I talked a bit about this in my book Chief Customer Officer 2.0, but when discussing the idea of accountable leadership in terms of developing a customer-first, customer-obsessed culture, it all comes down to three major themes (which can further be broken down into a series of actions).
Let’s address the higher-order themes first, then we’ll go into depth about how they lead you towards accountable leadership. Everything is rooted in The Five-Competency Framework, which provides a road map for organizations looking to improve their customer experience. Oftentimes that begins with broader leadership concepts, i.e.:
- Uniting the leadership team
- Giving permission and behaviors to model
- Proving it with actions
Now that we have the 35,000-foot view, let’s get more specific on how each ties to the notion of accountable leadership.
Accountable Leadership Principle: Uniting the leadership team
I talked about this in an earlier post on decision-making styles of customer-focused CEOs, but it consistently bears repeating. The first thing to understand is that a leadership team must be united for many reasons, perhaps chief among them that prioritization, messaging and partnerships must be seen and experienced throughout an organization by employees at all levels — when that isn’t happening, it’s nearly impossible to align ‘strategy’ and ‘execution.’
Rather, without an united leadership team, you have ‘situational commitment,’ meaning that as customer conversations are held among leadership, there appears to be consensus. Once that conversation ends, though, each leader interprets and communicates inconsistently back to the department they run. This is logical, yes — department leaders often think first of their department, as that’s what they’re predominantly judged on — but it absolutely can’t occur if you want to have accountable leadership focused on a customer-driven culture.
There’s an entire span of work that goes into customer experience, and that touches marketing, sales, IT, HR, Ops, and dozens of other silos. If the leaders are focused on fast tactical actions — i.e. deliverables — instead of alignment and strategy, this nearly always limits success.
For accountable leadership to occur, then, there must be actual — not just head-nodding — unity among the leadership team on priorities, messages, partnerships, and key principles.
Accountable Leadership Principle: Giving permission and behaviors to model
Oftentimes, senior leaders have a problem with actions matching words — and again, this is logical. Senior leaders are judged according to one set of metrics, which are predominantly financial. But since that can’t be everything they talk about, they spend time discussing mission and purpose and other concepts — but then, if they’re only seen in crucial moments worrying about money, that becomes what most people assume the true focus really is.
In short: every decision you make? Employees AND customers are watching.
People model the examples you set by your decisions; in turn, accountable leadership is about giving employees ‘permission,’ or what I sometimes call ‘marketing hope.’ Basically, you’re making good decisions and you’re subsequently marketing those decisions — and that gives your transformation life, instead of making it seem like buzzwords from both sides of your mouth. (And if it seems like the latter, you’ll lose good employees — and you’ll lose a whole lot of customers in the long run too.)
Accountable Leadership Principle: Prove it with actions and establish One-Company Leadership
This is where the rubber meets the road on building a customer-focused culture.
The Achilles Heel of this type of customer-driven work for most organizations is the natural tendency to toss things to a silo so that someone has “ownership” of them from a process perspective. When you toss customer experience into a silo, you get a series of task actions back including:
- Survey Reports
- PPTs and Slide Decks
- All-hands meetings
- More reports
This is all well and good for some people and some organizations, but they aren’t (a) building accountable leadership or (b) establishing a good customer-centric culture. Instead, they’re just checking off boxes and completing tasks.
You get yourself out of the fray of reports and spreadsheets and silo-by-silo actions by bring stakeholders to the same table, which is the essence of what I call One-Company Leadership.
We used to use a concept called ‘Customer Room,’ done monthly, quarterly, and prior to annual planning; all leaders would come together and understand the customer journey, the various touch points, and the metrics we were tracking — and where there were good and bad elements since the last meeting. This has advantages over a Chief Customer Officer dissecting information and presenting to his/her peers, because now all the leaders own the customer experience process — and for it to really work, all the leaders have to understand it, and all the leaders have to be able to communicate it back to their department.
I spoke with Taylor Rhodes for CCO 2.0; he’s the President and CEO of Rackspace. He previously was Chief Customer Officer. One of the things he told me resonates here: when their survey and reporting process was ‘new and fresh,’ understanding the score worked to ‘galvanize people’ and give a target. Once they became mature in their processes, the whole idea of chasing boxes and survey targets became fatiguing. The emphasis had to switch to understanding customers and taking collective action, i.e. One-Company Leadership. It couldn’t be about hitting targets anymore.
Accountable Leadership Broad Takeaway
In the first section here, about uniting leadership — and also in the decision-making styles post, which I linked above — I talk about this idea of “how we will grow” vs. “how we will not grow.” The easiest micro example here is to think about the concept of “making the quarter” sales-wise. Will you release a product that’s not ready for customers in order to make the quarter? If you will, you’re not yet a customer-focused culture — you still need alignment around what really matters and how to define the experience.
The biggest problem I see when working with companies and clients on customer experience is that they don’t do this hard work above — and it is hard work, and work that goes against the intuition of management (where silo-by-silo expertise gets you more responsibility and money) — before trying to pivot to focusing on customer experience. Without understanding what accountable leadership looks like, you’ll revert to similar silo’ed practices and not deliver for the customer.
It all starts with this type of work, even if it’s not always directly measurable or easy to assign to a balance sheet — if it’s not done, the rest will be for naught.