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  • Lauren Houghton

Riding the Winds of Change – Thrive or Surviving

Employee and customer centricity is increasingly showing up as the critical "life force" to an organisations performance, and even existence.


My corporate experience over the years have given me a deeper appreciation of the importance of vision, values and strategic alignment to guide the strategies and behaviours of every business unit, team and individual across the organisation. Creating that strong alignment across a diverse and complex business can be tough yet Richard Branson's The Virgin Group, is one example, that it can be done and needs to be constantly honed, and regained over and over. The tough part is in moving from the talking about it to actually living it and doing it. I have had the honour to work with many leader and colleagues, who have done just that, and developed deeper insights into the importance that is needed to focus both internally on serving employees, customers and keeping an eye on what other organisations are doing – they have worked relentlessly to apply discipline of peripheral vision whilst balancing customer and competitor insight and foresight. And throughout, at the core of this endeavour , these ambidexterous leaders I have known, have not lost sight of the underlying fact, that without happy, motivated, engaged and committed employees at all levels, none of this would be possible, in the longer term.

Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma (1997, The Discipline of Market Leaders), describe three generic competitive strategies, or value disciplines that organizations pursue: operational excellence, customer intimacy and product leadership.

In the age of disruptive business change, as organisations look to outmanoeuvre competitors to find their own unique market leadership, they may need to choose one and perform well in the others, to achieve success and the ultimate prize.

In this quest, for market leadership, we have seen companies rise, start to wane and some unfortunately fall, particularly evident of the last decade of "V(olatility) U(uncertainty),C(omplexity) A(ambiguity)" market conditions.

Treacy and Wiersma identified Apple, Pfizer and BMW as examples of excellence in Product Leadership. From all accounts, the recent news on Apple Inc, and their current struggle with slowing iPhone sales, has raised the need to revisit, what made them successful in the first place – great people with great ideas and great attitude, who feel pride and passion about the value their products bring to customers, around the world.

Being employee centric is at the core, as organisations drive their market leadership through market readiness for customers and competitors now and in the future.

Refocusing on how employees come to work together and are encouraged to interact, share information, generate and exchange ideas and efficiently deliver the end product, requires a greater vigilance on balancing these value discipline, creation from the inside-out.

This rests squarely on the ability and capacity of leaders to look both externally and internally in order to anticipate, predict, engage and act on the vital signs, the "behavioural heartbeat" of their organisations as they necessarily shift and transform through the ongoing era of disruptive technology and digitization.

Those companies that thrive rather than survive during these times have shown that employee and customer centric cultures (not just mindsets) are both born and made. Some keep it, some "had it, lost it and regained it" (The Customer Culture Imperative, Dr Linden Brown and Chris Brown, 2014)

How to sustain this over the longer term, would seem to require a courage and humility and discipline to ask the question: To what extent do we care about our customers AND also our employees? Are profits being made at the expense of either or the success and empowerment of both?

These turbulent times seem to call CEO's and senior leaders to be fully invested in helping each other regain the higher vision and purpose, to engage, inspire and contribute to this value creation for now and the future.

This requires leadership that is achievement-driven, where senior leaders engage and inspire the wider enterprise with the necessary skills, attitudes and collaborative mindset to become more innovative and responsive to customer needs and market opportunities. This is in stark contrast to a more inward focused command and control, power and competitive leadership. (Human Synergistics International).

What does it actually mean for you to lead more constructively, and less defensively ? Rather than bunkering down and taking control, at times like this leaders could be asking employees for their opinion, recognizing and affirming the value/skill and contribution of each employee, involving them in the decision making or thought process.

Increasingly, CEO's and senior leaders can sharpen their focus on reshaping a market-aware business culture that is more strategically aligned to drive superior results and long-term competitive advantage. Being wholly focused on embedding and walking the talk , the bigger vision and purpose, this emergent "Cultural Sense-Ability" across the enterprise results in externally competitive organisations happy customers, increased employee and customer driven innovation and faster time to market.

Even successfully companies need to remain vigilant and negotiate the turbulent and risky waters ahead, this is the new normal, as we have heard over and over again.

These highly successful corporations will also struggle to build sustainable advantage and exceptional return on assets. At times like this CEOs need to be mindful and tuned into how their leadership impact can directly affect this "behavioural heartbeat", of their organisations, employees.

Research has shown that customer centric organisations are more innovative, faster growing and more profitable along with being a powerful competitive advantage. In addition, and importantly, research has also shown that customer centric organisations have higher levels of employee engagement and are generally described as healthier places to work. Employees actually look forward to going to work and gain greater satisfaction from their working lives.

Starting with an evidence-based approach to measuring and ultimately transforming organizational effectiveness and alignment, CEO and senior leaders can choose to lead a more predictable and sustainable passage to achieve a shared purpose.

CEO’s and senior leaders hold the key to unlocking and creating the internal conditions for a dynamic, innovative and winning organisation.

Leaders sometimes have to feel the pinch and pain, of doing something they shouldn’t, (driving for market share, through a product leadership strategy, that has lost teamwork, at the cost of employee engagement and empowerment)

Put the people back into your market leadership strategy – this calls for leaders that ignite and rekindle the passion and discretionary efforts of all employees, as they move towards a more aligned, market-responsive culture.

And so Frank Underwood may have a point, after all.

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