I’ve written before on the virtues of leaders possessing some of the “softer” qualities when needed. But I’ve also said that the exciting, opportunity-filled state of flux that is our current market is demanding on our leaders. The winners will be those who understand their markets and who ensure their entire businesses are aligned with those markets. That means hearing the customers – the real customers – and truly understanding their needs. Great leaders today must be led by customers.
It might seem counterintuitive, but no leader who is truly customer-focused will be loved by all.
Does anyone even know what the true “enemies” of real customer service are? How about people within organisations who equate change with badness and who don’t even recognise that they don’t want to be part of positive change, because change is too hard? How about the sheer single-mindedness needed to smash the barriers of orthodoxy in How Things Are Done?
I think that to be a really effective leader today – and by leader I mean the person at or near the very top – means being strong, up for a fight if necessary, and able to pursue your course regardless.
Margaret Thatcher was a marmite character, divisive and loathed and loved in equal part. Although I have met her, I claim no stake in the argument for or against her – but I would cite her as an example of someone who understood what motivated her key customers. She felt that financial stability could only be built upon private enterprise, and she did what she wanted to do. It made her unpopular with some, but my point here is that she was, without question, a leader.
Willie Walsh didn’t embark on a media popularity contest when he took over British Airways as CEO in 2005 – he quietly got on with leading BA out of the summers of chaos caused by cabin crew strikes and into calmer industrial relations enabling business growth.
Everybody wants to know what Elon Musk is thinking now, because he had the vision and will to take on the established automotive industry and turn Tesla into a mainstream rival to the big brands. He commands loyalty through direct leadership, courage of conviction and determination. With you and me, the buyer, in mind.
Arguably, all three of the above people combined determination, single-mindedness and above all, customer focus, in their pursuit of success. I suspect each of them was too busy pursuing their vision to worry about popularity contests – but they had the customer at the heart of what they did.
Leaders must lead with the customer in mind – and that means not everyone will appreciate their vision.
On the subject of leaders, I was recently asked to write a piece for IMI Magazine about hiring for high level vacancies. I am grateful for their permission to reproduce the article, which you can access here.