Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NACCM 2009: Walk the Walk: The Most Important Rule for Real Leaders

Leadership takes guts! Alan Deutschman, author of Walk the Walk, shares how putting customers first sometimes starts with putting something else first. His book delves into the concept of what it takes to put customers first. If you put customers first, then someone else is second, i.e., vendors, executives, employees, Wall Street stock analysts, etc. Leadership means making the tough choices over these competing constituencies.

Deutschman shares the example of Starbucks and its CEO, Howard Schultz. Schultz was responsible for Starbucks incredible growth over the years, building from 400 stores in 1994 to 14,000 stores today, reaching a 75% market share. He came to realize that in their pursuit of market domination and growth, Starbucks had lost their vision. Schultz believe that they had strayed away from what made them popular over the years - cafĂ©-like experience, aroma of fresh ground coffee beans, and personal interaction with the barista, to name a few. Schultz realized that he had to lead his company back to the basics and “walk the walk”.

A company that built a truly customer-centric focus is Amazon. CEO Jeff Bezos made leadership decisions that were unheard of in the industry. For example, he allowed customers to post negative reviews about books, allowed third-party merchants to come in and offer lower prices, and gave away free shipping. Wall Street analysts asked Amazon’s board to remove Bezos because of his radical marketing tactics. Bezos understood that these strategies would ultimately create long-term customer loyalty and it did. Amazon succeeded at putting customers first says Deutschman.

Some companies have chosen to put customers first by putting other things first. An example of this is Southwest Airlines which has chosen to put employees first. During bad times, Southwest took a different approach than other airlines. In over 35 years, they have never laid off a single employee during a downturn reports Deutschman. Their high retention allows them to train employees in more creative way. By putting employees first, they have put customers first.

You can also serve customers first by putting a group of employees first. For example, Sony’s mission was to create a company for brilliant engineers. When color televisions came on the market, Sony held back from entering the market because they wanted to create a superior product driven by their engineers. Because of their investment in technology, they came out with the best color television in 1968 that had a superior picture quality called the Sony Triniton. Their CEO “walked the walk” because he chose to put their engineers first.

In another example, Deutschman points out that putting “cleanliness” first allowed McDonalds to grow exponentially. Ray Kroc was a clean freak and made cleanliness their #1 virtue. Fast food restaurants at the time were originally a hangout for teenage boys. Families stayed away. Kroc wanted to create a family restaurant that was clean and could offer value. Cleanliness, transparency, uniformed staffed, etc., helped to create this value. To date, cleanliness continues to be the #1 concern people have in choosing a fast food restaurant.

Charles Schwab wanted to create a stock broker business that put ethics first. They chose not to do investment banking, removed conflicts of interest, worked with individual investors and did not give purchase advice. Brokers were on straight salary so that they could provide service with no hidden agenda. One day, Schwab fired his own son for giving purchase advice to clients. Sometimes “walking the walk” requires us to make difficult choices.

To walk the walk and be a leader, you don’t need a mission statement or post your value proposition for all to see says Deutschman. Your customers should know you by your actions. It is rare in corporate America. In all of his research, he has found few leaders who truly “walk the walk”.

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