Free Preview

This is a preview of some of our exclusive, member only content. If you enjoy this article, please consider becoming a member.

Business leaders marvel at the distinctive, customer-focused cultures associated with legendary firms like Southwest Airlines, Apple and Disney. As executives of these companies readily acknowledge, their organizations’ outstanding performance is due, in large part, to the corporate culture they have created.

But how does such a customer-focused culture arise?

Executive Summary

Time-starved, multitasking executives engaged in drive-by conversations with employees are poor models for employees to emulate when they interact with customers. Instead, executives who give their undivided attention to internal team members embody the customer-focused cultures they seek to create, writes Watermark Consulting’s Jon Picoult, also describing other subtle gestures of responsiveness that set the right tone for their organizations.

Despite all the talk about culture from leadership gurus and management tomes, it still remains a decidedly abstract concept for most business people.

As a result, the task of culture building often gets delegated to human resources or some employee-staffed culture committee. Or executives might invest in the development of grandiose mission and value statements, thinking that mere words on a page will shape workplace behaviors.

While these approaches aren’t without value, they often overlook one essential truth: Culture isn’t something you promote. Rather, it’s something you embody.

Organizational leaders, by virtue of the perch they inhabit, exert an enormous influence on workplace culture. Employees, whether subconsciously or consciously, take cues from their leaders. They watch them for signals about what “right” looks like—what behaviors are rewarded, what cultural attributes are valued.

For this reason, the tools for forging a more customer-focused culture are closer at hand than many executives realize. Indeed, the personal behaviors of those leaders can serve as either an accelerant or a deterrent for the culture they seek to promote.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, would go to Dallas Love Field on Thanksgiving holidays and help load luggage onto aircraft alongside rank-and-file baggage handlers. That simple action sent a strong signal to the workforce about the culture Kelleher was trying to create—a culture grounded in humility and service.

Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple, was personally involved in reviewing and approving the design of the box in which the iPhone was packaged—yes, the cardboard box! That sent a cultural signal to Apple executives and staff about the importance of elegant design and attention to detail.

Walt Disney insisted that Disneyland executives spend time in the theme park, observing and listening to guests so they’d better understand how to make the park a more enjoyable place. Disney even had an apartment constructed for himself inside Disneyland, overlooking the Town Square, so he could personally watch guests’ reactions as they entered the park. How better to underscore the importance of customer closeness in the culture he was trying to build?

What these examples illustrate is that even the most subtle leadership gestures can help shape a company culture in very powerful ways.

Are you working to cultivate a more customer-focused culture in your organization? Consider the specific behaviors you’re trying to accentuate, and then look for ways to tangibly demonstrate those qualities.

Let’s take “responsiveness” as an example. Being responsive is an oft-emphasized cultural trait within organizations that seek to become more customer-focused. What leaders of these organizations must ask themselves, however, is to what degree are they embodying that attribute.

If executives take days to respond to their staff’s emails or texts, that creates a disconnect for the workforce. Leadership’s call for customer-focused responsiveness begins to ring hollow, and employees start discounting the importance of that quality, based on the behavior they witness from their superiors.

To create a culture that orients around responsiveness, start with the speed of your own replies. The faster you answer (or at least acknowledge) that message from a colleague, the more successful you’ll be in reorienting cultural norms.

Another instructive example comes from a hallmark of great customer experiences: strong communication practices. Customers value a company that communicates clearly and transparently.

Here again, organizational leaders have an opportunity to model these qualities for the workforce, yet they often neglect to do so.

Perhaps you’ve received an email from your boss that appeared to be written in grammar from another planet? We’ve all been there, getting a missive from an executive that raises more questions than it answers, creating more confusion than clarity.

Even seemingly insignificant internal communications afford an opportunity for executives to show staff what customer-friendly messaging looks like.

The lesson? Spend a little extra time composing that next email and make it a model of clarity that others can follow when they correspond with customers.

As a final example, consider the concept of giving customers your undivided attention—actively listening to their needs and responding in kind. This, too, is a cultural characteristic that is commonly emphasized by customer-focused companies.

Those that do it well make their customers feel special, almost like a VIP, because in today’s distraction-rich, smartphone-obsessed world, it’s pretty rare that someone gives you their undivided attention.

Even the most subtle leadership gestures can help shape a company culture in very powerful ways.

That sad reality applies to internal workplace interactions, as well. Time-starved executives are masters of multitasking and drive-by conversations. While they may think those behaviors foster efficiency, they represent the antithesis of giving people your undivided attention and provide a poor model for staff to emulate when they interact with customers.

Culture isn’t something you promote. It’s something you embody.
The next time a staff member pokes his head into your office and asks to speak with you, give that person a master class in undivided attention. Look up from whatever you’re doing, make eye contact, invite him to sit down and place your smartphone aside, out of view. In short, during the few minutes that individual spends in your office, focus your attention on him so intensely that he’ll feel like the only person in the entire world.

Imagine the signal that sends to your staff about the customer-focused behaviors you’re trying to advance.

With every interaction in the workplace, organizational leaders have an opportunity to show staff what “right” looks like, an opportunity to define cultural norms that others will follow. Leaders who embody and visibly demonstrate the desired cultural characteristics will always be more successful than those who do not.

No matter what business you’re in, or how large or small your organization, the journey to a competitively differentiated, customer-focused culture really does begin with you.