Over the last 22 years, I have worked in and with businesses of all shapes and sizes, across multiple industries, all around the world. I secured my very first full-time job in the financial services industry in 1995. Among others, I was interviewed by the company chairman and the managing director. At the time, as a naïve young man entering the workplace for the first time, I had no comprehension as to how significant it was to be interviewed by the two most senior people in the business. Granted, the company was small, with only around 150 employees, but little would I know how unusual these two men were to become in my work experiences going forward.
Two years later, I moved on to my second role, a promotion into one of the UK’s biggest corporates – The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). I was delighted. To get this job, I was interviewed by the man who would become my boss. I was not interviewed by the chairman… or the CEO… or anyone with a fancy job title for that matter. I was recruited for the role of auditor by the audit manager.
I worked for a division of RBS called Royal Bank Invoice Finance. In my two years there, I do not recall ever meeting a member of the board of directors. I cannot tell you who the CEO was — I am pretty sure I did not even know that at the time. I would have had even less of an idea who was running RBS itself.
As my career progressed and I moved into bigger roles in different organisations, the gap between people in the businesses I worked for seemed to grow. However senior I seemed to become, the less connected to leadership I appeared to be. This phenomenon was particularly prevalent in the financial services businesses I worked in.
The growing ‘misconnection’, as I started to describe it, took a turn for the better when I started working for General Electric (GE). I have written many times before about my view of Jack Welch and his brand of ‘transformational leadership’. For the second time in my career (after my very first job), I could see exactly what the leadership of a business ‘stood for’ – ironically, it was one of the biggest companies in the world. It was refreshing. Inspiring. Motivating.
I left GE four years later full of energy, hope and ideas. I was excited about the future. I had been led brilliantly for those years by inspiring people who worked hard to connect people – to connect their people to the purpose of the organisation. Everyone had a strong sense of who we were; why we were doing the things we needed to do; and the direction that we were going in. It resonated so well with me, that I thought every business I would work with in the future would be the same.
They were sadly not.
Fast forward to 2017. I have spent the last five years working with companies – not as an employee, but as a consultant. I am remarkably fortunate to see so many different business environments in a very short space of time. In the last five years, I have worked with 67 companies. There are many common traits among them – whichever industry they may have been in. The most common trait of all though, brings me back to the phenomenon I first experienced at RBS – the phenomenon of the leadership-employee ‘misconnection’.
Time and time again, I am immersed into companies that have a noticeable gulf, gap, chasm — call it what you will — between leadership and employees. Companies that possess talented, passionate people, who are open to and acknowledging of the need for continuous improvement. People who want to learn and become even better than they are today. People who seem to completely ‘get it’ — the need to become ever more customer centric to enable sustainable business growth.
Yet these people seem to work with leadership who are so far removed from their way of thinking, that they are living in a parallel universe!
It is more common than not to find businesses in 2017 whose employees have little sense of the following:
- What the business purpose is
- What the business ambition is
- What the business strategy is
- What the customer strategy is – or if there even is one
- How the business is performing – financially and from the customer perspective
These businesses tend to be the ones whose people are not allowed to think. People who are employed to fulfil tasks that have been identified by leadership as being necessary to meet the purpose, ambition and strategy of the business, that only they are aware of.
It may seem as though I am being extreme in my description – but I can assure you that what I am describing is far more common than not. The misconnection between leadership and employees around the world is growing. At a time when there is increasing recognition of the need to put people – customers AND employees – at the heart of any strategy to drive sustainable business growth, this is a sad and startling issue.
What can be done to recreate the connection? One of the reasons I am writing about this subject is to highlight just how important it is. Those who are privileged to lead businesses and the people who make them tick, need to look at themselves, long and hard, in the mirror. They need to ask themselves – do my people know who I am? Do they know what I stand for? Do they know what I am trying to achieve?
If they cannot answer these questions in the affirmative, they have a problem – a big problem – that will not only affect their ability to achieve whatever their strategic business goals may happen to be, but that will determine their legacy. There are so few truly transformational business leaders that can be named – this article is highlighting why.
Connecting people is, in my opinion, the key to customer centric leadership. A customer centric leader understands people. A customer centric leader knows what it feels like to be a customer, and also knows what it feels like to be an employee — on the front line, in the back office and on the board of directors. A customer centric leader is an empathetic leader, one who intuitively knows the importance of everyone recognising the direction of travel and who can support them on the journey.
In my very first job, I had just that. I will never again take for granted how inspirational they were and how much they have influenced the rest of my career.