We talk a lot about leadership, but we need to understand how it manifests itself to fully grasp the impact that leadership has on you and your organization. Today we’ll do that.
For a long time we were told to simply hire smart people – or as Steve Jobs said, hire smart people and have them tell you.
what to do. Yes, we do need to hire smart people, but they still need to be led and to lead. I’ve become increasingly convinced of this as I’ve seen it manifest first-hand at many companies. There’s no link between smart people and success. The one difference – the single thing – that determines whether or not something is successful is leadership. To that end, I’ve learned that each and every problem is a leadership problem. It’s not a marketing, operations or finance problem, it’s a leadership problem.
To help illustrate this, let’s walk through an experience I had this past week while doing some work on my home. I live close to two different competing home improvement box stores. I don’t have a particular allegiance to either. By pure happenstance, I started my journey at Company A where I was looking for a few items. I had researched them earlier online and saw that they were in-store. In a hurry to wrap things up at home, I drove to the store to pick the items up.
I entered the store and saw a multitude of employees standing around in various groups chatting with each other. I soon realized that the items I saw online were not actually in the store, and I could not find anyone to help answer questions about these – and other – items. Nonetheless, I was pretty sure what I wanted, so I placed an order for the products online with in-store pickup.
Here’s where the real fun begins. I soon received an email that the items would not be available at the store for several weeks, despite receiving no indication online. This began a chain of receiving emails that my items were ready for pickup at the store, which was followed by a trip the the store where I found that the items weren’t delivered. I would then receive an email stating the the items were actually no ready for pickup. This pattern repeated itself a few times. The kicker, is that in the emails stating the items hadn’t shipped, there was a note that said I needed to call the company if I wanted to cancel the order AND that I needed to call the company if I wanted to keep the order. I would then call the company during operating hours where I sat on hold for a lengthy period of time before I hung up.
Let’s compare this to the other store – where I happily went following this debacle. Employees are constantly busy, but always right where you needed them to be and willing to answer any and all questions you had. There is an energy and excitement in the store. And in some cases, when they didn’t have what I needed, they found a way for me to get it through their company or they helped me find it in a competitor’s store.
Looking at the respective stock prices of these two companies, it’s clear to see who the strong performer is and how these dramatically different experiences manifest themselves into customer value and in turn market value.
So what’s the difference between these stores? They sell pretty much the same product, at the same prices, in the same markets. The stores look the same. The operational model and staffing is likely the same. On a spreadsheet (the false idol that most MBAs falsely cling to), they’re the same company, so why the different outcomes? Leadership. Plain and simple.
Sure, there are some retail lessons to be had here surrounding customer experience and why it matters. Let’s assume for now that we all know how much they matter and why. How do you cultivate an experience like this? If it’s not simply about hiring the smartest people and putting good procedures in place, what can you do? Lead them. Many of us will likely look at these difference and think they’re caused by IT or marketing or even operations. If you manage that way, you’ll be nothing more than an organization that looks to check boxes as “done” rather than an organization that is constantly thriving and finding excuses to be great. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you want to be.
Several years ago, I was working with an organization’s user experience team for their online products. I found error after error, and each time the team would tell me it was an “edge case.” and to ignore it. I came to realize that this wasn’t because the team was filled with bad performers or even that they were lazy, it was because there wasn’t leadership within the team to push them, and they were willing to accept work that wasn’t pixel-perfect. Once again we see, any problem is a leadership problem.
Leadership provides clarity that allows people to know why and how their actions impact the company. Leadership educates so that people know what to do and what’s expected of them. Leadership inspires people to go above and beyond. It’s leadership that enable each person in the company to operate as an individual contribute within a team rather than a robotic, micro-managed drone that pumps out C+ wrk. This is how you get off a spreadsheet and ignite passion and a culture of success within your walls.
When your company has a problem, don’t look too far into the weeds for the solution, because that’ll likely be a temporary fix at best. Look at the company’s leadership. It’s that simple.
So what can we learn from this example? I said it before and I’ll say it again. Any problem – each and every problem in fact – is a leadership. Culture absolutely matters, and culture is created by effective leadership. Leaders are directly in tune with the culture that they’re creating, and must understand it if they want to succeed.
In business, and in life for that matter, you won’t get many second chances. In the retail example above, with constantly connected customers and competitors only a click away, you won’t get that second chance. That’s why leadership is so important – it’s the best problem-prevention device you’ll ever have.