From Chapter I

                             WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CUSTOMER-FOCUSED LEADER

The top-most leadership in an enterprise—a group that obviously counts the CEO but which can include the company’s COO, EVP, divisional general managers, managing directors, and so on—can and does have the most to say about whether the company adopts a customer-focused culture. And, whether the executive arrives at his beliefs in a customer focus instinctively or through experience—or both— conviction in the practice of serving the customer as the overarching objective of the enterprise is a must. The alternative to a leadership without this strongly held conviction will be yet another enterprise that offers more lip service than customer service. Other characteristics, as we will point out, must also be present in the senior leadership as these are similarly fundamental to the success of the customer-focused provider. (In this discussion, I’m assuming the executive brings the requisite industry, functional, and technical know-how to the position.)

Here are some of the more important attributes of the customer-focused leader:

  • Personal. Executives must have integrity first and foremost.
    They must be honest; they must do as promised. They must be
    trustworthy. They must live what they preach. They must possess
    moral courage to withstand, at times, fierce opposition.
  • Interpersonal. Few attributes are more important than the ability
    to listen; to be open-minded at all times. Executives must
    be effective communicators with the ability to tone their message
    according to their audience.
  • Motivational. Executives must exhibit a passion for their
    customer-focused culture; they must exhort their workers
    to perform as advertised. They must be self-confi dent, selfmotivated,
    and decisive. They must also be inspirational.
  • Leadership style. A customer focus requires rapid adaptability
    and flexibility on the part of executives. Executives must
    be comfortable dealing in grey areas; they must see the forest
    from the trees. They must be empathetic and positive in outlook;
    they must lead as much with their hearts as with their
    minds.

Senior leaders must exhibit great tenacity of purpose in their mission. Strategic change can be a long and arduous journey, and leaders are certain to be challenged each and every step of the way. Believe me, a leader who is tasked with transforming his organization will at times feel he is trapped deep behind enemy lines. As Niccolò Machiavelli advises aspiring and valorous new princes, “. . . there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” The ability to stay the course will serve leaders well when the more expedient thing to do would be to kowtow to industrial-age constituencies. Again, Machiavelli is instructive as he points out that “the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” Strong leadership is therefore necessary because although the direction of an organization’s march toward a customer focus may be clear in the executive’s mind, its exact route can never be known before setting out on the journey.

Finally, I have worked with many customer-focused executives who were very effective in their leadership roles. Few, it is fair to say, had heroic qualities: great charisma, towering personalities, or unusual creativity. They were not celebrity executives, and they certainly did not walk on water. They all possessed one thing, however: an unwavering conviction to uphold a mission of service to the customer. That is the kind of executive leadership we should all wish to be surrounded by in the service and information age.

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