Great Leaders Face The People They Serve, And Turn Their Backs On Everybody Else

Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Conducted by Ronald Zollman | photo courtesy Jiuguang Wang (Flickr)

The Only Way To Put Customers First Is By Putting The People Who Serve Them First

Back in the early 1990’s a book was published, The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First And Watch ‘Em Kick Butt. The authors, Hal Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters, weren’t the first to put forth the idea that in business, great leaders focus first on the employees. They may be among the first to state it with such boldness. I mean, come on, it was over 20 years ago.

Just a decade earlier, in the 1980’s the business press was filled with lots of stories of ruthless leadership. Early in my career I had read stories of men like Harold Geneen and Henry Ford II. Aggressive was a good way to describe many management styles of the 1970’s and 80’s – including Geneen and Ford.

No matter how critical you might want to be toward their first work, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman broke new ground with their book, In Search of Excellence. Forget that many of their postulates didn’t hold up over time. That book did at least two things. One, it single-handedly established the business book industry. Before that book was published you’d have been hard pressed to find a business book section in a book store. Two, it opened up the eyes of young business people (like me), and maybe a few old ones, too that treating people well, trusting people and training them could improve both revenue and profits. It appropriately focused on the power of people to fuel company growth.

As a young person, the general manager of a small multi-million dollar retail chain, I had been operating that way because I grew up working for aggressive management types. I learned how NOT to be. Besides, my convictions wouldn’t allow me to deal so heavy handedly with people. And I was very focused on the customer’s experience. I still am. I instinctively knew that if front line people – those people who are interacting with customers – are treated poorly, well – you can count on the customers being treated likewise. I cut my business teeth helping customers and quickly realized I had a talent for helping disgruntled customers who had a problem. From then, until now, I was intently focused on customer service!

That all was very tough in the 1980’s because popular business culture only preached focusing on the customer. Anybody who preached something different was stubborn, foolish and naive. Of course, it was all just lip service. Everybody advocated customer service, but even in those days, customer service was shoddy at best.

Common knowledge knew that it was stupid to focus on employee compensation, employee benefits, employee training and employee experience! That is, until common knowledge proved to be completely WRONG.

Every Conductor Keeps His Back To The Audience

The performance is for the audience. The players face the audience, not the conductor. The only reason the conductor stands between the audience and the players is so the players can see the directions he’s giving. He’s really not in the spotlight even though he’s out front…because the audience doesn’t see his face.

Famous conductors – like famous CEO’s – get plenty of attention, but their fame hinges on the performance of the players. If the sound is awful, the conductor is, too.

It’s the same with sports teams. After years of coaching amateur players – from 6 year olds to college kids – I’ve learned that coaches are only as good as their players. Great leaders can create a circumstance for success. Or they can create a mess. The players are the stars because they play the game.

In business, it’s no different. Leadership must serve those who serve the customers. It’s the leader who can knock down roadblocks that impede the ability of front line people to take care of people. The proper use of authority and power help people do their jobs better. People succeed when they get the right kind of help. It’s incumbent on the leader to create the atmosphere where people feel safe to serve in the most remarkable ways.


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