customer-centric leadership
September 2, 2020

Customer-Centric Leadership: put the ecosystem before your egosystem

By Paul Laughlin

Customer-Centric Leadership is one of those management buzzwords that are easy to throw around but harder to live.

Too many businesses stay at the level of fine words on the wall but little embedded change in the way they work day-to-day. So, how can leaders move beyond CX firefighting to actually lead their organisations into customer-centric ecosystems?

To help us answer that complex question (and others that it sparks) I’m delighted to welcome back globally recognised CX expert Ian Golding. You may recall that Ian has shared with us before on both leadership principles in Amazon and the need for accountability.

Over to Ian to bring to life the difference between customer-centric leadership that is building an ecosystem and one that just serves an ‘egosystem’…

What is Customer-Centric Leadership?

I want to start this article by asking three connected but altogether different questions: 

  1. What do you do if the organisation you work for or with does NOT have strong customer focused leadership?
  2. How can followers become leaders in that case?
  3. How can a CEO become a stronger customer focused leader, assuming he or she realises the need and is willing to try?

All too often, I and people in my networks are interacting with people in leadership roles who are not demonstrating what it really means to be a leader.

Not only are they failing to influence their people to understand what it is they stand for; and what it is they should be following; they are also failing to invest in developing and maintaining the required ‘ecosystem’ to enable success for ALL stakeholders – the customer, the employee and the shareholders AS WELL AS themselves.

What’s ecosystem got to do with it?

I use the word ‘ecosystem’ intentionally. According to various dictionaries, the general meaning for this word in a business context is, a complex network or interconnected system.

Any capable or effective leader should constantly be investing in the development of the ecosystem that surrounds them. Growing the right people, skills, behaviours and collaborations. The best leaders in the world are not afraid to surround themselves with people and networks that are even more capable than them. 

There is no better description of this than Jim Collins excellent and renowned perspective on ‘Level 5 Leadership’:

from “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

Where are the Level 5 leaders?

There are painfully few Level 5 leaders on our planet. To get there, it is necessary for a leader to have developed the other four levels. By Level 3, a leader is already building their ecosystem. By Level 4 they are mobilising it to achieve results. By Level 5 they are able to rely on the ecosystem to look after itself.

Why do so few leaders make it to Level 5, or seem to be unable to get there? The answer is perhaps explained by something I heard a friend and fellow CX Professional, Craig Lee, say at an event celebrating CX Day in Dubai last month:

“Leaders talk about developing an ‘ecosystem’, but too many of them are spending almost all their time investing in their own personal ‘egosystem’!”

Craig Lee, speaking at CX Day Dubai

It is fair to say that this statement resonated rather strongly with the audience. Whilst it could be considered a rather facetious comment, it is interesting that almost everyone in the audience seemed to agree.  It does appear that too many people who are in leadership roles are too focused on their own personal gain, rather than the good of the entire organisation. 

Returning to the first 3 questions

Let me bring us back to the three questions I posed at the beginning of this post.

(1) What to do if your business does not have customer-centric leadership

This is a more common scenario than those who are fortunate enough to be immersed in a customer focused environment. However, even if you are in this situation, not all hope is lost. To be a committed Customer Experience Professional, you must be driven to doing what is right for the organisation – even if your leaders are seemingly at odds with this. If you are going to succeed, then you MUST be prepared to leave all emotion at the front door of the workplace and operate in a world based on hard, cold, facts.

Customer Experience is a fact-based methodology. If leaders are more interested in massaging their egos, than dealing with the truth, then it is important to make the truth plain for all to see – not in an insensitive, ‘bull at door’ manner – but in a constructive, sensitive, empathetic manner. I do not want readers to think that I am suggesting many non-customer centric leaders are bad people – to the contrary.

 Yet for a leader who may be more interested in personal gain, rather than the collective benefit of all stakeholders, it is important to help them understand how being more customer-centric WILL benefit them AND everyone else. Allowing a leader to understand what customers and colleagues really ‘feel’ and ‘think’, without humiliating, or embarrassing them, but highlighting how they can seize on opportunities to benefit from changing things, can help to change the tide.

(2) How followers can become leaders to help

However, where strong, customer-focused leadership is lacking, it is often important to invest more attention lower down the organisation than at the very top. Many of the ‘follower’ community in companies that lack vision, direction and any sense of leadership, need to be given the confidence to drive customer-centric change themselves – from the bottom up. 

Very often, from middle management downwards, the overt passion, enthusiasm and desire to put people first (both customers and colleagues) is almost palpable. However, until people are given the belief – until a fire is lit – that makes them realise they do NOT need to wait for permission to do the right thing, they are at risk of ambling along in a variety of different directions.

I have always said to members of teams I have managed & Customer Experience Professionals I have mentored: If you are doing the right thing for the right reason, what have you go to lose? It takes courage to be a leader. I strongly believe if you are able to unlock the backbone that exists in all followers, they will have the belief to do amazing things that have a tangible effect on themselves, the customer and the whole organisation.

(3) How a CEO can become customer-centric

Being a CEO is not easy. I say that as a CEO of a tiny business! I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have the weight of shareholders, media, employees, customers, investors and sometimes even governments on your back – all the time. However, if I take you back to Jim Collins’ model, to be a Level 5 leader would mean that you have personal humility & professional will. 

To become a stronger customer focused leader, it is necessary to…

  • Acknowledge that you do NOT know everything.
  • Surround yourselves with others who may have the answers you do not.
  • Listen (and listen regularly) to your people and your customers.
  • Admit when the wrong decisions have been made.
  • Demonstrate to your people that you believe they CAN do what is right.
  • Let your people know that you TRUST them.
  • Make it abundantly clear what you want the organisation to achieve AND what you expect from everyone in it.
  • Recognise people when they do great things.
  • Coach and guide people when they need to develop – not to chastise them when they make mistakes.
  • Let your people take the lead – as much as you show them the way in the first place.

I am sure you can add to this list of ‘necessary’ things – please feel free to do so by commenting on this article. It may also be prudent to share it with leaders in your network. Especially those who may be investing too much in their ‘egosystem’, rather than the organisational ecosystem!

How are you developing customer-centric leadership?

Many thanks for Ian for that article, which nicely chimes with the call to listen in “More Time to Think” & a more selfless approach to job hunting.

What about you as a leader? Do you hear any calls to action or pricks of conscience when reading Ian’s post? Perhaps you have some wisdom to share from what has helped you develop as a leader – if so please comment below.

Of the many leadership ‘hats‘ that data, analytics & insight leaders need to wear, being a customer-centric leader is one of the most challenging. Let’s keep sharing our thinking as we all work towards this ideal.