We have all likely heard a lot of company slogans that tout a “customer first” values system. These companies may also state that their most important mission is to “serve their customers with excellence” or any one of a thousand flavors of this same sentiment. While it may fly in the face of decades of conventional wisdom and counter to what business consultants have recommend for years it is a mistake to believe that such a focus is what actually delivers great customer service.
Richard Branson’s Virgin brand is iconic and most widely known for it’s unrivaled commitment to customers. When he was asked about this focus on customers Branson revealed that in fact Virgin does not put the customer first, it is Virgin employees who are the company’s top priority. While they are focused on delivering great customer service Virgin recognizes that realizing that outcome is impossible without first having happy employees.
“It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they’re going to be happy,” Branson told Inc. president and editor-in-chief Eric Schurenberg in an interview. Virgin prioritizes employees first, customers second, and shareholders third. “Effectively, in the end shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy,” Branson says.
This point about shareholders brings up another common declaration by companies about “creating shareholder value”. While any leader entrusted with shareholder investments must steward that investment well, to state that creating shareholder value comes first is a woefully incomplete perspective. As important as such commitment to shareholders is, it cannot be the prime mission of the leaders of those companies.
As leaders we can do very little ourselves. Our best effort as an individual or soloist may represent some great work, but this work pales in comparison to what can be accomplished by a well lead team. In recognition of this we must establish a Team First set of constants that guide our individual efforts and that we can use to build leaders across our organizations.
Customers cannot be serviced and shareholder value cannot be created without first having an engaged and dedicated team. As leaders we must put the Team First. Then we must develop the team by working to Inspire, Teach & Learn, and Elevate those in our care.
No one will care about the mission until someone first cares about them
A team first perspective starts by recognizing that no one is going to care about the company mission if they don’t first understand that the company’s leadership cares about them as an individual. Let us take an example of a young talented new employee that has all the values, work ethic, and self motivation we would love to see on our team. They show up, they do great work because they are talented individually and they take pride in their work. They help others around them because they have a generous and caring nature. In summary they succeed as an individual.
Then at the first opportunity to join a different team that pays the same or a little more, or is closer to home, or is in a more trendy industry, they leave. Likely they will do so in an entirely appropriate manner, thanking you for the experience. Everyone may even remember them fondly for a little while and wonder what became of them.
This is the “good” example of what can happen with the best team members when they do not come first. There are many more examples of new hires that were a poor match to begin with or even long time team members that go off the rails for any number of reasons. We are not going to focus on those situations. There are many books on hiring better or managing through tough situations with troubled employees, this is not one of them. We are focused on making the most of the best.
So for purposes of our discussion we are going to assume you can hire well. We will grant your human resources team super powers and assume they are excellent at attracting the talents and skills you need while weeding out bad actors with poor values.
I also want to use this set up to make a related point. Regardless of what mix of team members or employees you might step into when joining a new team or company we would do well to start with these same assumptions. Who knows what mix of talent, values or experience you are walking into, but you have a chance to grant the benefit if the doubt.
Referring back to the paradox of trust issue, we have a golden opportunity when stepping into new situations to hit the reset button and break whatever cycle may have existed prior to our arrival. So we either have a group of fantastic people who are hard working and talented or we are going to assume they are. So before we dive in let’s consider how important The Heart of Leadership Fundamentals are to our ability to put the Team First.
We must start with an Optimistic viewpoint that assumes we have some great people to begin with. We are going to grant a measure of Trust starting out that may not be justified but we have the Courage to do so. We have the Humility to accept there is much we do not know and leave ourselves open to falling in Love with a great team. With our heart in the right place we are ready to put the Team First.
Constant 1, Inspire – Listen, Connect, Understand then Inspire
The most direct way to connect with those around us is to simply listen. Don’t listen for what you want to hear, what you expect to hear, or what others told you would hear. Just listen. If we first try to inspire by what speaking to what has inspired us before we listen we will likely never connect enough to those we seek to inspire to bring them along. If we do not first listen to begin to connect with our team members as individuals we will lack the understanding it takes to inspire them.
To listen you must spend time and pay attention. Why do we use vocabulary like “pay” and “spend” to describe these activities? Because the most valuable currency any of us has is our time and we are only granted precious little of this ultimate currency. So when we “spend” our time by “paying” attention we are demonstrating a willingness to “invest”. We are beginning to demonstrate we care and we are doing so by spending the most valuable thing we possess.