Even the best specialists in their fields of work; the most experienced; the most decorated; will continuously look for ways to evolve their knowledge and learning. Often, a glaring sign of a leader who is unlikely to be able to successfully and sustainably lead their organisation, is the stark reality that the leader does not think there is anything left to learn.
As people, our journey of learning starts from the minute we enter the turbulent, exciting, scary and surprising world that we all live in. The better able we are to embrace the thoughts and ideas of others, the better a leader we are likely to become. Whilst I do not proclaim to be a shining example of leadership myself, I am constantly looking for new ideas, knowledge and inspiration that will help me to become ever more effective in my specialism.
Learning from others is often the inspiration we need to maintain our own momentum. I like to relate learning in our specialist fields as being told a good joke. Think of the number of jokes that you have been told in your lifetime – there are only a few that we actually remember. Typically we remember a small number of jokes because they are brilliant – they make us laugh out loud, sometimes bringing us to tears (of joy rather than sadness).
Every now and then I am told something about Customer Experience; or I hear someone speaking; or I read an article; and I get goose pimples all over! Akin to the brilliant joke (that you know you will use over and over again), finding something that touches you as a leader is a fabulous feeling.
Last year, someone brought something to my attention that achieved just what I am describing. David Marquet is a former Nuclear Submarine Commander for the US Navy. A colleague of mine told me that I had to see a YouTube clip of him describing his perspective of Leadership – using his naval experience as the context. The clip is actually an animation – an animation of David delivering a conference speech. Within two minutes of hearing David speak, I was hooked. Despite the fact I was looking at an animation whilst listening to a man talking about Nuclear submarines, everything David was describing resonated with me – his description of the need to ‘shift control’ within an organisation – shifting control to your people (or where the knowledge is, as David describes it), is core to any organisation aspiring to thrive in a ‘people centric’ (customers and colleagues) culture.
Mid way through David’s speech, he talks about the two ‘pillars’ required by a leader to ‘give control’ to others. It sums up what is absolutely necessary for any leader to understand in my opinion. Here is my own personal take on it:
- Technical Competence
To be able to deliver the experience you WANT your customers to have, it is critical that you have people in the organisation who possess the ‘technical competence’ to know what to do and when in bringing the experience to life. If you have people with technical competence, it will mean that they should not have to ask permission to do things. Their skills enable them to know what to do and when to do it with regards making decisions in the interests of the customer. Some organisations recruit people specifically with technical competence in mind. Others invest in people through learning and development programmes so that they build the required level of technical competency.
The important part about this is as follows – if you have people in your business with the required level of technical competence, then they should NOT need to seek permission to do what is right for the customer. However – there is always one of those – that leads me on to the second pillar:
- Organisational Clarity
As a leader, to be able to shift control to those who deliver the experience to customers, it is not enough to simply survive on technical competence alone. Without a clear understanding of exactly WHAT it is the organisation is trying to do, you can have all the technical skills in the world, but you may not know if the decision you are taking is the right one to achieve organisational goals and objectives, or the wrong one.
Lack of organisational clarity is a remarkably common phenomenon – I would say that at least 80% of the employees I talk to across the world have no idea what the strategy is of the organisation they work for. In honour of David Marquet – let’s stick with a naval analogy. If you employ an experienced captain of naval boats – he is likely to know how to captain it. Yet without organisational clarity, he will have no idea what direction you want him to take it!!
So often I am faced with businesses who have remarkably capable people – people with absolutely the desired levels of technical competence to deliver the desired Customer Experience and as a result, deliver the desired commercial goals. Yet without the clarity of understanding what they organisational strategy is, they are failing to achieve either.
I recently had a discussion about this with a good friend of mine, Stephen Marney, in Dubai. Stephen described how last Christmas he attempted to book a table at a beachside restaurant for his extended family. Stephen arrived at the restaurant and was met by a polite and articulate receptionist. This lady was fully armed with the technical competence to reserve a table for 20 people. However, before Stephen was prepared to confirm the reservation, he wanted to know whether or not there would be any festive entertainment on offer. The receptionist had absolutely no idea. After a protracted conversation, the restaurant manager was summoned – he proceeded to describe the entertainment programme in great detail. Stephen wanted to know why he had not told his own people about it – the manager could not answer that very simple question!!!
What David Marquet taught me was not something I was unaware of before – but a better, more effective way of being able to describe it. David’s take on leadership applies to any organisation – anywhere in the world. I am thankful to have come across his words of wisdom and hope that you take inspiration from the principles I learned from him yourself.
This post was originally written exclusively for my column on CustomerThink – a global online community of business leaders striving to create profitable customer-centric enterprises. The site serves 80,000+ visitors per month from 200 countries.
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Ian, your assessment of technical competence and organisational clarity is spot on.
If I may, I would like to stretch the WHAT point a bit further and link it to the WHY factor. By getting a clear understanding of WHAT the organisational strategy is, employees should be able to fully grasp the purpose of their role: WHY their role and responsibilities within the organisation and WHY certain tasks.
If the WHAT and WHY are communicated effectively, the HOW will be the natural corollary: HOW am I contributing to achieving the set objectives and HOW is my role contributing to the customer experience?
All this can be read in the framework of leadership. In a nutshell, my view is that forward-thinking organisations are those whose leaders set a clear vision, or direction, which is effectively communicated to their teams. Communication goes hand in hand with engagement; we all know that engaged and empowered employees with a sense of purpose go the extra mile, performing better also in terms of financial outcome for the organisation.
I guess that the customer experience is more successful in those places where being client-centric permeates the entire organisational culture, is part of a long-term strategy and is brought to life daily systematically across teams and functions.