Collaborative customer-centric’ culture: what does it take to make this shift?


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With our style of management we rely on our people to run the business, but its our job to create the culture.” John Timpson, Chairman, Timpson

Who is the ‘we’ that John Timpson is pointing at? He is pointing at two people: himself (the Chairman) and his son (the CEO). And so the job of creating culture rests with the two most senior people in Timpson. It is not just that these two men get that the responsibility and the accountability for ‘culture’ belongs to them. It is deeper than that, these two men get that the culture of the business is shaped by/reflects the language and practices that they embody. Notice the word ’embody’, it is important. To ’embody’ something is to give life to it, it is to make it visible, it is to manifest it such that it shows up in the world. It is not what the belief in their minds, it is not even what they talk about, it is how they carry themselves: how they are being, what they are doing, how they are doing it, where they are doing it, whom they are doing it with, how often they do it and importantly how they are not being and what they are not doing.

Let me ask a question, which people are the obstacles to a customer-centred culture within the enterprise? Is it the Tops, the Middles or the Bottoms? If you read the stuff put out by many customer experience and change gurus and consultants you might just be left with the impression that the CEO and the other Tops get it. And the Bottoms and Middles are the obstacles to putting in place a new culture. If you read my last post you might just remember that I pointed out that language and practices are never neutral: they are shaped by the ‘worlds’ that we inhabit and in turn shape these worlds. Which is a roundabout way of me saying that these gurus and consultants are selling to the Tops and so their language is tailored to speak to the Tops: “Mr CEO, you are doing just fine, everything great about you/with you. It is everyone else that needs to change – the middle managers and the front line employees. And we have a ‘magic spell’ that will get everyone else to change.”

What am I pointing out to you? I am asserting that the Tops, in particular the CEO, is the owner of the primary player, influencer and usually the obstacle to culture change. How/why? Because of his/her clinging to inappropriate language and practices. Let me make this real for you. Let’s imagine that you want your organisation to adopt a collaborative culture and to help that along you have decided to implement collaborative technologies. Sounds great, right? What if the Tops go about this in a command and control fashion: they issue an edict; they issues policies/guidelines; they change KPIs; they foist the technology on the people. In comporting themselves this way have the Tops embodied collaboration? Of have they gave a powerful example of command and control – the antithesis of collaboration? This kind of occurrence is frequent, I say it is the norm. Tops espouse one set of practices yet at the very same time they embody a very different set of practices. So whilst their content of their speaking is different, their language and practices continue to be the same. And so ‘inauthenticity and game playing’ shows up in the organisation – this is how the weak, the less powerful survive with conflicting demands from the more powerful.

Put bluntly, the implicit and explicit attention/focus on Bottoms being the obstacles to culture change is mistaken. The primary obstacle to switching to ‘customer-centric’ and ‘collaborative’ cultures is the CEO. If the CEO does not embody ‘customer-centricity’ and ‘collaboration’ then the rest of the organisation is highly unlikely to. If the Tops, the senior leadership team, does not embody ‘customer-centricity’ and ‘collaboration’ then the rest of the organisation is unlikely to. Only when the CEO and the Tops stand for / embody ‘customer-centricity’ and ‘collaboration’ is the necessary (yet not sufficient) foundation for the shift to a ‘collaborative and customer-centric’ culture in place. Once this in place then is the time to work on the Middles and Bottoms.

In my next post, I will share with you how John Timpon shifted Timpson from a ‘command and control’ culture to a Upside Down Management culture – a culture he put in place to improve customer service and leave customer feeling happy in their dealings with Timpson. Clue: John Timpson adopted the language of Upside Down Management and adopted a set of practices to give life, embody, that language.

And finally, if you are wondering what Upside Down Management is then it is akin to Servant Leadership.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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