Many of today’s senior leaders were educated in an era where business school professors told them the sole purpose of a business was to create value for shareholders. This, at a time when only a few voices professed what revered thinker and writer, Peter Drucker, proposed that the purpose of a business is to create customers profitably. The two mindsets are complete opposites.
I recently watched the Netflix series: Dirty Money. It investigates three cases of big corporations where the only consideration by their senior leaders was the creation of shareholder value and their own bonuses at any cost.
Volkswagon was proven to have initiated and perpetuated (by senior leaders) built-in software to falsify carbon emissions in order to make claims about their cars to enable them to grow their business in the US with diesel-fuelled vehicles. Even when proven, senior leaders were in denial until indicted by the US government.
HSBC turned a blind eye to money laundering by the Mexican drug cartels through their banking network. Despite being castigated in US Senate investigations and regulators over a decade, there was no effective action taken and finally, the company was fined almost US $2billion with an admission to serious charges. This was a willful disregard of the consequences of their actions (or non-action) to achieve their profit goals at all costs.
Valiant Pharmaceuticals embarked on a merger and acquisition strategy to buy drug companies with unique monopoly brands as a basis for growth. Once acquired the prices of these life-saving products were hiked to levels where consumers could not pay for them – with life-threatening consequences. The CEO’s one stated aim was to create value for shareholders.
The senior leaders of all three companies gave no thought to the consequences for their customers and the community. In fact, they saw them as irrelevant. Excessive pollution from cars is a prime cause of the premature death of many consumers. Enabling money laundering financed drug lords and the associated violent deaths of innocents in Mexico and the drug habit in the US. Hiking pharmaceutical drug prices 10 or 20 fold over a short period created havoc and misery for many consumers with life-threatening illnesses. All of this because the senior leadership mindset and corporate culture were focused only on profit and their own bonuses.
I have heard this in many large businesses where people down the line tell me that the only concern of leadership is to meet profit goals at any cost. That cost is often lost jobs, unhappy and disengaged employees and frustration and disgust of customers.
Yet we know that the leaders of today’s most successful, modern large businesses have a totally different mindset. It is best illustrated by Jeff Bezos, who from day 1 at Amazon has built a culture around customer obsession and a focus on continually improving the value and experience delivered to its customers. He has never wavered from this mindset despite criticism at different times. What is the result? It is the most valuable and sustainable business on the planet – with a history of little more than 20 years.
We are starting to see this mindset in other leaders of long-established businesses. Richard Branson at Virgin is one. Paul Polman at Unilever is another. These leaders take the view that “what’s best for the customer is best for the business”. They truly believe that by creating a customer-obsessed culture in their leadership and employees they will deliver superior value to their customers and for their communities. And by so doing they will achieve long-term profitability and sustainability in their businesses as well as personal rewards and happy employees. They take a longer term and future-oriented view in their decision-making and their behavior.
This is foreign to many senior leaders and there is a lack of experience as to how to do it. In our research of more than 50 customer “obsessed” CEOs around the world and more than 300 businesses we now have a measurement tool that can create this mindset, benchmark your business against the best an the world and set out best practice steps to move you to the next level – a level that will be required for survival and success.