits. It’s not hard to rumble a leader who only pays ‘lip-service’ to putting customer first. He is the CEO who has a personal parking space reserved for him by the front door (where the parking space for the disabled or elderly visitor should be!). Or the CEO who maintains the shareholder is more important than the customer (without customers there will be no shareholders). I’m with Jack Welch who famously suggested: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy…your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

Strategies aligned with core purpose

The best leaders also “walk the talk” by creating strategies that are aligned with the core ideology:

  • product strategies that reflect the core purpose – Steve Jobs made design the primary deciding factor for Apple strategy. Given a choice between cost and design, design came first. A choice between efficiency and design? Design won out. This simple mantra has shaped Apple success for the past three decades.
  • recruitment strategies that reflect the core values – nearly half of all new First Direct starters are recommended by existing staff and over 95% of all roles are recruited internally.
  • remuneration strategies that reflect doing the right thing by the customer – António Horta Osório, CEO of Lloyds bank is driving culture change by rewarding service rather than sales.

Long-term leadership vs short term management

Driving to work the other day I tuned in to an interesting debate about how long leaders should stay in post. Pundit A (a consultant) was urging leaders to move on after two to three years so the company could refresh itself. Pundit B (an investor) was bemoaning the short-termism of most CEOs whose reward packages encourage them to focus on quick fixes rather building for the future. The average tenure of CEOs in the FTSE 100 is just over 5 years – barely long enough to implement long-lasting strategies. It’s telling that the CEOs who have made a mark in customer experience (the Jobs, Bransons and Dysons) tend to lead their companies for a lot longer. While the CEOs who haven’t get shown the door a lot quicker.

Peter Drucker, management guru and mentor of Jack Welch summed it up neatly: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things”

Next time I’ll be reflecting on just how important it is to place your employees at the heart of any customer experience programme and suggesting ways in which you can do so. As always if you have any thoughts or observations I’d be only too pleased to hear from you.

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